The long hard slog to shine a light on North Korean human rights

What’s been did and what’s been hid: A look back at human rights accountability in DPRK
February 17th, 2014

Today, February 17, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, set up last March by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC; not to be confused with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose acronym is very similar) held a live-streamed press conference in Geneva to mark the publication of its final report, in which Judge Michael Kirby warned that Kim Jong Un could be held personally accountable for crimes against humanity.

That’s how global democracy works, when it does. Technology makes a huge difference too. Imagine – or if you’re as old as I am, remember – if all this had happened just 20 years ago. If you were lucky and didn’t miss it, a brief snippet of the press conference might possibly have been shown on TV; no live-streaming back then. But you’d have had to send away for a paper copy of the report, wait for it to come in the post, and probably pay for the privilege.

I’ve yet to see the new report, but it’s been widely leaked in advance to the media. The Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo tells us that it has 21 pages plus a 321 page appendix. Several accounts predicted that based on the harrowing testimonies contained in this report, the UN would formally accuse North Korea of crimes against humanity: something it has never done hitherto. The DPRK – which of course didn’t let the COI into the country – will angrily deny everything as per. But the ordure will hit the cooling apparatus big-time, to what effect remains to be seen.


How did we finally get – better late than never – to this point?

That the Kim regime is a gross violator of human rights is now pretty well known, in general terms. That wasn’t always the case. In 1974 the British writer Edward Hyams, no apologist, bracketed North Korea together with Yugoslavia as “relaxed versions of communism” in his book The Millennium Postponed. It would be difficult to think of any adjective less appropriate to the DPRK than “relaxed”.

Even those who knew better were frustrated by how little they knew in detail. Kim Jong Il’s supposed instruction to cadres that the DPRK’s reality must be kept shrouded in fog to the outside world was for many decades very successful, especially under his father Kim Il Sung.

This applied especially to human rights. We knew Kim the First brutally purged his enemies. And no Stalinist system functions without a gulag. But chapter and verse was sorely lacking. That caused problems for an NGO like Amnesty International (AI). Up until the late 1980s AI had not one but two Korean dictatorships to agitate about. Trouble was, the information available was utterly lopsided, reflecting the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

In South Korea under the military dictators Park Chung-hee (1961-79) and Chun Doo-hwan (1979-87), information about abuses did leak out despite the efforts of the dreaded KCIA. To exaggerate only a little, in the South Amnesty et al. could, given time, find out exactly which dissident had which toenails pulled out by which torturer in which jail on which day. It took grit, but the evidence could be gathered and it had a major impact. (Like you’re a country boy turned comfortable tax lawyer, yacht club membership and all, when suddenly you’re asked to defend an innocent student who’s been tortured – and your life changes for ever. That’s how it was for Roh Moo-hyun, who went on to become ROK President; as told in the lightly fictionalised recent filmThe Attorney which has been a smash box office hit in South Korea.)


It bothered Amnesty that while it could readily dish the dirt on South Korea, meanwhile the far worse North was getting a free pass due to lack of hard information. That began to change in 1979, when AI was at last able to publish a first-hand account of the DPRK’s gulag. Ali Lameda, a Venezuelan poet, was a communist who in 1966, out of a sense of solidarity, had gone to Pyongyang to help polish Spanish translations of the Great Leader’s leaden tomes.

Unwisely telling his hosts how inept their propaganda was, at an especially paranoid point in North Korean politics, he was condemned as a spy and spent six years in solitary. Released on the intercession of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu – who thus did one good deed in his life – he was luckier than his older French comrade Jacques Sedillot, a Spanish civil war veteran, who died from his ill-treatment while still inside North Korea. To his credit, the controversial British journalist John Sweeney devotes a whole chapter in his new book on North Korea to Ali Lameda, under the arresting title (from one of Lameda’s poems) “Cruel Christs of Pus.”


After Lameda’s brief memoir, another decade would pass before we got the first full book on this subject. Early in 1989 – a great year for tyrannies laid low – I was sent a book whose arrival made my heart leap, even while its content was every bit as tragic as one had feared. But at last we had the real lowdown. Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a solid 300-page report by two U.S. NGOs, the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee and Asia Watch. The authors deserve a shout-out: Richard Kagan, Matthew Oh and David Weissbrodt. Never as widely known as it should be, this study set a benchmark for all subsequent work. Soberly presented and carefully researched – including tapping Koreans in Japan who had relatives in North Korea, a valuable source whom no one had thought to ask before – this provided a wealth of information which still stands up today.

Besides covering the obvious topics – freedom of speech, religion, jail, camps, torture etc – this gave one of the first accounts of the regime’s caste system (songbun; not to be confused with songun, the military-first policy). Every citizen is put into one of three main classes – loyal, wavering, hostile – subdivided into no fewer than 51 categories. This predetermines all aspects of life: residence, job, education, the lot. A further merit of this study is that as well as focusing on individual rights, it also examined the social services of which North Korea boasts, or used to: social security, work, food, clothing, housing, health, education, and so on. These too, it found, were deficient or highly uneven. Inequality in North Korea is not new.


It would be nice to say that this study opened the floodgates. In fact it took a further decade and the coming of the Internet before research on North Korean human rights really took off – in English, anyway. Naturally there was always much more in South Korea. Since 1996 the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU), Seoul’s top government think-tank on the North, has published annual White Papers on human rights in North Korea. While obviously one can’t ignore the political context, these solid reports – the latest, for 2013 runs to 549 pages – show a commendable lack of bias: they are works of scholarship, not propaganda. But hey, don’t take my word for it. They’re all online, so read them and judge for yourself.

And so to this century. That’s where today’s leading producer of knowledge in this field – the Washington, DC-based NGO Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) – starts its own useful but incomplete chronology, just issued on February 16 – Kim Jong Il’s birthday: nice one, guys – as a backgrounder to the release of the UN report.

Specifically they begin with Kang Chol-hwan’sAquariums of Pyongyang, published in 2000 and the first shot (except Lameda, but he was a foreigner) in what has since become another established and invaluable if grim category: the gulag memoir. There are now half a dozen of these, each illuminating its own little corner of hell. Best known and bleakest of all is Escape from Camp 14: the gulag-born Shin Dong-hyuk’s harrowing tale, told to Blaine Harden. Shin was among the 80 witnesses who testified to the COI when it took evidence from survivors.


Founded in 2001, HRNK has since published some 18 reports (including updates). Pride of place goes to David Hawk’s comprehensive The Hidden Gulag (2003; 2nd edition 2012), a remorseless catalogue which in its own words exposes North Korea’s “vast system of lawless imprisonment” by giving us “the lives and voices of ‘those who are sent to the mountains’”. Hawk benefits, if that is the word, from his wide prior experience in scrupulously seeking the hard facts on the ground in several other recent horror stories, from Rwanda to Cambodia.

A more recent HRNK speciality is analyses of satellite photograps of specific prison camps: one more startling way that modern communication technologies have penetrated the Kim regime’s fog. Another pioneer here was Joshua Stanton, whose website One Free Korea posted photographs of the heinous Camp 22 – later tracked by HRNK – as early as 2007.

HRNK can be forgiven for blowing its own trumpet. But I’m sure they wouldn’t wish to deny the role of other laborers in the same grim vineyard, who go unmentioned in their chronology.

In fact the past decade saw a spate of reports on North Korean human rights: some general in scope, others more specialised. For instance in 2005 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom published “Thank You Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts Of Severe Violations Of Freedom Of Thought, Conscience, And Religion In North Korea.” Two years later Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was perhaps the first to suggest that the DPRK should be investigated not just for abuses but for crimes against humanity. In the same year Freedom House published Concentrations of Inhumanity, another meaty study by David Hawk.

You’d expect Human Rights Watch (HRW) to weigh in; their several reports on North Korea focus mainly on refugee issues in China, most recently (if not very: 2008) problems of children of North Korean women there. Human rights abuses across the DPRK-China border – specifically sexual exploitation and trafficking of North Korean women in China – was also a concern of the venerable NGO Anti-Slavery International (ASI) in a 2005 report. In 2007 the same author, Norma Kang Muico, wrote another study for ASI, this time on the topic of forced labor in DPRK prison camps. Amnesty International, as well as regularly monitoring North Korea as it does all countries in its annual reports, in 2010 branched out a bit with a report into what it called “the crumbling state of health care in North Korea.”

One could go on. Pressure groups more focused on activism than analysis include Liberty in North Korea (LINK) and Suzanne Scholte’s Defense Forum Foundation in the U.S., while in Europe the wide-ranging Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) has recently been joined by the more focused European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK).

Sticking with those who generate knowledge as well as promote change, a final category is NGOs in South Korea. Too many to list, they all deserve kudos for insistently raising North Korean human rights issues in the one place where you might expect a strong outpouring of anger and sympathy, but where the reality is a puzzling and lamentable indifference by most South Koreans towards the sufferings of their Northern brethren. So let me just mention the  Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR, not to be confused with HRNK), which combines advocacy with solid and pioneering research.

In 2009 they published“Child is King of the Country”: a powerful 500-page exposé of just how false that glib DPRK boast really is, timed so as to challenge DPRK representatives directly at the 50th session of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in Geneva that year. NKHR raised and amply illustrated a multitude of concerns: health and nutrition, discrimination by background (Songun, discussed above), illiteracy and high drop-out rates from school, forced labor – for teachers, and to produce illicit drugs – child soldiers, torture and more. A summary is here.

Finally, you may be surprised – or then again, maybe not – to learn that a few people reckon most or all of the above is rubbish, overstated, or offensive to postcolonial sensibilities. Since this is already a long enough article, may I refer the reader to a typically crisp summary by Stephan Haggard at Witness to Transformation, the insightful blog on North Korea which he writes with Marcus Noland. Suffice it to say that for the same reasons Haggard gives I’m not impressed by the first tranche of a two-part special issue of the journal Critical Asian Studies, called “Reframing North Korean Human Rights”. (NB This is free to read till end-February). And I await Part Two with interest. But hey: great timing!

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About the Author

Aidan Foster-Carter

Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.

Join the discussion

  • Greg Scarlatoiu

    Mr. Aidan Foster-Carter provides a comprehensive account of the history of human rights violations in North Korea as well as the individuals and organizations dedicated to improving the situation in that country. HRNK is grateful for the attention Mr. Foster-Carter pays to our work, and for his appreciation of the activities of HRNK.

    I feel compelled to provide a clarification: We are in no need of forgiveness for “blowing our trumpet.” Mr. Foster-Carter misreads the purpose of our timeline, otherwise clearly stated in the title. The intention of the recent HRNK posting and Prezi video entitled “A Timeline of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea and HRNK’s Role” is precisely that stated in the title: to provide our friends and
    followers (we consider ourselves lucky to count Mr. Foster-Carter among them) with a brief outline of key developments pertaining to the COI (established in March 2013), focusing on HRNK and some critical post-Rome Statute landmarks.

    To imply that HRNK’s intention was to diminish the importance of the critical role played by our friends and colleagues at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights without Frontiers, LiNK, The Defense Forum Foundation, or dedicated activists and experts such as Suzanne Scholte,Joshua Stanton, Ben Rogers, Hannah Song, Sokheel Park and many others, is just plain wrong. HRNK plays its part in a concert of voices that have the
    same ultimate goal in mind: bringing decency, prosperity, freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights to the people of North Korea. To acknowledge the contributions of all of these extraordinary individuals and organizations, we would need to produce volumes, and not a 3-minute
    Prezi video.

    Greg Scarlatoiu

    Executive Director
    Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

  • someone132

    OK, so the light is now shining: where do you go from there? Continue to pointlessly wait for collapse that never comes and unlikely to make things better for those outside camps? Trot out the statements of the commission every time there’s a new drill or someone questions US Foreign Policy and do nothing else? Add more meaningless sanctions to a country that already relies on China for most of its trade? Given the today’s response from mainstream media (including Guardian article “In North Korea you’re brainwashed when you begin to talk” and McCain’s statement that DPRK must be “punished”) this seems to be exactly where we are headed.

    I continue to read the NKNews because you generally offer insight, substance AND some vision as to where this leads or could go, like the excellent article on wind power in DPRK (many thanks for that one!) . Here, however, there’s simple restatement of what happened that leaves us in the dark about the future of this development.

    Personally, I wonder what would happen if, just for once, someone had tried the supposed carrot-and-stick mechanism with the prison camps: i.e. offering a set amount of aid only if a set number of prisoners would be released from the country for external resettlement. Right now, I don’t think there is any other realistic method of actually making things better for those people.

  • Aidan Foster-Carter

    Sincere apologies to my friend Greg Scarlatoiu. I wrote in haste. The fact that HRNK’s timeline began with Kang’s book – which as far as I know has no direct connection to either HRNK or the COI – led me to think that a wider chronology was intended. Again, my apologies. I am of course a huge admirer of HRNK’s invaluable work. Aidan FC

  • Greg Scarlatoiu

    Aidan, apology accepted. Thank you for your interest in HRNK’s work and mission. Best wishes, Greg S