The North Korean state or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains an elusive state in world politics. Not much is known about the country, as it remains closed off to the rest of the world, being ruled by Kim Jong-un, whose predecessors have ruled North Korea for decades. Reports of happenings inside the country are rare, but reports indicate that the use of labour camps to re-educate dissidents and opponents of the regime have caused human rights violations. Due to the mysterious nature of the regime, it is hard to pinpoint how many violations have occurred. Most information is derived from eyewitness accounts from people who leave the country successfully. Those who do not escape successfully are sent back to such camps. In addition, the state machinery denies the existence of these camps. As one cannot travel abroad without official permission, this can prove to be dangerous.
Even more troubling is the accounts of abuse suffered by women in detention centers in North Korea, highlighted in a report by Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights. The report speaks of accounts by women in detention centers, mainly about rape, torture, lack of privacy, and deprivation of food, causing malnutrition. Such instances imply that North Korea has violated obligations placed on it by universal international law to protect its citizens from such physical and mental harm.
Aside from women, children in North Korea suffer from low levels of nutrition and often experience stunted growth. For their condition in camps, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what experiences they have had, since there are few eyewitness accounts, however, there are non-governmental organisations that are committed to bring this information out.
The report is intended to summarise and provide contextual information on the condition of women and children in North Korean Camps and the kind of human rights abuses suffered by the same.
Source: Image by Tomoyuki Mizuta from Pixabay
Women in North Korean Camps
In North Korea, there are several different camps, each designated for the severity of the crime, the most serious of which is a political or ideological crime. This includes deserters and those who have been caught trying to escape North Korea. The main reason that women are detained in camps is usually because they are trying to escape the country.
There is one major route of escape- through China. The border with China is porous, but there are risks. Those who are caught are often deported if they cannot get out of the country in time. Others, in particular women, are sold into sex work, often involuntarily or else they would face deportation. Most of those deported are transferred to political prison camps, where they may be re-educated or be jailed as workers.
In a TEDx Talk, Euna Lee specifies that her team of journalists was sentenced to 12 years to a North Korean prison, although their release was negotiated by the United States. She speaks of how the people differ from the ideology of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, this is one rare example of how one escaped the camp without much damage.
In the report by the Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights, one female worker at a North Korean labour camp reported that prisoners were often malnourished, and at least five to six people died during the time period that she was a prisoner there. In the case that labourers could not complete their daily tasks, they were often beaten and starved. Specific accounts of torture are also common, while those who died usually died because of malnutrition. In fact, malnutrition was so widespread, that it was common for inmates to catch rats and snakes to sustain themselves, as reported by a guard who defected from North Korea.
In a report by the Human Rights Watch, 54 interviewees revealed that women were sexually assaulted by government officials, guards, police, etc. The report was collected from interviewees from all over Asia. The report speaks of a woman named Park Young-hee, who was sent back to North Korea after getting caught trying to free the country. She reported that she was routinely assaulted by people in authority such as guards and interrogators.
Reports of rape include sexual favours and exploitation. One interviewee from the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner specifies that she was asked to provide sexual favours to be released earlier.
Sexual violence in general is normalized in North Korea. The topic is not discussed too much in families. In addition, the economic situation of the country means that many women are forced into black market sex work to earn more money. This often means they are involuntarily exposed to conditions where they may not be safe.
Torture and Assault of Women in North Korean Camps
Since North Korea denies the existence of such camps, it does not maintain records of potential crimes occurring at the behest of officials. Moreover, these incidents, as highlighted above, are greatly normalized. The report by the Human Rights Commission highlighted that punishments were often collectively distributed. These included physical and mental torture, rape, and denial of fresh air. These have all had a profound effect on the state of women in political prisons.
Specific accounts include those by unnamed women (to protect the families still present in North Korea), who speak of sitting positions which were extremely uncomfortable. These included sitting in a compressed space with the head bowed down. Only short periods of break (around 15 minutes) in between long hours to have food or to go to the toilet were provided. The slightest digression meant that they could be beaten with rods.
Other accounts include those of reducing the diet of prisoners (illegal under commonly accepted international legal standards) and using this as a collective punishment if an individual laborer did not meet the daily goal. A particularly disturbing instance of such abuse and torture is pregnant women being beaten up. There are also instances where new born babies were taken from their mothers and killed, raising the issue of rights of mothers and children in these camps.
Source: Flickr/Roman Harak
Condition of Children in North Korean Camps
North Korean prison camps and detention centers have schools for children. These are often children of those who have been convicted of a crime (usually political in nature or treasonous, or if they have been caught trying to escape the country). These schools do not offer proper education till high school, and after middle school, children are often sent to work in inhuman conditions.
Schools in North Korea are strict and are usually regulated through ideology, rather than proper classes. Punishments, like in prison camps, are collectively distributed, usually through a class chairperson.
In political camps, children too have to meet daily quotas of work, and receive similar punishments of beatings and torture in case they do not.
Information about such camps, similar to that of condition of women, is particularly hard to get due to the secrecy surrounding the camps.
Since the government denies the existence of such camps, it is hard to corroborate or even hold the regime accountable. Such instances are dependent on individual interviews, which are notoriously hard to get and often unreliable.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Food Shortage: Impact on Nutrition for Children
North Korea generally has an acute food shortage due to being economically closed off to the rest of the world and global economic processes. Barriers on trade imply that technology that makes farming easier (combined with geographical factors) are not available in North Korea. This combined with stunted growth and suboptimal levels of nutrition have contributed to health issues surrounding children in North Korea.
This makes the output of agricultural activities much less than what is required to sustain its population. It mainly depends on neighboring China to export food. Unfortunately, these supply chains were disrupted at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as production shut and healthcare systems were completely swamped with sick patients.
North Korea closed off its borders to protect itself from the virus, but it had the added effect of little food relief getting through. This implies that the food situation in North Korea is more dire than ever. A United Nations report highlighted that the children of the country (close to 100,000) were suffering from malnutrition. North Korean officials were quick to dismiss the report.
However, it is safe to assume that the condition of children in North Korea, which was already precarious, has only worsened.
Source: BBC News/Getty
This report primarily uses secondary information, and so it is not possible to verify individual accounts. However, it should be a recollection and summary of the troubling circumstances surrounding prisoner rights in North Korea and overarching women and children rights. Moreover, the international legal framework places certain obligations on North Korea to treat its citizens with respect, or it may be hit with more sanctions.
Overall, this report is intended to generate some awareness into the topic, since not much is known about North Korean camps in general. Perhaps the best way to get more information is to try and start an information campaign to ensure total accountability and access to inside the country.