April 17, 2024

HRNK Advisory Opinion to His Excellency Tomoya Obokata

Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, regarding contemporary forms of slavery affecting currently and formerly incarcerated people

April 12, 2024

Over ten years ago, in February 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) reported that the DPRK was responsible for crimes against humanity. The gravity, scale, and nature of the DPRK’s violations of human rights reveal a state that has no parallel in the contemporary world. The DPRK’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations are thoroughly documented, including its imposition of arbitrary detention, arbitrary death penalties, political prison camps, slave labor, the absolute monopoly of information released to the public, and total control of all organized social life under the hierarchical system of songbun. Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, the scale and scope of these violations have continued to worsen and intensify.

Contemporary forms of slavery in North Korean detention facilities represent a grave and systematic violation of human rights. In these facilities, detainees, including political prisoners, are subjected to forced labor.


Please provide the details of labor programme(s) implemented in your country for incarcerated individuals, including:

Types of work performed.

Detainees work in mining, under dangerous conditions. Detainees are forced to work in agriculture involving strenuous labor, regardless of the detainee's physical condition or age. Detainees work in logging, typically in harsh weather conditions without adequate clothing or safety equipment. Detainees work in textile production, producing goods that may enter international markets despite sanctions.[i]

Detention facilities often assign harsh conditions to detainees without considering their age, gender, or health condition, leading to injuries, illnesses, and deaths.[ii] Political detainees may be subjected to even harsher treatment. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are held in a network of camps. Many of them are subjected to forced labor.[iii]

Further evidence on forced labor from escapee testimonies can be found in the HRNK and No Chain report “An Investigation into the Human Rights Situation in North Korea’s Political Prison Camps: Testimonies of Detainee Families”.[iv]

c) Working environment/conditions, including wages and any deduction for incarceration costs, working hours, and provisions for health & safety.

The working environment in North Korean detention facilities is harsh and dangerous, lacking basic health and safety measures.[v]

Detainees are often unpaid for their labor, with nominal wages often deducted to cover incarceration costs.[vi] Detainees work for 10-12 hours per day, seven days a week, with minimal rest.[vii] This, combined with insufficient nutrition and rest, negatively impacts their physical and mental health.[viii] Health and safety provisions are non-existent, and injuries or illnesses often go untreated, leading to numerous deaths.[ix]

Is there evidence of labour practices which may amount to exploitation? If so, please provide details.

Some of the abuses include excessive working hours. Another type of abuse includes no or extremely low pay. In addition, detainees work in an unhealthy or dangerous working environment. Conditions in North Korean detention facilities are unsanitary and hazardous. Detainees work in dangerous environments, leading to injuries and health complications. Furthermore, they face discriminatory treatments where certain groups of individuals, such as political prisoners and all those deemed to be disloyal to the regime, are subjected to even harsher treatment and forced labor practices. Finally, there is a lack of access to medical facilities.[x]

Is there evidence of sexual exploitation among incarcerated individuals? If so, please provide details.

Many camp orders are conducted in secret.[xi] Despite stringent information control, escapee testimonies, reports by human rights organizations, and investigations conducted by international bodies have provided insight into the grim reality faced by inmates, which involves modern forms of slavery, including sexual exploitation (sometimes referred to as sexual slavery).[xii]

Sexual exploitation and abuse in North Korean detention facilities, particularly targeting female prisoners, is widespread. Escapees report rape, forced abortion, and sexual assault, often used as torture and control methods.[xiii] Male guards and officials abuse their power, targeting political prisoners, women suspected of having illegally crossed the border, and those detained for petty crimes.[xiv]

Are victims of labor and sexual exploitation able to seek justice and remedies? Please provide details, including legislative frameworks and complaint mechanisms.

On paper, DPRK laws prohibit forced labor. The DPRK Constitution includes articles on the dignity and rights of citizens, and the country is a signatory to several international human rights treaties. However, in practice, the government does not uphold these laws, especially within detention facilities. The legal system is opaque and subordinated to the dictates of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

There is virtually no avenue for victims to seek justice or remedies within the DPRK. The judicial system lacks independence, and there is no mechanism for detainees to file complaints or challenge abuses.[xv]

Victims of labor and sexual exploitation in North Korean detention facilities are caught in a grim situation with no available mechanisms for seeking justice or remedies. The international community continues to struggle with effective strategies to address these human rights abuses, given the geopolitical complexities and the DPRK's self-imposed isolation.

What are the main challenges in eliminating labour and sexual exploitation among incarcerated individuals, and what recommendations would you make to address them effectively?

Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding the country's penal system, escapee testimonies and satellite imagery have provided the international community with glimpses into the dire conditions faced by incarcerated individuals. The DPRK executes a deliberate policy of human rights denial.

The international community should increase pressure through targeted sanctions and hold the government accountable. Supporting North Korean escapees and running advocacy campaigns can help mitigate abusive government control and encourage reform. Educating North Koreans about their rights and the outside world can also help create and enhance awareness of international human rights standards.

Does your government provide tailored support to formerly incarcerated individuals which effectively meets their needs? Please provide details particularly in relation to access to temporary/long term accommodation, education/training, decent work, finance and pension, and other essential services.

The United States provides assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers including North Koreans, to rebuild their lives.[xvi] However, the effectiveness of this support can vary based on resources, individual circumstances, and local community capacity. Challenges including cultural adjustment and language barriers can also impact resettlement experiences.

What is the role of other stakeholders, including educational institutions, jobs/training centres, housing providers, businesses/employers’ organisations, financial institutions, trade unions and civil society organisations, in providing support to formally incarcerated individuals? Does your government actively coordinate or cooperate with them?

Individuals who escape from the DPRK, including former detainees, face challenges ranging from psychological trauma to the need for basic necessities and integration into a new society.

Educational institutions, job centers, housing providers, businesses, financial institutions, trade unions, and CSOs are all crucial. Educational programs, language training, vocational training, housing solutions, inclusive workplace environments, financial literacy programs, and legal assistance are essential in ensuring the rights and fair treatment of North Korean escapees.

CSOs including HRNK[xvii] and various other stakeholders often provide direct support and advocacy work to help individuals and raise awareness about human rights abuses in the DPRK.

What are ongoing challenges in promoting successful economic and social reintegration to formally incarcerated individuals in your country, which may include discrimination (including intersecting forms based on age, gender identity/sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, indigenous, migration, socio-economic and other status), corruption, lack of opportunities and support?

After escaping from the country, former North Korean detainees face challenges including lack of opportunity and inadequate support systems as well as age and socio-economic status discrimination.

What recommendations would you make to overcome the existing obstacles and prevent formally incarcerated individuals from being subjected to labour and sexual exploitation?

The situation of detainees in North Korean detention facilities remains deeply concerning, drawing attention from international human rights organizations and governments worldwide. The available reports indicate severe conditions, including forced labor, torture, inadequate food, and medical neglect, leading to high mortality rates.[xviii]

To address these issues and protect both current and former detainees from exploitation, we respectfully put forth the following recommendations:

  1. International Pressure and Sanctions: Continue and intensify international pressure on the North Korean government to adhere to international human rights standards, using targeted sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses.
  2. Engagement and Dialogue: Encourage diplomatic dialogue that includes human rights as a core component, alongside denuclearization and security concerns. Leverage diplomatic channels to press for the closure of camps and the release of political prisoners.
  3. Support for Escapees: Enhance support for North Korean escapees who can provide firsthand accounts of the conditions within detention facilities. Support should include protection, rehabilitation services, and platforms to share their experiences on the global stage.
  4. Use of Technology: Increase the use of satellite imagery analysis and other means to monitor detention centers and gather evidence of human rights abuses.
  5. Humanitarian Aid: Ensure that humanitarian aid, when possible, is conditioned on improvements in human rights, prioritizes vulnerable groups including people in detention, and is not diverted by the regime. Aid should be designed to minimize the risk of bolstering the capacities of the regime to continue its repressive practices. Access and transparency are of the essence.
  6. Awareness and Advocacy: Support international and regional human rights organizations in their efforts to raise awareness about the conditions in North Korean detention facilities. Promote campaigns that advocate for the rights of current and former detainees.
  7. Legal Mechanisms: Explore legal avenues to hold North Korean leaders accountable for crimes against humanity, including labor and sexual exploitation, through international courts, tribunals, or other accountability mechanisms.

The challenges in addressing the human rights abuses in North Korean detention facilities are significant, particularly given the closed and authoritarian nature of the regime. However, sustained international focus, combined with a strategic mix of pressure and engagement, can create conditions for change and provide some level of protection for those who have suffered in these facilities.

Thank you very much for your kind consideration.


[i] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Greg Scarlatoiu and Raymond Ha, “North Korea’s Political Prison Camp, Kwan-li-so No. 25, Update 4” and European Parliament, Parliamentary Question, “Forced Labor in North Korea,” April 2, Parliamentary question | Forced labour in North Korea | E-004134/2014 | European Parliament (europa.eu).

[ii] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) & the International Bar Association (IBA), “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers,” March 2022, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Report%20Findings%20Inquiry%20on%20Crimes%20Against%20Humanity.pd.f and European Parliament, Parliamentary Question, “Forced Labor in North Korea”.

[iii] Amnesty International, “Images Reveal the Scale of North Korea Political Prison Camps,” May 2011, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2011/05/images-reveal-scale-north-korean-political-prison-camps/.

[iv] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and No Chain, “An Investigation into the Human Rights Situation in North Korea’s Political Prison Camps: Testimonies of Detainee Families,” 2018, https://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php?page=3.

[v] U.S. Department of State, “2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: North Korea”.

[vi] HRNK & IBA, “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.”

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]  HRNK & IBA, “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.”

[ix] Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2024: North Korea, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/north-korea.

[x] HRNK & IBA, “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.”

[xi] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and No Chain, “An Investigation into the Human Rights Situation in North Korea’s Political Prison Camps: Testimonies of Detainee Families”.

[xii] HRNK & IBA, “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.”f and Anti-Slavery International, “Forced Labor in North Korean Prison Camps,” December 2007, https://www.antislavery.org/reports/forced-labour-in-north-korean-prison-camps/.

[xiii] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and No Chain, “An Investigation into the Human Rights Situation in North Korea’s Political Prison Camps: Testimonies of Detainee Families”.

[xiv] HRNK & IBA, “Report: Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers.”

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] The Bush Institute, “U.S.-Based North Korean Refugees,” https://gwbcenter.imgix.net/Resources/gwb_north_korea_executive_summary_r4.pdf.

[xvii] See HRNK’s policy recommendations to the U.S. government: https://www.hrnk.org/publications/policy-recommendations.php.

[xviii] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and No Chain, “An Investigation into the Human Rights Situation in North Korea’s Political Prison Camps: Testimonies of Detainee Families”.