June 07, 2021

HRNK Letter to High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell Fontelles

Josep Borrell Fontelles
High Representative/Vice-President
European Commission

May 18, 2021

Dear High Representative Borrell,

Greetings and warmest regards. I am writing to you on behalf of the Board of Directors and staff of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), based in Washington, D.C., ahead of the upcoming EU-US summit in Brussels next month. We are very happy to see that both the European Union and the United States are committed to revitalizing the Transatlantic relationship, working in close cooperation to address the global challenges ahead. We believe the upcoming summit would be an excellent opportunity for the European Union and the United States to discuss a coordinated approach to bring human rights, security, and denuclearization to all people on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

The European Union and the United States enjoy a strong partnership, rooted in shared interests and fundamental values, including freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights. Both are forces of good on the international stage and can work together to strengthen the call for human rights and the rule of law. North Korea’s ongoing crimes against humanity and its disregard for a rules-based international order remain urgent and challenging. Thus, it would be a logical step to join forces and work together towards a breakthrough.

Historically, the European Union’s role in multilateral diplomatic events involving the Korean Peninsula, such as the Geneva Agreed Framework or the Six-Party Talks, has been limited and could be strengthened. As a global leader with human rights and multilateralism at the core of its external actions, the European Union has great potential to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, working towards the improvement of North Korean human rights and global security in the process. Several European Union member states are in the unique position of having an embassy in Pyongyang and the European Union itself has been a provider of humanitarian aid since 1995. We encourage the European Union to resume political and human rights dialogue with the North Korean regime as well as to continue to address the dire human rights situation in North Korea in multilateral and bilateral settings, such as United Nations fora and the upcoming summit.

As you prepare for the EU-US summit, we therefore humbly submit that North Korea should be on the agenda, and that a focus on North Korea’s human rights situation would send a strong but vital message that the European Union and its like-minded allies have a strong and committed approach to upholding human rights for those who suffer under regimes committing atrocities. 

HRNK is a non-partisan, non-profit human rights organization based in Washington, DC. Since our founding in 2001, we have sought to raise international awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea through the publication of well-documented reports and outreach activities in support of the recommendations in those publications. HRNK has UN ECOSOC special consultative status, and is certified with the EU Transparency Register Should you have any questions, HRNK stands by ready to assist. As the leading non-governmental organization in the field of North Korean human rights research and advocacy, we have a strong commitment to upholding universal human rights values and improving the lives of the North Korean people.

If I may be of any assistance to you and your team, please ask your staff members to contact me directly at executive.director@hrnk.org.

Thank you very much for your kind attention and consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

HRNK Letter to The Honorable Antony J. Blinken

The Honorable Antony J. Blinken
71st U.S. Secretary of State

CC: The Honorable Philip T. Reeker
Acting Assistant Secretary
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

The Honorable Lisa J. Peterson
Senior Official for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
and Acting Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Mr. Mark Libby
Charge d’affaires of the U.S. Mission to the European Union
Ms. Kami A. Witmer
Acting Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Mission to the European Union

May 25, 2021

Dear Secretary Blinken,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Board of Directors and staff of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), ahead of the upcoming U.S.-EU summit in Brussels next month. We salute the Biden administration’s commitment to revitalizing the Transatlantic relationship and working in close cooperation with our allies and partners. We believe the upcoming summit would be an excellent opportunity for the United States and the European Union to discuss a coordinated approach to bring human rights, security, and denuclearization to the Korean Peninsula.

The United States and the European Union enjoy a strong partnership, rooted in shared interests and fundamental values, including freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights. Both are forces of good
on the international stage and can work together to strengthen the call for human rights and the rule of law. North Korea’s ongoing crimes against humanity and its disregard for a rules-based international order remain urgent and challenging. President Biden’s new North Korea policy, exploring diplomacy and a firm stance on human rights, denuclearization, and sanctions, has much in common with the EU’s policy of critical engagement towards North Korea. It would be a logical step to join forces and work together towards a breakthrough in North Korean human rights and denuclearization.

As you prepare for the U.S.-EU summit, we respectfully submit that North Korea should be on the agenda, and that a focus on North Korea’s human rights situation and the situation facing North Koreans seeking resettlement in South Korea and other countries would send a strong and vital message that the United States and our European allies have a strong and committed approach to upholding the human rights of those who suffer under regimes committing atrocities. As the United States and the European Union are looking for avenues of cooperation and ways to reinforce traditional multilateral diplomacy, addressing North Korean human rights could amount to a concrete case along the lines of such revitalized collaboration.

HRNK stands by ready to assist, if our expertise is needed. As the leading U.S.-based non-partisan, nongovernmental organization in the field of North Korean human rights research and advocacy, we have a strong commitment to upholding universal human rights values and improving the lives of the North Korean people. We thank you for your dedication to human rights and your service to our nation.

Thank you very much for your attention and consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

June 03, 2021

HRNK Letter to Her Excellency Ms Siobhán Mullally

Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children[1],[2]
Submission for the 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council (21 June to 15 July 2021)[3]

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda Mortwedt Oh, Rick Herssevoort, and Damian Reddy

HRNK is a non-governmental organization (NGO) with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). NGOs with special consultative status are invited to submit written statements to the Human Rights Council of up to 1,500 words.

May 31, 2021


The US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) wishes to thank you for your work on combating trafficking in persons, especially women and children. We ask to bring your attention to the plight of North Korean women and children in particular, who are victims of trafficking based on the policies and practices of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This remains a serious and life-threatening concern for vulnerable North Koreans now more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you know, the definition of “trafficking in persons” according to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking in Persons Protocol)[4] provides that exploitation is the express purpose of trafficking in persons. Exploitation includes forms of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Based on twenty years of experience as a Civil Society Organization (CSO) focusing on North Korean human rights, we see a continued pattern of exploitation by the DPRK and PRC against vulnerable DPRK persons, especially women and children.

The DPRK acceded to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto (Palermo Convention)[5] on 17 June 2016 but has not acceded to or ratified the Trafficking in Persons Protocol.[6]Regardless, the General Assembly adopted the Trafficking in Persons Protocol as part of the Palermo Convention as per paragraph 2. Based on the DPRK’s agreed upon international human rights covenants, the DPRK has a positive obligation to protect individuals from human rights abuses by private actors and an obligation to respect human rights. However, in the case of the DPRK, it also acts as an “organized criminal group,” particularly regarding the use of forced labor or modern-day slavery.[7] The DPRK is not only a perpetrator of modern-day slavery, but it also maintains the highest prevalence of slavery in the world.[8]

The DPRK ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that states at Article 8(3)(a), “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” While this article does not preclude hard labor as a punishment for a crime, international human rights law prohibits the arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK has established that the DPRK has been committing crimes against humanity, including against prisoners in DPRK prison camps.[9] The DPRK state imprisons those suspected of disloyalty as political prisoners and forces them to engage in labor that has repeatedly been reported as causing death and disease.

We draw your attention to the DPRK’s criminal code. Article 221 of the DPRK’s 2015 Criminal Law makes it a crime to “illegally” cross the border. Except for the few privileged elites with exceptional songbun (loyalty-based social-political class) in the DPRK, the North Korean people are prohibited from traveling within their country and abroad. This is a violation of the right to liberty of movement under Article 12 of the ICCPR.

Under Article 63 (Treason to State), a North Korean who “defects to a foreign country in betrayal of the country...shall be committed to more than five years of reform through labor.” Reform through labor for an indefinite period or the death penalty and confiscation of property can also be imposed “in case of an extremely grave crime.” In fact, these laws amount to political discrimination at the highest levels and have led to death through forced labor due to the harsh punishment meted out by the DPRK’s internal security forces operating its prison facilities. North Koreans who are caught attempting to flee their country, or worse, arrested in China by PRC security officials and forcibly repatriated are deemed traitors to their country.

Since 2018 HRNK has conducted a project with the International Bar Association to document evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea’s detention facilities. Of the 55 former DPRK prisoners interviewed, women who had stayed in the PRC, as evidenced by their language skills, by having children in the PRC, or being pregnant upon forcible repatriation from the PRC, were seen as traitors to the DPRK state by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and at times treated more harshly. Prisoners repeated the sentiment from prison officials that women with ‘half-Chinese’ babies or “Chinese seed” were traitors to their country. Prisoners recalled forced abortions and/or times when pregnant women were forced to work in the fields despite needing medical care.

In addition, if there is evidence indicating a woman might have tried to flee the DPRK to the Republic of Korea (ROK) or was in contact with a Christian church, the more likely she is to be deemed a political traitor to Kim Jong-un. As a result, she is more likely to undergo extensive and brutal interrogation by the MSS, including a forced pregnancy test and forced abortion if she is pregnant by a man from the PRC. She may then be disappeared to one of the DPRK’s six known political prison camps.

In these camps, prisoners are almost never released and serve life sentences until they succumb to crimes against humanity perpetrated inside the prisons. Family members of these prisoners may be sent to these prisons too, regardless of the DPRK’s legislation known to the international community. Even if the Criminal Law is adhered to, serving a year or less in a mobile labor brigade, for example, is known to result in prisoner deaths due to the previously mentioned lack of food and medicine, harsh forced labor, grossly inadequate prison conditions, and prisoner abuse, including torture, sexual violence, and inhumane treatment.

HRNK has interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees who had no choice but to escape their country, although they faced forcible repatriation by the PRC and interrogation, torture, and imprisonment upon return to the DPRK as highlighted above. Many North Korean refugees have been women and children. Women have assumed primary responsibility for the survival of their families after the collapse of the DPRK’s public distribution system in the 1990s. That was the time of the famine referred to as the “Arduous March.” Difficult circumstances have continued to define the lives of North Koreans since that time.

Due to this vulnerability, the DPRK’s domestic legislation that contravenes its own international human rights obligations, and its known policies and practices that result in crimes against humanity, it is especially women and children who have been exploited by human traffickers on both sides of the Sino-DPRK border.

Many of these women and girls’ stories reference sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the hands of the trafficker, the Chinese ‘husband,’ or the Chinese husband’s family (and sometimes all three). A major contributor is the lack of options in China to be recognized with any legal status and/or apply for asylum despite China’s international legal obligations, namely the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. If forcibly returned to the DPRK, North Korean refugees face a credible fear of persecution, involving harsh interrogation, torture, imprisonment, and in some cases death. For trafficking victims and those escapees on the run, this causes their existence in the PRC to be highly secretive, only known to the trafficker and his or her buyers and perhaps some in the rural villages where the North Korean women and girls now live.

In the midst of today’s coronavirus pandemic and in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on ROK CSOs and churches in the PRC that had been assisting North Koreans in crisis, women and girls face a heightened risk of SGBV as they have fewer options to escape. They have likely been pushed deeper into isolation, hiding, and confinement due, in part, to the coronavirus as well as discriminatory and oppressive DPRK and PRC policies.[10]

The DPRK must reconsider Articles 63 and 221 of its criminal code and must cease and desist those state policies and practices that contribute to this cycle of oppression and violence affecting North Koreans. In addition, the PRC acceded to the Trafficking in Persons Protocol on 8 February 2010.[11]

Under Article 7, the PRC should “consider adopting legislative or other appropriate measures that permit victims of trafficking in persons to remain in [its] territory, temporarily or permanently, in appropriate cases” and “shall give appropriate consideration to humanitarian and compassionate factors.”

HRNK calls for a continued human rights-based approach to combating trafficking in persons, especially women and children, in the DPRK and the PRC. Thank you, Your Excellency.

[1] More information on the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, is available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/trafficking/pages/traffickingindex.aspx.

[2] Ms. Siobhán Mullally’s bio is available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Trafficking/Pages/SiobhanMullally.aspx

[3] More information on the 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council (21 June to 15 July 2021) is available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session47/Pages/47RegularSession.aspx

[5] United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto, entry into force 29 September 2003, https://www.unodc.org/documents/middleeastandnorthafrica/organised-crime/UNITED_NATIONS_CONVENTION_AGAINST_TRANSNATIONAL_ORGANIZED_CRIME_AND_THE_PROTOCOLS_THERETO.pdf.

[7] For a discussion of the DPRK’s practice of forced labor overseas, see HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu’s statement to the U.S. Congress in 2015 at https://hrnk.org/events/congressional-hearings-view.php?id=11

[9] Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, https://ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/CommissionInquiryonHRinDPRK.aspx

April 15, 2021

The True Identity of the North Korean Dictator, Hidden Behind the Mask of “Great Leader”

On the occasion of North Korea’s First Dictator Kim Il-sung’s birthday, April 15, 2021

By Kim Myong
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

Today marks the 109th birthday of the late dictator Kim Il-sung, revered in North Korea as the “Great Leader” and “Founder” of the country.[1] Whether they dislike him or not, the North Koreans are forced to celebrate Kim Il-sung's birthday as the "Day of the Sun," even after he died at the age of 82 in July 1994.

Kim Il-sung was a tyrannical despot who ruled the northern half of the Korean peninsula for nearly five decades after liberation from Japanese imperial rule to leave his country and people in unendurable agony. Despite this infamous stigma associated with his name, the North Korean propaganda outfits keep saying: “On April 15, 1912, the Great Sun of Juche made an appearance in the universe, enabling Korea to enlighten the whole world, and bringing changes of the century to this land, which had been characterized only by backwardness and poverty.” They inspire a cult of personality of the Great Leader in the hearts of the North Korean people, encouraging them to live with “honor and pride” as citizens of “the glorious Kim Il-sung’s homeland that shines in his name and personal achievements.”

When Korea was liberated, in the wake of World War II, from the 35-year-long colonial rule by Japan, Kim Il-sung returned home, wearing a double mask of “national hero” and “liberator.” In reality, he was a Soviet-backed agent who had been influenced and tamed for Stalin.[2] Enjoying the full support of the Soviet Union,[3] he proceeded with the establishment of a communist regime in North Korea. In June 1950, he invaded South Korea in order to reunify by force the entire peninsula under communism. Due to his reckless belligerence, the Korean people in the South and the North were victimized by the tragedy of a fratricidal war (1950­–1953), which resulted in the loss of millions of lives and the demolition of the fragile economic infrastructure. In the postwar period, Kim Il-sung continued to build his own style of communist dictatorship in North Korea and enslaved his people, who faithfully supported him and the Korean Workers’ Party, an apparatus for realizing the Kim family’s dictatorship. In addition, he opted for a national development strategy giving priority to military buildup over the civilian economy. The end results of his long-lasting politics were economic failure, poverty, and widespread hunger.

After living for a long time as a slave of the Kim family in North Korea, I have finally resettled in the Free World with a fresh mind open towards the world. When I was younger, I used to think: “What if the North Korean army that went down to the line of the Nakdong River during the Korean War had not retreated, but instead, continued fighting and won the war?” And I was inclined to answer: “If so, we would be living a happy life in a paradise built on the reunified land.” That is because I accepted the poverty and misery I was living under as an unavoidable consequence of the national division, and not as the result of mismanagement by the Kim family. Even today, some of my fellow countrymen in the North are reasoning in the same way that I did long ago and continue to obey the authority and power of the Kim dynasty. By unveiling the truth of Kim Il-sung’s identity, hidden behind his mask of “Great Leader,” I want to help them avoid these logical fallacies.

Kim Il-sung was not the Liberator of Korea

Many North Koreans, who are fooled by the regime’s propaganda, continue to believe that Kim Il-sung was the “liberator” of the country. I was one of them before my exposure to the outside world.

The North Korean authorities tell the people that Kim Il-sung initiated the Korean revolution in 1926 by founding the Down-with-Imperialism Union in Huadian, Jilin province, China, and that he led for 20 years the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle for victory by engaging in numerous fierce fights on Mt. Baekdu to accomplish the historical feat of national liberation. Without his armed struggle, Korea would still remain a Japanese colony, and the Koreans would not have escaped the fate of colonized people.

According to North Korean education on Kim Il-sung’s “history of revolutionary activities,” he convened a conference of Korean military leaders in Xiaohaerbaling, China in August 1940, where he put forward new strategic guidelines that the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army (KOPRA) should be prepared proactively for the great event of national liberation. Later, in order to preserve and accumulate the force of the KOPRA, he switched over from large-unit operations and movement to small-unit operations, and established multiple secret camps on Mt. Baekdu, from where he issued guidance over the anti-Japanese struggle inside and outside of Korea. When the defeat of Japan drew to a close in August 1945, Kim Il-sung issued an order to launch a final offensive for the liberation of the country, upon which KOPRA started the military operation to defeat Japan and liberated Korea.[4]

North Korea is reluctant to reveal the historical facts surrounding Kim Il-sung’s life from the early 1940s until August 1945. Only a few facts have been presented in a processed format in his autobiographical memoirs, “With the Century,” that covered, partially and from his own perspective, what his life was like in the Far East after the 1940 Xiaohaerbaling conference.[5]

In fact, it was known that Kim Il-sung had been exiled to the Soviet Union’s Far East region in November 1940 to escape the large-scale “punitive” military operations of the Japanese Kwantung Army, and stayed there for five years until Korea was liberated. During this time, he was admitted into the 88th Special Brigade founded by the Soviet Union with a mix of Chinese and Korean guerillas, and received special military training, including Russian-language courses and parachute jumps.[6] However, in his memoirs, Kim Il-sung skipped all the details unfavorable to forging his “glorious” image and wrote that the 88th Special Brigade itself had been established on his own initiative in preparation for Korean liberation. On the other hand, history recorded that there existed several people by the name of Kim Il-sung, who participated in the anti-Japanese independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, and it turns out that the North Korean leader pasted other Kims’ military achievements into his own biography, which explains how North Korea’s history education on Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese armed struggle was actually fabricated.[7] Above all, Kim Il-sung and his guerilla units did not participate in the final offensive for the liberation of the country.

Before the defeat of Nazi Germany, the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union gathered in Yalta in February 1945 to discuss the post-WWII issues, including the management of the soon-to-be defeated Nazi Germany. At this meeting, they agreed, among other things, that the Soviet Union would be engaged in defeating Japan after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Consequently, the Soviet forces participated in the Pacific War against Japan in mid-August 1945, advancing from the northern border of Korea and contributing to Japan’s surrender. They occupied the area north of the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula to help the North Korean dictator build a communist regime.

Contrary to historical facts, the North Korean propaganda still supports Kim Il-sung’s claim that his guerilla units played a leading role in the liberation of the country, while the Soviet army played only a “secondary” role. In this way, North Korea has made Kim Il-sung the “Savior of the Nation,” who liberated and saved the Korean people from Japanese oppression and occupation, as part of their effort to instill the cult of personality for the Great Leader.

Since the Kim Il-sung era, the governments of the Soviet Union and North Korea have exchanged congratulatory messages on Korean Independence Day, August 15. The North Korean authorities were often reluctant to get the full text of the Soviet message translated into Korean for their population when it contained a sentence saying that “Korea was liberated by the sons and daughters of the great Soviet Union.”

The Korean Liberation Monument, on Moran Hill in Pyongyang, to which limited access was given to a few people, was engraved with the following words on its front and rear walls, depicting a sharp contrast with North Korea’s claim that Kim Il-sung was the liberator of the country:[8]

Front: “The great Soviet people defeated Japanese imperialism and liberated the Korean people. Thanks to their blood shed for Korean liberation, friendship between the Korean and Soviet peoples has ever been strengthened. This Monument has been built to express the appreciation of the whole Korean people. On August 15, 1945.” 

Rear: “Glory to the Great Soviet Army who liberated the Korean people from the Japanese militarists’ occupation and opened the way to freedom and independence. On August 15, 1945.”

These words, prepared for the Soviet people when the monument was erected, tell us how hypocritical the North Korean regime was in forging its Great Leader’s history.

Being so naïve and innocent as to only believe the North Korean propaganda, I thought that these words reflected the vain pretension of the Soviet chauvinists who consider themselves liberators of Korea. Today, when I come to know the truth of history, these words give me a feeling of great disappointment and disgust for the Soviet Union, which converted the northern half of the Korean Peninsula into a field of confrontation between communism and capitalism, and manipulated Kim Il-sung as their puppet to keep North Koreans from entering the path of free and democratic development.

Kim Il-sung Destroyed Democracy in the Korean Workers' Party

In any society, a political party is an organization in which people gather with the same interests or political opinions and to achieve a set of common goals. There may be variation in the methods of achieving a party’s goals. Democracy allows all members of the party to freely express their ideas to contribute to developing and adopting a common political platform. It is inevitable during this process that multiple factions break into smaller groups within the party. As a form of political democracy, the existence of factions should be allowed and their free activities should be respected. This is particularly true in the case of North Korea, which is a one-party state.

Competition among the factions may give rise to some unwanted results, such as mismanagement of the party, inefficiency, and excessive political disputes.[9] However, like a multi-party system that positively impacts the building of democracy and political stability, competition among the factions, if properly managed, may contribute to strengthening of democracy within the party, fostering political elites and encouraging the diversity of policy options. The factions may ultimately expand the party's public support, strengthen its legitimacy, and amplify the likelihood of its adaptation to the existing political environment.[10]

Since the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was founded through the merger of several pre-existing political parties, there were multiple factions inside the party. This was a natural phenomenon, which provided a good opportunity for it to be developed democratically under the mutual control and influence of those various factions.

The KWP originated from the North Korean Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea,[11] founded in October 1945 and renamed the Communist Party of North Korea (CPNK) in 1946, which became the Workers’ Party of North Korea as a result of the merger of the CPNK with the New People’s Party of Korea. Finally, the current KWP was established in June 1949 when the Workers’ Party of North Korea merged again with the Workers’ Party of South Korea.[12]

Consequently, when the KWP took shape by the end of 1949, there already existed four competing and mutually reinforcing factions in the party—namely, the Guerilla faction led by Kim Il-sung, the Soviet Koreans’ faction led by Ho Ka-i, the Chinese Yanan faction led by Mu Chong, and the Workers’ Party of South Korea faction led by Pak Hon-yong. In the 1960s, the new Kapsan faction led by Pak Kum-chol separated from the Guerilla faction.[13]

For Kim Il-sung, who had earlier planned to take full control of the KWP, the other factions were a thorn in his side that he would have to eliminate as soon as possible. He waited until he could justify his action. From the early 1950s, when the Korean War broke out, to the mid-1960s, he purged and eliminated, one by one, all the leaders and elite members of the other factions, by holding them accountable for failures of the party and state affairs or for making a failed attempt to overthrow him. By the late 1960s, he succeeded in establishing his unique leadership in the KWP (see Box 1).

Box 1: Purges of the factions inside the Korean Workers’ Party, from the 1950s to the 1960s

1. Workers’ Party of South Korea faction:
Unlike other factions that received support from China or the Soviet Union, the Workers’ Party of South Korea faction had no external sponsor and was therefore in the weakest position. Before the end of the Korean War, leaders of the faction, Pak Hon-yong and Yi Sung-yop were arrested and removed from power, charged for spying for the United States and planning a coup against Kim Il-sung. Along with some other members of the faction, they were sentenced to death and executed after the war, while others were sent to forced labor camps. The faction was virtually wiped out in North Korea.

2. Soviet Korean faction: During the Korean War, Kim Il-sung drove from power Alexei Ivanovich Hegai (also known as Ho Ka-i), leader of the Soviet Koreans faction, whom he considered a potential rival, for the delayed repair of a water reservoir. He got rid of him through an alleged “suicide” in 1953. When Pak Chang-ok and other Soviet Koreans challenged his leadership in cooperation with the Yanan faction in 1956, Kim Il-sung convened a plenary session of the KWP in August to expel them from their positions in the Party. The Soviet Korean faction was disbanded and most of the members returned to the Soviet Union.

3. Chinese Yanan faction: Kim Il-sung attacked the leadership of the Yanan faction during the Korean War when he was driven to the Chinese border. He blamed Mu Chong, a leader of the Yanan faction, for the failure of the military operations and expelled him and other military leaders, including Pak Il-u, minister of the interior and personal representative of Mao Zedong, from the KWP. In August 1956, when Choe Chang-il and other leading members of the Yanan faction devised a plan to attack Kim Il-sung, he accused them of being “anti-Party and anti-revolutionary factionalists” and dismissed them from the KWP and their positions. Several leaders fled to China to escape the purges, and Kim Tu-bong, a leader of the faction and nominal head of state, not directly involved in the “August incident,” was ultimately purged in 1958, accused of being the “mastermind” of the plot. He disappeared after removal from power. In the same year, the Yanan faction ceased to exist.

4. Domestic Kapsan faction: During the second conference of the KWP in 1966, members of the Kapsan faction sought to introduce economic reforms, challenge Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality, and appoint their leader Pak Kum-chol as his successor. Kim Il-sung cracked down on the faction in a series of speeches made at party meetings. At a plenum of the KWP in April 1967, he completed the purges of all members of the Kapsan faction, accusing them for poisoning the Party with bourgeois ideology, revisionism and the feudal Confucian ideas. They were executed or sent to political prison camps. By eliminating the last faction that challenged his leadership, Kim Il-sung succeeded in establishing a one-man rule inside the KWP by the end of 1960s.[14]

Today, North Korea has become a one-party state in which the KWP dominates everything.[15] Like his predecessors, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un decides on all the policies issued by the KWP. Democracy exists only on paper. A totalitarian rule has been established inside the KWP where all the party members have no right to be heard, but have the obligation to obey the instructions of the dictator and his policies.

Truth Behind Kim Il-sung’s Legacy on Denuclearization

In the 21st century, North Korea's nuclear weapons program poses tremendous challenges to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia, and the rest of the world, undermining the foundation of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The development of nuclear technology by this country goes back to the Kim Il-sung era, as early as the mid-1950s, immediately after the Korean War ended. The initial effort to lay the foundation of a national nuclear energy program was covered under layers of “peaceful” purposes as they required technological assistance from nuclear powers, the Soviet Union in particular (see Annex I). Passing through Kim Jong-il’s rule, and in the era of the current dictator Kim Jong-un, North Korea no longer hides its intention to weaponize nuclear technology.

It is no exaggeration to say that the country’s ultimate goal is to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), like India and Pakistan, by possessing as many sophisticated nuclear weapons and various types of vehicles capable of carrying and delivering nuclear warheads as possible.

As the Free World was never ready to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, Pyongyang declared that denuclearization had been the will of the late Kim Il-sung and claimed that their nuclear development program had been the result of the external environment, such as the United States’ “hostile policy” toward North Korea. Kim Jong-un himself, has not forgotten to recall the same formula in front of a high-level South Korean delegation that visited Pyongyang in March 2018 as well as when he paid his long-awaited first “courtesy call” to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the same month.[16] Fooled by Kim’s rhetoric, the current South Korean government wanted to grant indulgence to the North Korean dictator, who had fanatically tested fired nuclear missiles until the previous year, by advertising loudly that he had clearly shown his “intention” to denuclearize the country.

In fact, Kim Il-sung’s legacy on denuclearization, which no one believes anymore even inside North Korea, was invented in the mid-1990s when US-North Korea bilateral negotiations were underway amid tensions over the country’s suspected nuclear development program. Since then, North Korea has been consistently referring to this rhetoric to mislead the international community, even when they carried out a series of nuclear tests.

Of course, by now, everyone can understand that Kim Il-sung wanted nuclear weapons. If Kim Il-sung had ever affirmed, while he was alive, that he wished his country to remain nuclear-free forever, this “teaching” by the Great Leader would have been upheld and implemented without condition. And if North Korea developed nuclear weapons by overlooking his will, this should have been regarded as evidence of contempt and disloyalty to the Great Leader.

Historically, the “Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” had already been adopted by the two Koreas and entered into force in 1992. This was followed by the confirmed withdrawal of all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea. Kim Il-sung knew about this before he died in 1994.

As described above, Kim Il-sung took the initiative of nuclear development in the mid-1950s and consistently pursued the program over the years as an important project of his government. As such, there would be a logical contradiction in the claim that he made a sudden U-turn towards a nuclear-free North Korea before he died. Moreover, given North Korea’s continued progress in its nuclear program in the post-Kim Il-sung era, and its inclination to use the particular terminology of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” over “denuclearization of North Korea,” it would be more realistic to assume that Kim Il-sung had never wanted his country to be free of nuclear weapons. Instead, Kim Il-sung might have wished for North Korea to continue to develop nuclear weapons to bargain with the United States for its “wish list items”—e.g., lifting of economic sanctions, provision of security guarantees for North Korea, removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea, or the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.

If Kim Jong-un had again brought up the outdated argument—an argument already dismantled by the international community almost three decades ago, when he made his debut on the international diplomacy stage in 2018—it would have shown that he was under tremendous pressure by the economic sanctions against North Korea.

Kim Jong-un is still hoping to preserve his nuclear weapons as a way of safeguarding the survival of his regime and family, and to forever maintain his family’s dictatorship. As long as the Kim family is sitting on the throne in North Korea, the prospects of its denuclearization seem uncertain and out-of-reach. Nevertheless, an alternative, reasonable way of achieving denuclearization peacefully would be to keep ramping up maximum pressure on North Korea through concerted actions of the international community, including China and Russia, until the day that Kim Jong-un decides to give up all of his nuclear weapons and nuclear program. And this day will come when he admits that his regime can longer survive with nuclear weapons because it will be on the brink of collapse when the costs of nuclear development outweigh the gains resulting from the possession of such nuclear weapons (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Modeling of North Korea's denuclearization based on cost-benefit analysis

The critical moment when Kim Jong-un decides to give up his nuclear weapons will come when the cost of nuclear development are higher than the benefits obtained by possessing nuclear weapons, that is, when the cost-benefit ratio R > 1.0.

Source: Developed by the author.

Explanatory notes:

R = Y1/Y2
Y1 = A + B + C + D + E

R: Cost-benefit ratio

Y1: Total costs of nuclear development

A: Military expenses

B: Economic losses caused by the sanctions

C: Opportunity cost associated with economic development by giving up nuclear weapons

D: Social unrest associated with popular grievances due to economic hardship

E: International isolation

Y2: Total benefits associated with safeguarding of the regime ensuring permanent and hereditary ruling by the Kim family (the value of benefits is considered to be constant)


Yi Sang-hwa,[17] in his poem written in 1926 “Does Spring Come to These Stolen Fields?”[18] deplored his status as a slave living in the country colonized by Japan. Even seven and a half decades after Korean independence, the North Korean people have not encountered a genuine spring of democracy. They still live under the dictatorial rule of the Kim family that passed over three generations starting with Kim Il-sung.

On the contrary, their compatriots in the South, who overturned the decades-long dictatorship of military juntas by paying a high price through their democracy movements, enjoy the warmth of democracy and many democratic springs. Along with other people of the Free World, they sincerely wish that their parents and siblings in the North could enjoy genuine freedoms and rights as human beings, freed from the Kim family’s dictatorship.

A spring of democracy never comes as an accident of history. In North Korea, it can only be witnessed when the North Korean people, awakened and united, courageously initiate and carry out a struggle against the tyranny of the Kim Jong-un regime. They would have to be inspired by and learn from democracy movements in other countries, especially the ongoing protests of the people in Myanmar who risk their lives to restore fragile democracy sabotaged by the military that denied the results of the 2020 general election.

In order to accelerate the day when a spring of democracy blossoms over the North Korean territory, the international community should send more information to the North Korean people, awakening them to the true faces of the Kim family and their regime, and actively support their struggle to understand and put an end to their dictatorship.

Annex I: Timeline of nuclear development in the Kim Il-Sung era, from the mid-1950s to the 1980s

Feb. 5, 1955 - North Korea and the Soviet Union sign a 5-year agreement on S&T cooperation, including in the field of atomic energy.

Mar. 1955 - The North Korean Academy of Sciences decides at its second conference to establish a research institute on atomic and nuclear physics.

Jul. 1, 1955 - In his speech at Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung urges the beginning of nuclear research. Following his speech, a section on nuclear physics is set up under the Faculty of Physics.

1956 - A nuclear physics lab is opened at the Institute of Mathematics and Physics under the Academy of Sciences.

Mar. 1956 - More than 30 scientists are sent to the United Institute for Nuclear Research (UINR) in Dubna, Soviet Union.

Mar. 26, 1956 – North Korea participates as a founding member of the UINR.

Jan. 1958 - The Soviet Union supports the construction of a nuclear training center near Kilju, North Hamgyong Province.

Apr. 1958 – North Korea, through its Ambassador in Moscow, requests the Soviet Union’s assistance in nuclear development for “peaceful” use.

Sep. 1959 – North Korea and the Soviet Union sign an agreement on the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy.

1961 – North Korea establishes the National Atomic Energy Commission.

Nov. 1962 – An atomic energy research institute is established at Yongbyon, North Pyongan Province.

1963 – North Korea starts construction of a pilot atomic reactor 2MWt IRT-2000, completed by the end of 1965. It proceeds with construction of other facilities – e.g. lab of radioactive chemistry and isotope production, K-60000 cobalt equipment, B-25 Betatron, UDS-10 decontamination drains, waste storage, special laundry, and boiler plants that generate 40 tons of steam per hour.

Each year, about 200 nuclear-related researchers are sent to Dubna-based UINR to learn nuclear technology.

1970s - While expanding the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, North Korea focuses on the development of radioactive technology.

1974 – North Korea joins the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the acquisition of advanced nuclear technology.

Late 1970s – North Korea conducts exploration of uranium mines across the country.

1980-1986 - North Korea constructs a 5MW pilot reactor in Yongbyon.

1985 – North Korea begins construction of a radiochemistry lab to extract plutonium from waste fuel rods for nuclear weapons.

From early 1980s to 1990 – North Korea conducts 73 nuclear detonator tests to develop nuclear explosive devices, as part of the preparation for nuclear weapons production.

Dec. 12, 1985 – North Korea joins the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and informs the IAEA of the existence of the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

1989 – The international community suspects North Korea’s nuclear development for military purposes, based on the intelligence released by the satellite images.

Source: Kim Bo-mi (2019). From beginning to development of North Korea’s nuclear program: around the 1950s and 1960s. Research of unification policies (Vol.28-1). pp 183-208; Ku Bon-hak (2015). Evolution of North Korea’s nuclear issues and alternative solutions. Research of unification policies (Vol.24-2). pp 1-31.



[1] Kim Il-sung, whose original name at his birth was Kim Song-ju, is known to have been born on April 15, 1912. He was the eldest son of Kim Hyong-jik (father) and Kang Ban-sok (mother) in Mangyongdae, Pyongyang.

[2] Kim Il-sung landed at the port city of Wonsan from a Soviet warship on September 19, 1945. Prior to his repatriation, he consulted with Soviet party and military leaders about his post-repatriation plan in order to get it approved by them. Source: Shindonga library at: https://shindonga.donga.com/Library/3/05/13/2265440/1 .

[3] The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR, was a federal socialist country that existed until 1991. It was a one-party state governed by the Communist Party, with Moscow as its capital. Upon its dissolution, Russia was recognized as its legal successor.

[4] North Korean publication (2007). Father of Songun General Kim Il-sung (Vol.1). Pyongyang Publishing House.

[5] Kim Il-sung (1998). With the Century (Vol.8). Korean Workers’ Party Publishing House. Source: North Korean online media Uriminzokkiri at: http://www.uriminzokkiri.com/index.php?ptype=cheigo&stype=2 .

[6] The 88th Special Brigade belonged to the Ministry of Interior of the Soviet Union for the defense of the Far East, and was commanded by Andrei Romanenko, the Army General of the Soviet Far East Army at the time. After Japan's defeat, Romanenko served as the head of civil affairs management of the Soviet occupation command in Pyongyang. He played a decisive role in recommending Kim Il-sung to Stalin. Source: Shindonga library at: https://shindonga.donga.com/Library/3/05/13/2265440/1 .

[7] In the 1930s, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was part of China’s Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, and the Battle of Pochonbo, which he claimed to have organized himself, has been known to have been led by another anti-Japanese independence activist by the same name, who died before liberation. Source: Kim Yong-sam (2018). I tell the truth on Kim Il-sung. Mirae Publishing House.

[8] https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/해방탑 .

[9] Carl J. Friedrich (1972). The Pathology of Politics. New York: Harper & Row.

[10] Patrick Kollner and Matthias Basedau. German Institute of Global and Area Studies Working Paper, No.12 (2005). Factionalism in Political Parties: An Analytical Framework for Comparative Studies.

[11] The headquarters of the Communist Party of Korea was in Seoul, South Korea.

[12] Source: Encyclopedia of Korean Culture- Korean Workers' Party, at: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/#self .

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Workers%27_Party_of_Korea ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapsan_Faction_Incident .

[14] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Workers%27_Party_of_Korea ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapsan_Faction_Incident .

[15] In North Korea, there are two more political parties—namely, the Social Democratic Party of Korea and the Chondoist Chongu Party. These parties operate under the guidance of the Korean Workers’ Party and are mainly engaged in the affairs with South Korea.

[16] Source: https://www.mk.co.kr/news/politics/view/2018/03/149120/ ; http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/international/china/838001.html .

[17] Yi Sang-hwa (1901–1943) was a Korean nationalist poet active in the resistance to Japanese rule. The details of his life and work can be accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yi_Sang-hwa .

[18] The full text of this poem in the original Korean language can be accessed at: https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/빼앗긴_들에도_봄은_오는가 .

March 03, 2021

HRNK Letter to His Excellency Tomás Ojea Quintana

January 10, 2021

His Excellency Tomás Ojea Quintana
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)

Dear Mr. Quintana,

Thank you for your invitation to answer two questions on progress in accountability for human rights violations in the DPRK, aimed to inform your upcoming March 2021 report to the 46th Human Rights Council session.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) is the leading US-based bipartisan, non-governmental organization in the field of North Korean human rights research and advocacy. Since our inception in 2001, HRNK has published 47 reports, investigating the DPRK’s vast system of imprisonment, including political prison camps as well as vulnerable groups, especially women, children, and people in detention. HRNK has held UN consultative status since April 2018. Ever since, we have been proactively representing civil society in the UN process. By participating in the Universal Periodic Review, by organizing online and in-person international conferences and seminars and meetings with Permanent Missions, UN agencies and offices in Geneva, New York City, and Seoul, HRNK has been disseminating the findings and recommendations put forth in our reports.

All HRNK reports and report summaries are available on our website: https://hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php.

We are honored to share our views relating to the two questions you pose to stakeholders.


1. What progress and limitations do you see on accountability issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seven years after the COI report, and how do you envisage the way forward?

On Progress:

The establishment of the OHCHR Office in Seoul, in June 2015 was the direct result of a recommendation made by the COI. For five and a half years, the Seoul Office has played an important role in the documentation process aimed to inform future accountability processes. While executing its mission, the Seoul Office has extensively interacted with CSOs based in the Republic of Korea and other countries, including HRNK.

Since the February 2014 UN COI report, annual resolutions on the human rights situation in the DPRK of both HRC and UNGA have included language condemning the “long-standing

and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” committed in the DPRK, including those violations that, according to the COI, amount to crimes against humanity. UNGA resolutions have encouraged the UNSC to “continue its consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the commission of inquiry and take appropriate action to ensure accountability,” including referral of the human rights situation in the DPRK to the ICC. UNGA resolutions also recommended to the UNSC to consider targeted sanctions against those deemed most responsible for acts the COI found to amount to crimes against humanity.

The UNSC held an Arria Formula Meeting on human rights in the DPRK in April 2014. Subsequently, the UNSC took up the human rights situation in the DPRK as a formal agenda item in December 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. That outcome has not been replicated in 2018, 2019 or 2020.

Building on the COI report, HRC and UNGA resolutions on human rights in the DPRK and the UNSC taking up the issue as a formal agenda item have maintained pressure on the DPRK, kept the issue in focus and galvanized civil society worldwide.

On Limitations:

The perennial obstacle to efforts to address human rights and accountability in North Korea is that political, security, and military issues end up outcompeting and sidelining human rights.

UNSC referral of DPRK crimes against humanity to the ICC is unlikely, due to almost certain opposition by one, if not two P5 members.

On the Way Forward:

HRC and UNGA resolutions on the human rights situation in the DPRK must continue to include strong language on both DPRK crimes against humanity and the need for accountability, including ICC referral.

UNSC failure to take up DPRK human rights as a formal agenda item for three years in a row has given the impression of withdrawal from the high ground the UN and the international community once held on this issue. Moreover, this “withdrawal” roughly coincided with several rounds of US and ROK “summit diplomacy” with the DPRK, giving the impression that human rights was sidelined for the sake of addressing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. We would welcome it as a very positive development if the UNSC resumed taking up DPRK human rights as a formal agenda item.

UNSC resolutions establishing a DPRK sanctions regime have aimed to prevent the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. UNSC resolutions have never comprised a human rights-based rationale.

There is a need for UNSC resolutions to address DPRK crimes against humanity and other severe human rights violations, although that would be possible only while turning the DPRK human rights issue into a substantive, rather than procedural issue, subject to a potential P5 member veto.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of a potential P5 veto, seeking UNSC referral of the DPRK to the ICC will continue to pressure the DPRK to consider addressing and improving its human rights situation.

Given the difficulty of the ICC referral route, UN member states could consider alternative accountability mechanisms, with the support of CSOs worldwide.

Although not necessarily within the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur or within the scope of his reporting to the HRC, the role of CSOs, in particular CSOs holding consultative status with ECOSOC, could be emphasized. Under circumstances where the UN’s accountability efforts appear to have somehow stagnated, CSOs can strive to maintain the COI’s momentum.

One such example would be a documentation project HRNK is carrying out in collaboration with the International Bar Association (IBA). Once international travel is again possible, HRNK and IBA will conduct a hearing/mock trial in Seoul, based on the joint documentation project, and involving most respected international jurists and judges.

2. What are your views on the approach that should be taken to ensure that the obligation to respect human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including on accountability measures and ending impunity, and the need for the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula are fulfilled?

Peace and human rights can never be mutually exclusive. “Saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights” are enshrined together in the Preamble to the UN Charter. The Korean Peninsula is no exception.

Nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and military tensions aside, human rights and human security are closely intertwined. Efforts must be undertaken to persuade the DPRK that neither humanitarian, nor development assistance can be divorced from human rights.

The COI recommended that “the United Nations Secretariat and agencies should urgently adopt and implement a common ‘Rights up Front’ strategy to ensure that all engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea effectively takes into account, and addresses, human rights concerns,” including those concerns collected in the COI report.

As emphasized by the COI, the adoption of a “Rights up Front” approach would help prevent “the recurrence or continuation of crimes against humanity” in the DPRK.

A Human Rights up Front (HRuF) approach to disbursing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK continues to be imperative. There are certainly extraordinary difficulties facing UN humanitarian agencies involved in the DPRK, in particular pertaining to access. COVID-19-related restrictions in the DPRK have exacerbated such difficulties. With only a couple of UN international workers left in-country, conducting humanitarian operations is nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, the situation created by COVID restrictions in the DPRK may provide the opportunity of a reset in the disbursement of humanitarian assistance by UN agencies. Such a reset may include the fundamental building blocks of an actual HRuF strategy, beginning with requesting access to the most vulnerable groups affected by precarious health care, water and sanitation and hygiene as well as natural disasters, including women, children, and people in detention.

The path to peace on the Korean Peninsula would hit a dead end in the absence of measures to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity in the DPRK. UN agencies and UN member states must seek access to detention facilities in the DPRK, in particular to political prison camps, whose existence the DPRK denies, despite thorough documentation via satellite imagery and escapee testimony. Recognizing the UN Special Rapporteur and allowing Mr. Quintana unconditional and unfettered access inside the country would help initiate a human rights-centered trust-building process with the DPRK.

As emphasized by HRNK author David Hawk in an upcoming report, UN accountability mechanisms—applying international criminal law to the DPRK—have constituted the sole approach which has led the DPRK to make some changes to its human rights policies, however small or insignificant. For example, after the COI report, the DPRK responded with a shift in its UPR policy, “accepting” and “rejecting” recommendations for the first time. Naturally, such moves could be purely tactical, and their importance should not be exaggerated.

Ultimately, peace on the Korean Peninsula would be peace between Koreans living in the South and in the North, including both victims and perpetrators. In order to prepare for peace on the Korean peninsula, the documentation process by the Seoul Office must continue. To end impunity, while engagement aimed at peace process on the Korean peninsula may continue, efforts at the HRC, UNGA, and possibly the UNSC must not relent.

Respectfully submitted,

Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director

March 01, 2021

Fixing Distorted History, a Prerequisite to Democratizing North Korea

On the occasion of the 102nd anniversary of the March First Movement
By Kim Myong
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

On March 1, 1919, one hundred and two years ago to this day, the Korean people turned a new page in their history by proclaiming the annulment of the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty and the independence of Korea, and by launching a non-violent national movement for independence from Japanese colonial rule, also called the “March First Movement.”[1] Encouraged by the concept of “national self-determination” promoted by then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, patriotic forces in Korea, a country Japan annexed by force in 1910, began a nationwide anti-Japanese movement to regain national sovereignty through a peaceful demonstration. That momentous effort was unsuccessful, crushed by the brutal repression of the Japanese imperial forces.[2] However, the March First Movement marked a paradigm shift in the minds of Koreans that the sovereignty of their country and nation mattered the most, above anything personal. On this occasion, they also learned that the independence of their country could be achieved only through armed struggle, not through bare-handed peaceful demonstrations. Later on, the Korean independence movement took one step forward with the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, tasked to lead the anti-Japanese independence struggle amidst Japanese colonial rule.

To observe the national pride this movement symbolizes, the Republic of Korea (ROK) proclaimed March 1 as a National Day and Public Holiday through the National Holiday Act of October 1, 1949. On the contrary, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has never made March 1 a national holiday. They hold sporadically commemorative events attended by “religious” or social organizations under the control of the Korean Workers’ Party’s United Front Department as part of their effort to reunify the Korean peninsula under communism by rallying their supporters inside South Korea. Unaware of what is really going on, South Koreans may be impressed that the North Korean authorities “cherish” the common history of our nation’s anti-Japanese struggles.

For North Koreans who have been brainwashed for life by history education centered on the so-called “revolutionary activities” of Kim Il-sung and his Baekdu Bloodline Family, March 1 is just an ordinary and “meaningless” day. While living in North Korea, I had no proper understanding of the March First Movement, nor did I spend this day honoring all the martyrs who died for the country. Despite being a short moment in the nation's 5,000-year history, this day is very important: The March First Movement demonstrated the national aspiration for independence and helped to catalyze the growing popular anger towards Japanese occupation. Deceived by the false propaganda of the North Korean authorities, who are so skilled in distorting the national history, dozens of millions of my fellow countrymen in North Korea worship only the Kim family while devaluing or ignoring the brilliant traditions and true historic accomplishments of their nation. Changing their distorted perceptions of history should be the first step toward democratizing North Korea.

North Korea’s Absurd Sophism Distorts the Historical Facts on the March First Movement

Distorted education by the North Korean authorities on the March First Movement is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other historical facts that they have warped to their liking.

First, North Korean education doesn’t provide any details on the 33 national activists who initiated the March First Movement and prepared the Declaration of Independence. Instead, the movement is used and abused to idolize the Kim family by claiming that it originated in Pyongyang under the leadership of Kim Il-sung's family members.

In North Korea, it is taught that the first flame of the March First Movement started in Pyongyang and then spread down to Seoul, and that “the patriotic young students of Pyongyang Soongsil Middle School played a leading role under the revolutionary influence of Kim Hyong-jik, an outstanding leader of the anti-Japanese national liberation movement.” [3] In other words, North Korean propaganda claims that Kim Hyong-jik, father of Kim Il-sung, had a decisive influence on initiating this movement through the students of Pyongyang Soongsil Middle School, where he had earlier studied. North Korean propagandists and “educators” insist that the movement was a turning point in shifting the struggle for national liberation from the nationalist movement to the communist movement.

However, according to historical archives at the time, Kim Hyong-jik, who had already dropped out of school, was arrested in 1917 by the Japanese police in South Pyongan Province for the “Korean National Association” incident and was released in 1918.[4] He immediately moved to Jung-gang-jin (a geographical area of North Pyongan Province), which proves that he could not participate in the March First Movement in Pyongyang. Besides, there is no specific record of his contribution to this movement, either.

Even in Kim Il-sung's memoirs, “With the Century,” perhaps by his mistake, nowhere is there any mention that the students who were influenced by his father commenced this movement. Instead, he wrote that his maternal grandfather Kang Don-uk urged his fellow villagers and young people to participate in the anti-Japanese independence demonstration. According to Kim Il-sung’s memoirs, he then took the lead in their march from Chilgol to Pyongyang during the March First Movement. In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung also claims that his maternal uncle, Kang Jin-sok, led the march together with his father. He described the March First Movement in Pyongyang in more detail than that in Seoul. He also described Ryu Gwan-sun as an ordinary female student without mentioning her name,[5]and characterized the 33 national activists who led the March First Movement as incompetent elite and bourgeois nationalists.[6] This shows that Kim Il-sung was trying to distort the truth about the March First Movement by under-evaluating the importance of Seoul as the origin of the movement and ignoring the historical figures who led it.

Second, North Korea exaggerates, claiming that, just before his seventh birthday, Kim Il-sung participated in person in the March First Movement, and that his participation provided an opportunity to raise his national consciousness and pushed him to later engage in the anti-Japanese armed struggle.[7]

“I was only eight years old at the time, but I joined in the march wearing my worn-out shoes full of holes. I shouted hurrah over and over with the marchers and reached the Botong Gate. The marchers rushed inside the castle past the Gate; I could not keep up with them in my tattered shoes and so I took them off and ran after the marchers as fast as my little legs could move. When adults sang hurray for independence, I sang hurray together.” [8]

As written above, Kim Il-sung recalled in his memoirs that he had joined the demonstrators at a young age to march with them past the Botong Gate of Pyongyang. Given that the round-trip distance from Mangyongdae where he lived to the Botong Gate was about 15-20 miles, it is hard to believe that he marched alone without help or company of any of his family members. He also recounted that in the following days, he went up to Mangyongdae Peak, blowing a trumpet and beating the drum, and shouting hurrah for independence even after sunset. Unlike his Chilgol family members, who personally participated in the March First Movement, no other members from his Mangyongdae family seemed to join him in the movement, which casts a shadow of doubt on his participation itself.

Kim Il-sung wrote that his worldview broadened and he matured much faster than others by experiencing the scenes of marchers shouting hurrah for independence and witnessing people being killed by the armed police during the movement.

“The March First Movement placed me in the rank of the people and left an image on my eyes of the true nature of the Korean people. Whenever I hear the echo of the March First hurrahs, I feel so proud of the Korean people's unbending determination and heroism.” [9]

In fact, North Korean textbooks show drawings illustrating young Kim Il-sung, marching in the front row of Pyongyang demonstrators and shouting hurrah with them to convince school students that their great leader hated Japanese imperialists profoundly and nurtured the big ambition of regaining the independence of his country since childhood.

Third, while arguing that the Kim family was directly or indirectly involved in the March First Movement, North Korea paradoxically makes an inappropriate and parsimonious evaluation of this movement, emphasizing that only the anti-Japanese armed struggle by Kim Il-sung was appropriate and effective as a manifestation of the independence movement.

North Korea’s official interpretation is that the March First Movement failed because of the following factors: a) it was not guided by an outstanding leader, a revolutionary class, and a revolutionary party; and b) the nationalist leaders of this movement had class-based limitations and deep-rooted pro-Americanism. They say that despite its failure, the movement has historical significance in that it raised the Korean people’s anti-Japanese national liberation movement to a higher level, in an attempt to secure the legitimacy for, and link it to, Kim Il-sung’s armed struggle only.[10]

North Korea labels the 33 national activists who wrote the March First Declaration of Independence “Bourgeois Nationalists.” Furthermore, North Korea blames them for having failed to identify an appropriate way to fight against the armed Japanese imperialists, as they were presumably “prisoners” of President Woodrow Wilson’s idea of national self-determination and counted too much on powers such as the United States. They also say that the movement proved that the nationalists were no longer in a position to lead the anti-Japanese national liberation movement.[11]

In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung wrote: “The failed March First Movement taught us that in order to win our fight for independence and freedom, we must have effective revolutionary leadership and organizational structures; we must use the right tactics and strategies; and we must debunk toadyism and build up our strength on our own.” And he highlighted the importance of his anti-Japanese armed struggle for combating Japanese imperialism and liberating the country.[12]

In history education, North Korea neither gets the historical events across to their population based on objective facts only, nor does it allow them to use their judgment to assess history. Instead, there is “one-way injection” education, based on the textbooks prepared by the Korean Workers’ Party. Therefore, North Koreans are obliged to believe and accept the severely distorted history as it is taught to them by the public education system.

History Education in North Korea is a Legal Means to Build the Kim Family’s Cult of Personality

The main purpose of history education in North Korea is to highlight that Kim Il-sung’s family has been, across generations, the most revolutionary and patriotic family in the country, and that it is the only family that can yield an outstanding leader representing the popular masses.

Currently, the school education’s curriculum contains four subjects related to the Kim family’s “revolutionary activities”—i.e., the history of Kim Il-sung, of Kim Jong-il, of Kim Jong-un, and of Kim Jong-suk—giving priority to these subjects and totally neglecting the Korean history per se. Instead of gaining sufficient knowledge about the Korean nation with its 5,000-year history, the North Koreans are more focused on learning about “the revolutionary life, immortal achievements and great human features” of the Kim family members, starting from Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese struggle and his activities after liberation. At school, students do not know much about Ryu Gwan-sun, An Jung-geun[13] and any other patriots or independence activists who devoted their lives in the anti-Japanese struggle. When the Shanghai-based Provisional Government or the Korean Liberation Army is introduced to North Korean students, more emphasis is placed on the perceived mistakes by these organizations rather than what they did right. By the end of history education, students get convinced that the anti-Japanese armed struggle by Kim Il-sung was the one and only right way to achieve national liberation.

In addition, they also learn about other members of the Kim family, beginning with Kim Il-sung’s great-grandfather Kim Ung-woo, as if they were all “great examples of revolutionaries and patriots who devoted their entire lives to the independence of the country and happiness of the nation.” They are taught that great-grandfather Kim Ung-woo took the lead in destroying and sinking the General Sherman in the Daedong River, [14] that grandfather Kim Bo-hyon and grandmother Ri Bo-ik were passionate patriots who raised their children for the revolutionary struggle, that maternal grandfather Kang Don-uk was a patriot who dedicated his life to education and the independence movement, and that all his uncles and younger siblings were revolutionaries who fought for independence (Table 1). By portraying the Kim family as the most revolutionary and patriotic family in the country, the North Korean authorities have justified the hereditary ruling by the Kim family and made it a moral obligation for their people to loyally support their leaders.

Table 1: Designations used in the idolization of the Kim family

NamesRelationship with Kim Il-sungDesignations
Kim Jong-sukFirst wife
Anti-Japanese heroine; great female revolutionary; the quintessential example of ideal Korean mothers
Kim Ung-wooGreat-grandfather
Passionate patriot
Kim Bo-hyonGrandfather
Passionate patriot
Ri Bo-ik


Passionate patriot
Kim Hyong-jikFather
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; passionate patriot; prominent leader of the anti-Japanese national liberation movement of the country
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; great mother of Korea; great female revolutionary; the best example of Korean mothers; outstanding leader of the Korean women's movement
Kim Hyong-gwonUncle
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; the best example of revolutionary believers; inflexible revolutionary with conviction and commitment
Kim Chol-juBrother
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; the embodiment of great revolutionaries
Kim Won-juCousin
Indomitable revolutionary fighter
Kang Don-ukMaternal grandfather
Passionate patriot; great educator
Kang Jin-sokMaternal uncle
Passionate anti-Japanese revolutionary fighter
Source: Based on the North Korean version of the History of Korea.

From April 1992 until his death in July 1994, Kim Il-sung wrote and published eight volumes of his autobiographical memoirs, "With the Century.”[15] As pointed out earlier, controversy exists over many of the historical “facts” introduced in his memoirs.

As soon as Kim Il-sung’s memoirs were published, all North Koreans were called on to read them every day and study their “essence” during the weekly Saturday saeng-hwal-chong-hwa “life and ideological guidance” group meetings, according to the ideological study plans assigned by the Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim Il-sung’s memoirs constitute an important part of his cult of personality.

Ga-gye Politics” Thrives on the Dictatorship of the Kim Family

North Koreans internally refer to the extended family of Kim Il-sung as ga-gye (lineage). For example, if someone says that “he or she is married to ga-gye,” it means that he or she married someone who is lineally descended from Kim Il-sung—including his paternal and maternal lineages, i.e. Mangyongdae Kim family or Chilgol Kang family. The term ga-gye does not apply to any other families, for whom the term ga-jok (family) is used. As the years went by, the ga-gye expanded rapidly by marriage between ga-gye members and ga-jok members of different surnames or same surnames from different clans. For example, by marrying Kim Kyong-hui, who is Kim Il-sung's daughter, Jang Song-taek and his bloodline were integrated into the ga-gye. The same was true of Ho Dam, former Foreign Minister of North Korea, who married Kim Il-sung’s cousin, Kim Jong-suk, who was president of the DPRK Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations until recently. For the people of North Korea, ga-gye means royal family and represents absolute power.

From the late 1960s, when Kim Il-sung’s one-man rule was being established, members of the ga-gye began occupying high-level positions in the Korean Workers’ Party, the State, and the Military. In fact, their positions did not matter in exercising power. If, for example, someone introduces him or herself as Kim Il-sung's cousin or his maternal niece’s husband, he or she will enjoy a higher privilege than the general managers or the Party secretaries of the enterprises. No one could be more powerful than a ga-gye member in resolving practical issues for smooth management of a business enterprise.

For example, when public enterprises in North Korea want to build houses for their employees or import some raw materials from China, they have to obtain permission to do so from several state agencies by undergoing a multi-phased process. The North Korean term for the license they get for such business is called “waku.” Depending on the content and nature of the business, a waku requires a very complicated and hard process that, in most cases, is “facilitated” through bribery. People often fail to get a waku, even after spending a lot of time and energy for it. Members of ga-gye can help figure things out using their networks and connections because lots of their family members or relatives are already in key positions at the powerful state agencies that issue the waku. In addition, when high-level officials are subjected to legal punishment for an administrative mistake made in the line of work, ga-gye members often help them to be acquitted. It is needless to say that they receive handsome “compensation” for their help. So, fierce competition often rages among agencies in order to attract members of ga-gye to their offices. 

In this way, Kim Il-sung's relatives or members of the ga-gye penetrated all major state agencies to run “ga-gye politics,” which contribute greatly to widespread corruption and inefficient business management.

As I was surrounded by a number of ga-gye members during my life in North Korea, I knew their nature like the back of my hand. I found them everywhere I went—at the schools I attended and at my workplaces as well. They enjoyed all kinds of privileges and immunities that ordinary people could not aspire to even in their dreams. To me, they were living in a totally different world, and they belonged to a different class in all aspects.

Without making any effort to study hard, they were easily accepted to the top universities of their choice, regardless of their scores on the entrance exams. Even if their school attendance was lower than 50 percent, or even if they did not diligently participate in the school’s organizational life, it did not matter. They were never reprimanded and graduated from their universities with the highest results, as if they had been excellent students. Later on, they found good jobs of their choice in the Party, law enforcement, armed forces and security agencies, in the offices that enabled them to work abroad, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Foreign Trade, or in the foreign currency-earning companies under Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party. They were frequently exempted from social work duties in their offices, were lazy and unfaithful in the implementation of their main tasks, but they received good end-of-year evaluations and got promoted faster than others.

With no concerns at all about their daily living, they had a lot of free time. They were wasting their lives on pleasure and entertainment. Many of them became addicted to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Instead of having a bookshelf filled with books at home, they collected South Korean and foreign movies, including pornographic videos, that were banned in North Korea. If ordinary people got caught watching South Korean movies, they would be immediately sent to the kwan-li-so (political prison camps), but the members of ga-gye, accused of the same “crime,” were released soon upon receiving a severe warning. Besides, “yeon-jwa-je,” the North Korean method of punishing up to three generations of the family when a person is found guilty of a “serious crime,” hardly applied to the Kim family and ga-gye members.

In a word, North Korea was the country of the Kim family and ga-gye. These people were living with a sense of superiority, as if the space where we lived together belonged only to them and as if they were untouchable. They were the North Korean “nobility,” and lived extraordinarily selfish lives.

As the dictators changed, the Mangyongdae Kim family and the Chilgol Kang family seemed to be pushed away out of the core of North Korean power, whose center seems to be shifting gradually toward the “Wonsan Kim family.” This will bring another type of ga-gye politics to North Korea.[16]

Truth is More Powerful than Lies

The denial of historical facts by the North Korean authorities is absolutely necessary to maintain their regime. During their seven decade-long reign, the Kim family has committed countless unforgivable crimes against the nation and humanity. They needed to alter or distort the facts to hide their crimes, and they needed to cheat their people to continue ruling over them. If the North Koreans knew the truth of history, the Pillars of Belief in the Kim family and the Myth of the Great Leader would collapse in a matter of seconds like a wall washed away by a deluge, and this would undoubtedly lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime. Truth exists to be eventually revealed. Truth always prevails over deception and lies (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1: Truth Is More Powerful than Lies

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Out of so many facts that the North Korean authorities are trying to distort or hide, two facts about Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s births were the most shocking to me. Kim Il-sung was born into a family of devout Christians who believed in God. Kim Jong-il was born in Russia and was named “Yuri Irsenovitch Kim.” Let me take the liberty of presenting a few facts on Kim Il-sung’s birth, although they are already known to the world (Box 1).

Box 1: Kim Il-sung was born into a family of Christian believers

Kim Il-sung's parents, Kim Hyong-jik (father) and Kang Ban-sok (mother), were devout Christians. American Presbyterian missionary Nelson Bell brokered their marriage, which would result in the birth of Kim Il-sung.

Kim Hyong-jik, in his childhood, dreamed of becoming a pastor. He attended Pyongyang Sunhwa School, which was established by American missionaries, and learned to write the Bible in Korean calligraphy. At the time, American missionaries paid a cent in Korean coins to students who came to church. The missionaries loved Kim Hyong-jik, especially for showing his faith by putting all the coins he received into the church offering box. On the recommendation of American missionaries, Kim Hyong-jik entered Soongsil Middle School. This school was founded in 1897 in Pyongyang as a private school by American Presbyterian missionary William M. Baird.

Kang Ban-sok was born as the second daughter of Kang Don-uk, who was a devout Presbyterian. Her real name at birth was Kang Shin-hi, but she was baptized in church by Nelson Bell and renamed Ban-sok, the Korean translation of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles.

Through Nelson Bell’s brokerage, Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Ban-sok got to know each other and married. As a result, Kim Il-sung was born into a devout family. When he was a child, Kim Il-sung followed his mother to church and faithfully believed in Christianity.

Ironically, under Kim Il-sung’s rule, North Korea was transformed into the world’s worst religious persecutor.

Source: Kim Il-Sung and Christianity in North Korea by Dae Young Ryu, Journal of Church and State, Volume 61, Issue 3, Summer 2019, Pages 403–430

The reason why the North Korean authorities hide the true facts about Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il's births is because, once known to the people, they may become an obstacle to deifying and idolizing their “great leaders.”

Like anyone else in the world, North Korean people have the right to access information. This right is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognized by Resolution 59 of the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1946,[17] as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[18] It has also been enshrined as a corollary of the basic human right of freedom of expression in other major international instruments, including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[19]

If any government takes measures to block, for any reason, the free access to information by the North Korean people, they will be blamed by the entire Free World for forsaking 25 million North Koreans and enabling the Kim dynasty to continue to enslave them. As a result of such actions, the prospects for democratization of North Korea and for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula will remain uncertain.

[1] The declaration released on this day is called the “March First Declaration of Independence.”

[2]  Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (https://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Item/E0026772).

[3] North Korean version of the History of Korea (for the 4th grade of high schools). Printed in 2000 by DPRK Educational Books Publishing House.

[4] The “Korean National Association” was a pro-independence clandestine organization founded in Pyongyang in 1915. It was soon discovered by the Japanese imperial authorities and its founding members were imprisoned in 1918, which led to its immediate dissolution. For more details on this organization, please visit: https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/조선국민회 .


[5] Ryu (Yoo) Kwang-sun (1878~?) was a Korean independence fighter and believer in Cheondoism. Arrested and sentenced to 1 year and 3 months of prison for anti-Japanese activities on November 22, 1920, her fate is unknown after that date.

[6] Kim Il-sung's Memoirs “With the Century” Vol. 1 (April 1992). Chapter One: Land of misfortunes.

[7] Kim Il-sung was born on April 15, 1912. According to the Western way of counting age, he was about to turn seven in March 1919. According to the Korean way of counting age, he was about to turn eight.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] North Korean version of the History of Korea (for the 4th grade of high schools). Printed in 2000 by DPRK Educational Books Publishing House.

[11] In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung wrote that the national self-determination was a hypocritical slogan issued by the US to prevent the influence of Russia’s October Socialist Revolution from spreading to other parts of the world.

[12] Kim Il-sung's Memoirs “With the Century” Vol. 1 (April 1992). Chapter One: Land of misfortunes.

[13] An Jung-geun (1879–1910) was a Korean nationalist and independence activist who assassinated Prince Ito Hirobumi, a four-time Prime Minister of Japan and former Resident-General of Korea, in 1909. He was subsequently imprisoned and executed by the Japanese authorities on March 26, 1910.

[14] The General Sherman was a U.S. Merchant Marine side-wheel steamer attacked and sunk in the Daedong River in 1866. The incident is often credited as a catalyst to the end of Korean isolationism in the second half of the 19th century.

[15] The eight volumes of Kim Il-sung’s memoirs cover the period from his childhood to his repatriation upon the liberation. The last two volumes were posthumously published.

[16] Kim Jong-un is presumed to have been born in Wonsan, on January 8, 1984.

[17] The UN General Assembly Resolution 59, A/RES/59(1), adopted on December 14, 1946, is available at: https://research.un.org/en/docs/ga/quick/regular/1 .

[18] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948, is available at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ .

[19] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted on 16 December 1966, is available at: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx .