October 15, 2021


By Roberta Cohen

Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations & Research

NOTE FROM HRNK: This essay draws attention to the risks facing political prisoners as the food situation in North Korea worsens. Restrictions imposed by North Korea in response to Covid-19 have resulted in the withdrawal of most, if not all, international humanitarian staff from the country. As humanitarian aid to North Korea resumes, special attention should be paid to reaching the most vulnerable group in that country—those who are detained in political prison camps. Now is the time to plan steps that could be taken to better protect vulnerable populations in North Korea, who face serious risks due to lack of access to adequate food and medical care. This essay is based on an affidavit prepared by the author for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and International Bar Association’s forthcoming Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, North Korea is facing a severe food shortfall—a gap of at least 860,000 tons of food, which corresponds to two months’ supply.[i] In ordinary times, more than 40 percent of North Korea’s population is food insecure, but conditions at present are said to be more dire. Damaging floods and the government’s Covid-19 restrictions have exacerbated the food shortage. International aid agencies have been prevented from operating and cross-border trading has been curtailed. State media openly speaks of a food crisis.

In such conditions, the most food-deprived persons in the country should be identified and prioritized. But in North Korea, the government has created a food-deprived group isolated from the rest of the population: political prisoners. They are undoubtedly the first to be denied food when commodities are scarce and the last to receive food when it is available. In July 2021, the UN Secretary-General warned the international community that “there are risks that the food situation for detainees has worsened, as the food situation has become more acute for the general population.”[ii]

The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea described the near starvation of prisoners in North Korea as a form of governmental “control and punishment” in its 2014 report.[iii] The most in danger during times of crisis are those held in political prison camps (kwan-li-so). A North Korean official told the former German Ambassador that “people are only being sent there to die.”[iv] However, those held in long-term re-education through labor camps (kyo-hwa-so) and short-term detention facilities are also at risk, especially now that Covid-19 restrictions prevent families and friends from bringing food packages.

A total of 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are reported to be incarcerated in North Korea, with some sources estimating upwards of 200,000. In most cases, they are charged with ‘offenses’ that are not considered criminal in other countries: trying to leave the country without permission; trying to join relatives in South Korea or having a family member who does; listening to foreign news broadcasts; watching foreign movies and copying foreign speech and clothing; questioning or complaining about government policies, or having a family member who did; being caught up on the wrong side of a factional political dispute; possessing a Bible or organizing a Christian service; and more. During the pandemic, North Koreans who question or fail to adhere to official quarantine measures are reported to be placed in labor camps for challenging Party policy.[v] In some cases, entire families of prisoners, including children, have been incarcerated on the basis of guilt-by-association (yeon-jwa-je).

Deaths in detention are known to be high. The UN COI estimated in 2014 that hundreds of thousands of prisoners perished over the past five decades from a combination of deliberate starvation, illnesses, forced labor, torture, and other brutality. It defined their deaths as “extermination,” which “can be carried out by imprisoning a large number of people and withholding the necessities of life so that mass deaths ensue.”[vi]

With few exceptions, it has long been accepted practice for donors and aid agencies to refrain from requesting access to political prisoners, because of the political sensitivity of the issue and the fear of jeopardizing access to other vulnerable populations. Political prisoners, however, are undoubtedly the most vulnerable group in North Korea.


In the case of political prison camps (kwan-li-so) as well as long-term re-education through labor camps (kyo-hwa-so), the UN COI presented extensive evidence of the denial of adequate food to those detained. The COI also found evidence of limited access to food at short-term detention facilities.[vii] In recent years, additional corroborating information has emerged regarding these short-term facilities. This information, presented below, shows how adequate food has been consistently denied from the time of arrest through interrogation and then in early short-term detention. Typically, prisoners detained in such facilities are held up to two years, at which point they may be released or transferred to long-term detention facilities.

The following documentation attests to the inadequate food in short-term detention facilities:

  1. Interviews in 2019 and 2020 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) with 25 former prisoners held in short-term facilities spanning a twenty-three year period (1996–2019) in the provinces of North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, North Pyongan, South Pyongan, and Ryanggang.[viii] The short-term facilities include: a) police interrogation/detention centers (An-jeon-bu ku-ryu-jang or ku-ryu-so); b) police stations (An-jeon-bu bo-an-so and bun-ju-so); c) Ministry of State Security (hereafter MSS) interrogation/detention centers (Bo-wi-bu ku-ryu-jang); d) short-term labor detention facilities (jip-kyul-so); and e) mobile forced labor brigades (ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae).
  2. Reports authored by David Hawk, a leading expert on North Korea’s prison camps and detention facilities, including The Hidden Gulag[ix] and The Parallel Gulag,[x] published by HRNK in 2012 and 2017 respectively.
  3. The 2020 report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human Rights Violations against Women Detained in the DPRK, based on 100 interviews of women detained between 2009 and 2019 (many in short-term detention facilities) after being forcibly repatriated from China.[xi]
  4. The 2017 White Paper on North Korean Human Rights of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), which compiled more than 500 cases of violations of the right to food in short-term detention facilities and found these violations to be “prevalent” throughout the country. [xii]
  5. Information obtained over the past decade by the author from meetings with former North Korean prisoners, prison guards, and government officials, as well as officials and experts from other Asian countries, North America, and Europe. 


Witness after witness described the below-subsistence food rations provided at the short-term detention facilities run by the Ministry of Social Security (the police),[xiii] the Ministry of State Security (responsible for political crimes), or both in collaboration. Indeed, the diet provided over a period of two decades across different facilities constitutes a dangerously small fraction of minimal dietary requirements for average adults.[xiv]

Of course, during the great famine of the mid-1990s and subsequent periods of food scarcity, the state had little to provide prisoners. But even during periods when food was available, the authorities distributed substandard amounts to persons in detention centers, especially to those being punished on political grounds. 

The following quotes from the testimonies of former prisoners describe their daily diets in short-term facilities, spanning a nineteen-year period:

a) 2000: “small amounts of boiled mashed corn and salty radish leaf soup” (labor detention facility in Chongjin)[xv]

b) 2001: “corn soup made of whole grain unpeeled corn, amounting to three or four spoonfuls” (MSS facility in Onsong)[xvi]

c) 2002–3:“raw corn which had no nutritional value...not even peeled off or cleansed” (MSS facility in Onsong)[xvii]

d) 2005: “about 20 pieces [kernels] of corn” (labor detention facility in Chongjin)[xviii]

e) 2008: “only corn noodles about 2 kilograms for 200 people” (MSS facility in Hyesan)[xix]

f) 2009: “we really could only eat mice and corn pieces” (mobile labor brigade in Sinuiju)[xx]

g) 2010: “a small cup of boiled rice, about 150 grams per meal. Soup was made of dried cabbage and salt” (short-term detention facility in North Pyongan Province)[xxi]

h) 2011:“50 grains [of corn] at each meal...I counted the grains”(unnamed MSS short-term labor facility)[xxii]

i) 2012: “200 to 300 grains of corn three times a day” (unnamed MSS interrogation center)[xxiii]

j) 2012/13: primarily “corn that they couldn’t throw away that even the dogs did not want” (labor detention facility in Hyesan)[xxiv]

k) 2014: “five tiny rotten potatoes per meal” (unnamed police interrogation center)[xxv]

l) 2015: “five spoonfuls...boiled leftovers...three times a day” (MSS detention facility in North Hamgyong Province)[xxvi]

m) 2016: “a handful of corn per meal” three times a day (unnamed MSS detention center)[xxvii]

n) 2017: “50 grains of corn per meal” (unnamed police interrogation center)[xxviii]

o) 2019 (solitary confinement): “about 150 grams of food every day. I did not receive water” (held for one month and ten days at police facility in Onsong)[xxix]

p) 2019: 150 grams three times a day (MSS and police facilities in Onsong)[xxx]

“I think they willfully made people starve in detention,” said one former prisoner to HRNK about his time at a mobile labor brigade in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province in 2001.[xxxi] Others echoed the same sentiment: “I have...witnessed many people in the detention centers [Musan, Chongjin, Hyesan, Onsong, Pyeongsong] die of starvation even though the state has food that could be distributed”(2004–5).[xxxii] Another former prisoner said that insufficient food “led to cases of starvation among the detainees” at a mobile labor brigade in Hoeryong in 2011.[xxxiii] The UN OHCHR’S 2020 report described a “consistent pattern” of “grossly inadequate” food for women prisoners in both short-term and long-term facilities.[xxxiv]

Because constant and severe hunger was the daily predicament of many prisoners in these facilities, prisoners ate grass and other plants to survive, according to a former prisoner at a labor detention center in South Sinuiju in 2000.[xxxv] Prisoners caught and ate mice at other facilities, but in many short-term detention facilities, especially overcrowded buildings, prisoners lacked access to the outside and could not even forage for grass, insects, or rodents.[xxxvi]

Role of Families in Preventing Prisoner Starvation: One of the reasons prisoners incarcerated in long-term re-education through labor camps and short-term facilities have been able to survive is because their families and friends are able to bring food packages. (This is not the case in the political prison camps, which are operated by the MSS.) However, the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 and 2021 has barred families and friends from visiting these facilities, and the food situation for prisoners has become even more precarious.

Prior to the pandemic, there were difficulties in providing food packages to prisoners. Families could remain uninformed for months about the whereabouts of their loved ones, especially while they were in interrogation. Once family members found out the location of the detention facility, they often had to bribe guards to ensure that the food package was safely delivered. Sometimes, the guards stole or ate part of the food or sold it in the market. Visits could also be denied on an arbitrary basis.[xxxvii] The UN OHCHR’s 2020 report points out that not all detainees received packages from their families, since not all were close by or had the capacity to do so. Prisoners who did not receive packages remained “vulnerable to malnutrition.”[xxxviii]

When families were allowed to bring food, former prisoners acknowledged that the health of detainees typically improved. “Most of us survived only because of families and friends bringing food for us and if not, prisoners died from severe malnutrition and ultimately starvation, combined with constant hard work,” according to a former prisoner at a mobile labor brigade in 2011.[xxxix] When family members were allowed to bring food “twice a week,” as was the case at a police detention facility in Onsong in 2019, conditions “got better,” said a former prisoner. However, from April 2019 until the prisoner’s escape in July, prison authorities stopped these visits without providing a reason, and prisoners began to become malnourished.[xl]

For those who were subject to hard labor for up to 10 or more hours a day, food was essential but not often provided. “Even when we were forced to do very hard labor,” the guards “barely provided food” (mobile labor brigade in Hoeryong, 2011).[xli] The combination of inadequate food with forced labor added to the likelihood that prisoners would fall ill. “I was hungry all the time,” said a former prisoner at an MSS facility in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in 2012–13. “[W]e received only very limited food...[while] we were made to do hard labor, including working on cleaning the railroads.”[xlii]

Nor was clean water made regularly available. The UN OHCHR’s 2020 report recommended that North Korea make “drinking water available to every prisoner whenever she needs it.”[xliii]


Many detainees testified that the food provided by the state sickened them. At one MSS interrogation facility in 2017, a former prisoner testified: “Meals were carried in a bucket and the bucket was never cleaned and smelled terrible...I was unable to eat it.”[xliv] At many other detention facilities and over many years, different detainees repeatedly called the food provided by the state “rotten,” “inedible,” and causing “bad side effects.” “The only food that we were given was essentially waste...animal feed,” which caused many prisoners to suffer from diarrhea and other sicknesses such as enteritis, an inflammation of the small intestine commonly caused by food or drink contaminated with microbes (e.g., Chongjin MSS facility in 2001, Hyesan MSS facility in 2008).[xlv]

At an MSS facility in Hyesan in 2008, a former prisoner spoke of “at least two people in my cell who died from diarrhea or enteritis...I witnessed their deaths, and the prison authorities did nothing to help them.”[xlvi] At an MSS facility in Onsong, “a number of the detainees suffered from enteritis and starved to death” (2002–3).[xlvii] This was also the case at multiple detention centers in North Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces in 2004–5, where a former prisoner witnessed “many” detainees becoming ill. “I witnessed a large number of people die as a result.”[xlviii] Another former prisoner who suffered from an inflamed gall bladder received no medical help (police detention center in Hoeryong, 2009).[xlix]

Food was regularly used as a weapon of punishment and control. Some former detainees reported “having to drink dirty, contaminated water as collective punishment” (2004).[l] Others reported “not being allowed to receive the dinner meal” as a form of punishment (mobile labor brigade in Chongjin, 2008).[li] At a police interrogation/detention center in 2014, one former detainee stated, “I was starved on a few occasions...the MSS wanted to punish and pressure me, and therefore they did not allow me to get the meals [brought by family members].”[lii] During interrogation, especially for cases concerning political crimes, “starvation” was “deliberately imposed on suspects to increase the pressure on them to confess and to incriminate other persons.”[liii]

Sometimes, food was withheld from certain categories of prisoners as punishment. For example, pregnant women, especially those impregnated by Chinese ‘husbands,’ were reportedly denied food and water at a labor detention facility in Nongpo (Chongjin) in 1999.[liv] At a mobile labor brigade in Hoeryong, “some young male detainees” were singled out and “treated so badly when it [came] to food” (2001)[lv], while at an MSS facility in Chongjin, Christian prisoners “were treated very badly, with many beatings and little food” (2001).[lvi] The teenage daughter of Christian missionaries at a police station in Hyesan was “not given food for almost two weeks” during interrogation (2004).[lvii] According to another former prisoner, “The authorities aimed to hurt those who did not support the regime and/or belonged to the ‘wrong’ social class” (mobile labor brigade in Chongjin, 2003).[lviii] In 2010, female prisoners who had been forcibly repatriated from China were told by prison guards that they were “traitors who deserved to die,” so they received little food and did not have access to medical treatment (police detention facility in South Hamgyong Province).[lix]

Detainees who stole food to survive, especially while working on farms, were punished severely. Guards at an MSS facility in Onsong were reported to have executed “dozens” for eating oxen (beef) in 2000,[lx] while at a short-term labor detention facility in Chongjin in 2002, a former detainee said that “I have…seen individuals executed for stealing a pig.”[lxi] In 2010, at a short-term detention facility in Ryanggang Province, a prisoner secretly ate uncooked rice while doing farm work, and “they put pebbles in my mouth and sealed it with adhesive tape, and they made me work” without food.[lxii]

When prisoners became so sick that they were in need of hospitalization, the authorities sometimes sent prisoners home. In some cases, families had to bribe the authorities or doctors to allow the sick prisoner to return home.[lxiii] Clearly, prison authorities had neither the willingness nor the capacity to treat prisoners who became extremely sick, even though the insufficient food they provided—combined with the “lack of health care” and hard labor—had caused prisoners’ health to deteriorate.[lxiv] In many instances, the bodies of detainees who died from starvation (and other causes) were thrown into unmarked graves.


Inadequate food regularly jeopardized prisoners’ health, in many cases causing inflammation of body organs, as described above. The UN OHCHR also found that the “grossly inadequate quantity and poor quality of food,” fed to women prisoners “led to high levels of malnutrition…and the interruption of their menstrual cycles” (2009–19).[lxv] Both male and female detainees who were held in short-term detention facilities for months lost considerable weight, making them weak and vulnerable to malnutrition and disease, including enteritis and tuberculosis.[lxvi]

Some prisoners described themselves as being reduced to “skin and bones.” Whether at an MSS facility in Hyesan (2008), an MSS facility in Musan (2003), or a labor detention facility in Chongjin (2002), prisoners spoke of how the denial of adequate food reduced their bodies to skeletons. “I weighed only 32 kilograms [70.5 pounds],” recalled one former prisoner.[lxvii] Another individual, who “lost half his body weight” after three months in detention at an MSS facility in Sinuiju, collapsed from malnutrition and beatings and was sent home to die (2003).[lxviii]

Impact of Food Deprivation on Children: It is well known that detained children are subjected to acute suffering, in part because they “ha[ve] no funds with them” with which to secure additional food by bribing guards. For example, at a mobile labor brigade in Chongjin, there were “many deaths of children from malnutrition or starvation” (2003).[lxix] At an MSS facility in Musan in that same year, “almost all of the children were suffering from malnutrition, with a number of them dying from starvation.”[lxx]

In 2003–4, at a labor detention facility in Hyesan, “more than 10 children died of starvation.... Other children survived but were suffering from extreme hunger and malnutrition.”[lxxi] At an MSS facility in Sinuiju in 2008–9, “hunger and starvation were rampant, particularly for children. Many children and young people were emaciated.”[lxxii] Considering that one in five non-incarcerated North Korean children suffer from stunted growth, one can only imagine the impact on incarcerated children when deliberately denied food in detention facilities. Further, it is almost certain that this deprivation also causes lasting emotional harm and irreversible intellectual deficits, in addition to the long-term physical impact on these children.


There is no question that inadequate food—either alone or in combination with forced labor, beatings, and lack of medicine and adequate healthcare—have resulted in deaths over the past twenty years. Thousands of North Korean detainees are estimated to die each year from the combination of starvation, beatings, labor exhaustion, lack of medicine, and disease.

The UN COI’s report found that in short-term detention facilities, “many die from starvation, disease or injuries sustained during beatings and work accidents.”[lxxiii] The UN OHCHR’s report on women prisoners (2009–19) found that “The deprivation of food was at times so severe that detainees reportedly starved to death.”[lxxiv]

Testimony regarding deaths in specific short-term facilities can be found in the following:

a) The UN COI’s report: for example, “After a month or two of imprisonment,” where prisoners were given starvation rations, “a lot of inmates died” (labor training facility in Hamheung).[lxxv]

b) Witness testimonies quoted in HRNK reports (2000–2009): [lxxvi]

  1. “I witnessed many deaths due to starvation and unlivable conditions, around 35 individuals died in the Bo-wi-bu [MSS] that I know of due to starvation” (MSS facility in Onsong, 2000).
  2. “There was at least one person dying every day from malnutrition - it was like an epidemic” (labor detention facility in Chongjin, 2003).
  3. “Approximately 2,000 die...each year...We were told to keep track of how many prisoners died.... Of the 2,000 deaths each year, I knew a number of these individuals.... Some of the inmates died of starvation or malnutrition” (former prisoner-turned-prison administrator at mobile labor brigade in Chungsan, 2003–5).
  4. “I saw a number of people die of starvation.... Starvation and extreme hunger were rampant in the facility” (mobile labor brigade in Pyeongsong, 2005).
  5. Detainees “often suffer from starvation. I witnessed many detainees die” (at detention centers in Onsong, Chongjin, and Orang, 2004–5).
  6. “I saw people die continuously. These deaths often resulted from malnutrition and untreated diseases” (mobile labor brigade in Musan, 1997, 2004, 2009).
Prisoners continued to suffer from health problems after being released. Many former prisoners who managed to escape to South Korea continued to suffer from worms, gastrointestinal problems, and other ailments. One individual who was provided little food during detention in 2009 said six years later, “I caught tuberculosis [then] and have to take medicine now” and “My daughter still has a problem in her heart” (North Pyongan Province police labor detention facility).[lxxvii] Not surprisingly, enduring psychological damage from trauma during detention also is common. “Since my release from the Kilju bo-an-so (police station) I have suffered from considerable mental and physical trauma which continues to this day” (2013).[lxxviii]


In response to the increasing reports of starvation of North Korea’s prisoners, annual UN General Assembly resolutions have begun to list political prisoners in North Korea as a vulnerable group “suffering chronic and acute malnutrition”[lxxix] and have called for the entry of international humanitarian organizations to North Korea’s “detention facilities.”[lxxx]

North Korea itself informed the UN in 2019 that it accepted the recommendation put forward by the government of Ireland at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that the DPRK:

grant immediate free and unimpeded access to international humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to the most vulnerable groups, including prisoners [emphasis added].”[lxxxi]

Donors, UN agencies, and NGOs have nevertheless mostly refrained from requesting access to prisoners so as not to antagonize the North Korean government and possibly undermine aid going to other vulnerable groups. Human rights specialists, for their part, have cautioned that North Korea’s acceptance will doubtless not apply to prisoners in the political prison camps, whose existence the government denies,[lxxxii] and that a “Potemkin village”-type prison could be erected. However, the DPRK’s acceptance of the recommendation does offer an entry point for donors, UN agencies, and NGOs to request access to long-term re-education through labor camps and short-term detention facilities.

North Korea should realize that it is in its own interest to allow humanitarian groups to treat prisoners with tuberculosis and other diseases, because this could benefit the wider community.[lxxxiii] Gaining entry to and vaccinating prisoners against Covid-19 would also yield benefits for the broader population. In 2020, an NGO informed a U.S. Institute of Peace audience that the North Korean government had negotiated an MOU with an unnamed NGO to allow it access to prisoners with health problems.[lxxxiv] The MOU had been negotiated prior to the U.S.-DPRK summit in Singapore, according to the NGO representative, but the DPRK pulled back when diplomatic tensions increased again.

Surely it is time for donors, international agencies, and NGOs to develop a joint strategy that prioritizes the goal of reaching the most acute cases of hunger and disease in North Korea, which are found in its prison camps and detention facilities. Not only would this reinforce international humanitarian standards – e.g., reaching the most vulnerable and providing aid without discrimination, but a joint initiative would also help protect individual agencies from government retaliation. The UN COI, moreover, has warned that subjecting detainees to food denial on a systematic and widespread basis could constitute a crime against humanity, for which North Korea could be held accountable in an international criminal tribunal.[lxxxv] Aid agencies, particularly those whose operations are visibly close to detention facilities, may be seen as complicit if they knowingly turn their heads away.

Precedents exist in other countries for bringing assistance to prisoners, spearheaded by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO). These precedents should be studied and built upon, with the goal of applying them to the DPRK.

The UN’s Strategic Framework for the DPRK (2017–21), which governs the operations of UN agencies in the country, could be helpful. It affirms that the UN has a role in providing support to the DPRK in meeting its human rights commitments under the UPR. It therefore puts the UN in a position to offer its support to the North Korean government to help implement its acceptance of humanitarian entry to prisons, as noted above. The Strategic Framework also provides that the UN may offer support to North Korea in technical cooperation and training in international standards. With support from headquarters and donors, the UN Resident Coordinator in North Korea could feasibly bring onto the international humanitarian agenda the plight of incarcerated North Koreans who are badly in need of food and medical care.

An episode in the ICRC’s history may be instructive. In 1989, the widely acclaimed organization decided to look back some fifty years to understand why it had provided so little help to those incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. What its evaluators found was that ICRC staff and officials at the time feared that such advocacy could jeopardize their assistance to other groups, in particular POWs for whom they had a specific responsibility, and possibly undermine their relationship with the government. Overall, they had failed to grasp the extraordinariness of the situation. Today, the ICRC views this oversight as “the worst defeat” in its history.[lxxxvi]

The international humanitarian and development community owes it to long-suffering prisoners in North Korea and also to the integrity of their own missions to bring closer the human rights and humanitarian goals that lie at the foundation of their work.


[i] FAO Crop Prospects and Food Situation, July 2021, p. 5, at http://www.fao.org/3/cb5603en/cb5603en.pdf.
[ii] UN General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General: Situation of human rights in the DPRK,” A/76/242, 28 July 2021, para. 16.
[iii] UN Commission of Inquiry, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, para. 681 [hereafter UN COI report].
[iv] Thomas Schaefer, From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un: How the Hardliners Prevailed (2021), p. 68.
[v] Mun Dong-Hui, “Violators of North Korea’s quarantine protocols sent to ‘total control zones,’” NK News, August 12, 2021; and “North Korea to Impose Hard Labor Sentences for Covid-19 Gathering Violations,” Radio Free Asia, August 11, 2021.
[vi] UN COI report, para. 1041.
[vii] UN COI report, paras. 1068, 1170, 1171.
[viii] U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, fifty testimonies taken in 2019–20 [unpublished, hereafter HRNK 2020].
[ix] David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag (Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012) [hereafter Hawk, Hidden Gulag].
[x] David Hawk, The Parallel Gulag (Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017) [hereafter Hawk, Parallel Gulag, 2017].
[xi] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Violations against Women Detained in the DPRK, July 2020, at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26127&LangID=E [hereafter OHCHR 2020].
[xii] Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), 2017 White Paper on North Korean Human Rights [hereafter NKDB 2017], p. 353.
[xiii] The Ministry of Social Security was formerly known as the Ministry of People's Security. See Jeongmin Kim, "North Korea likely renames Ministry of People's Security," NK News, June 3, 2020, at https://www.nknews.org/2020/06/north-korea-likely-renames-ministry-of-peoples-security/?t=1591178315505. See also "평양종합병원건설장으로 달려오는 마음," Ryugyong, June 2, 2020, at https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1591084868-679913493/%ED%8F%89%EC%96%91%EC%A2%85%ED%95%A9%EB%B3%91%EC%9B%90%EA%B1%B4%EC%84%A4%EC%9E%A5%EC%9C%BC%EB%A1%9C-%EB%8B%AC%EB%A0%A4%EC%98%A4%EB%8A%94-%EB%A7%88%EC%9D%8C/.
[xiv] Human Rights Watch, A Matter of Survival (2006), Appendix, p. 35; and UN COI report, paras. 539 and 804 (and note 1200).
[xv] Hawk, Hidden Gulag, p. 141.
[xvi] HRNK, 2020.
[xvii] HRNK, 2020.
[xviii] HRNK, 2020.
[xix] HRNK, 2020.
[xx] HRNK, 2020.
[xxi] NKDB 2017, p. 353.
[xxii] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VI.
[xxiii] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VI.
[xxiv] HRNK, 2020.
[xxv] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VI.
[xxvi] NKDB 2017, p. 357. 
[xxvii] OHCHR 2020, para. 39.
[xxviii] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VI.
[xxix] HRNK, 2020.
[xxx] HRNK, 2020.
[xxxi] HRNK, 2020.
[xxxii] HRNK, 2020.
[xxxiii] HRNK, 2020.
[xxxiv] OHCHR 2020.
[xxxv] Hawk, Hidden Gulag, p. 124.
[xxxvi] Hawk, Parallel Gulag, pp. 12–13.
[xxxvii] NKDB 2017, pp. 346–8.
[xxxviii] OHCHR 2020.
[xxxix] HRNK, 2020.
[xl] HRNK, 2020.
[xli] HRNK, 2020.
[xlii] HRNK, 2020.
[xliii] OHCHR 2020, para. 85.
[xliv] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VI.
[xlv] HRNK, 2020.
[xlvi] HRNK, 2020.
[xlvii] HRNK, 2020.
[xlviii] HRNK, 2020.
[xlix] HRNK, 2020.
[l] Hawk, Hidden Gulag, p. 135.
[li] HRNK, 2020.
[lii] OHCHR 2020, Annex 2, VII.
[liii] UN Commission of Inquiry, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/63, 7 February 2014, para. 58.
[liv] Hawk, Hidden Gulag, p. 138.
[lv] HRNK, 2020.
[lvi] HRNK, 2020.
[lvii] HRNK, 2020.
[lviii] HRNK, 2020.
[lix] NKDB 2017, pp. 356–7.
[lx] HRNK, 2020.
[lxi] HRNK, 2020.
[lxii] NKDB 2017, p. 354. 
[lxiii] HRNK, 2020; and Hawk, Hidden Gulag.
[lxiv] OHCHR 2020.
[lxv] OHCHR 2020.
[lxvi] OHCHR 2020.
[lxvii] HRNK, 2020.
[lxviii] Hawk, Hidden Gulag, p. 127.
[lxix] HRNK, 2020.
[lxx] HRNK, 2020.
[lxxi] HRNK, 2020.
[lxxii] HRNK, 2020.
[lxxiii] UN COI report, para. 822.
[lxxiv] OHCHR 2020, para. 40.
[lxxv] UN COI report, para. 822.
[lxxvi] HRNK, 2020.
[lxxvii] NKDB 2017, p. 353.
[lxxviii] HRNK, 2020.
[lxxix] See UN General Assembly Resolution on Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/C.3/70/L.35, 30 October 2015, para. 4. 
[lxxx] See UN General Assembly Resolution on Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/C.3/73/L.40, 31 October 2018, paras. 2(vi), 5, 16 (m).
[lxxxi] UN Human Rights Council, Recommendation 126.58, Report of the Working Group on the UPR: DPRK, A/HRC/42/10, 25 June 2019.
[lxxxii] David Hawk, Human Rights in the DPRK: The Role of the United Nations (Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2021), p. 93. 
[lxxxiii] World Health Organization, at http://www.who.int/tb/challenges/prisons/en/; and http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-determinants/prisons-and- health/who-health-in-prisons-programme-hipp; and see Daniel Wertz, “A Chance for Progress in North Korean Human Rights,” The Diplomat, November 11, 2014.
[lxxxiv] Daniel Jasper, “Lost Generation: Health and Human Rights of North Korea’s Children,” Panel, U.S. Institute of Peace, January 31, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqTbbSg3re4.
[lxxxv] UN COI report, paras. 1068, 1170, 1171.
[lxxxvi] Edward Cody, “Study says Red Cross did too little to help Jews in WWII,” Washington Post, February 17, 1989, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1989/02/17/study-says-red-cross-did-too-little-to-help-jews-in-wwii/85c70ae0-2bd5-421f-95c9-f7a57ac5f5a5/.

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