North Koreans awaiting criminal trial routinely endure beatings and starvation in overcrowded, unsanitary cells with no access to legal representation, according to a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In interviews with HRW, eight former North Korean officials and 22 former detainees who fled the country since leader Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011 describe systematic torture, dangerous jail conditions, and unpaid forced labor in a system where guilt is presumed before the trial begins.
“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections.”
In Worth Less Than an Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea, Lim Ok Kyung, one of the former detainees, described extremely harsh conditions when she was arrested in 2014 for having appliances smuggled from China in her house.
Because she was very well-connected through her marriage to a mid-level member of the Korean Workers’ Party, she got off with a relatively light 10 days – but even then the physical abuse increased daily, she told HRW.
“The investigator didn’t hit me at the waiting cell. But they hit me during questioning… First, they said to write everything, everything from the moment of my birth until the present. I had to write my whole story for hours,” she said in the report.
“The next day the preliminary examination officer came in, said what I wrote was a lie, and asked me to write it again…. When things didn’t match, he slapped me in the face…. Beatings were hardest the first day,” said Lim.
Lim also described being beaten or kicked by guards passing her cell, and being forced to stand without sleep for five consecutive days.
“When a police guard I knew came in, they’d give me candy saying I was suffering, they’d let me sit and rest. But when the guards I didn’t know were in charge of watching me… they wouldn’t let me sleep,” she said.
Yoon Young Cheol was arrested in 2011 on suspicion of being a spy and was beaten severely upon arrival at the detention center, but he did not learn why he was arrested until the next day.
“They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fists, everywhere on my body,” said Yoon.
“The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first… I asked, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy,” he said.
Yoon said he was beaten constantly at the beginning, but towards the end of his month-long examination, they tapered off after he finally confessed. Six months later the secret police determined he was not a spy, but the police then investigated him further on smuggling charges and he was sentenced to five years hard labor.
The former government officials, meanwhile, told HRW that mistreatment and humiliation are “a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system.”
“The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes,” said Adams.
A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights said that North Korea’s criminal justice system and its related systematic human rights violations amounted to crimes against humanity.
“These crimes include murder, extermination, imprisonment, enslavement, persecution, as well as enforced disappearances of and sexual violence perpetrated against North Koreans in prison and in detention after forced repatriation,” the COI said.
HRW recommended that South Korea, the U.S., Japan, the EU and other countries continue to put pressure both publicly and privately on Pyongyang to initiate reforms to the penal system, support future efforts to document the situation in North Korea, and help North Korea bring its criminal justice system up to international standards.
The report noted a lack of accurate data coming out of North Korea regarding pretrial detention, and said that with most of the country off-limits to foreigners, there is no opportunity for accurate human rights research.
The U.S. State Dept. in 2016 estimated that the country’s total prison population was between 80,000 and 120,000.