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North Korea 2016/2017

Citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) continued to suffer violations of most aspects of their human rights. North Koreans and foreign nationals were arbitrarily detained and sentenced after unfair trials for criminal “offences” that were not internationally recognized. Severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression continued. Thousands of North Koreans were sent by the authorities to work abroad, often under harsh conditions. The number of North Koreans fleeing their country and arriving in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) increased.

Background

The government tested nuclear weapons twice, once in January and again in September, increasing tension between North Korea and the international community. The UN increased its economic sanctions on North Korea as a result, leading to fears from inside the country and from foreign experts of heightened food shortages and a further deterioration in living standards. Experts considered the possible economic impact to be a motivation for more people leaving the country, but the risk of political purges in the form of imprisonment and reported executions among the ruling elite was seen as a key contributing factor.

The Korean Workers’ Party held its congress in May for the first time in 36 years. Journalists from international media were invited to the country for the occasion, but operated under strict restrictions and were not allowed to cover congress meetings.

Severe floods in August killed at least 138 people and displaced 69,000 others, according to the World Food Programme. The government asked for humanitarian assistance including food, shelter, water and sanitation but international response was minimal due to concerns expressed by potential donors about the country’s nuclear programme.

Freedom of movement

A total of 1,414 people left North Korea and arrived in South Korea. The figure increased by 11% from 2015, and rose for the first time since 2011 when Kim Jong-un came to power.

Along with reports of ordinary North Koreans leaving, media in South Korea and Japan reported several high profile government officials deserting their posts and seeking asylum. The South Korean government confirmed in August the arrival of Thae Young-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK and his family.

Thirteen restaurant workers, sent by the government to work in Ningbo, China, flew directly from China to South Korea in April (see Korea (Republic of) entry). On their arrival in South Korea, the North Korean authorities claimed that the 12 women in the group were abducted from China and taken to South Korea. According to a media interview with their former colleagues arranged in Pyongyang by the North Korean government, the workers had their passports taken away from them while in China, which would have restricted their ability to travel freely.1

Interviews with North Koreans who left the country as well as media reports said that the government had increased its surveillance efforts to prevent people from leaving via the Chinese-Korean border. Those who successfully left continued to be at risk of detention, imprisonment, forced labour, and torture and other ill-treatment if arrested and returned from China.

Migrant workers’ rights

The government continued to dispatch through state-owned enterprises at least 50,000 people to work in some 40 countries including Angola, China, Kuwait, Qatar and Russia in various sectors including medicine, construction, forestry and catering. Workers did not receive wages directly from employers, but through the North Korean government after significant deductions. Most workers were deprived of information about international or domestic labour laws, and often lacked access in the host countries to any government agencies and other organizations monitoring compliance with or offering assistance in claiming labour rights.

These workers were frequently subjected to excessive working hours and were vulnerable to occupational accidents and diseases. Poland announced in June that it was no longer allowing workers from North Korea to enter the country following media reports of a fatal shipyard accident involving a North Korean worker in 2014. Malta made a similar announcement in July, and denied visa extensions to existing North Korean workers.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

The authorities sentenced people, including foreign nationals, to long prison terms after unfair trials. Frederick Otto Warmbier, a US student, was convicted of “subversion”; he only admitted stealing a propaganda banner. He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in March; he was not given consular access for at least six months. Kim Dong-chul, a 62-year-old US citizen born in South Korea, was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in April for “spying”; the authorities failed to provide details about the alleged spying activities. The sentences were imposed as new UN sanctions on North Korea were authorized earlier in the year, and before the Korean Workers’ Party Congress in May when there was increased international attention on North Korea.2 Up to 120,000 people remained in detention in the four known political prison camps, where they were subjected to systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations such as forced labour, and torture and other ill-treatment − some amounting to crimes against humanity. Many of those held in these camps had not been convicted of any internationally recognized criminal offence but were detained for “guilt-by-association”, simply for being related to individuals deemed threatening to the state.

Freedom of expression

The authorities continued to impose severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information regardless of national borders. The government persisted in restricting access to outside sources of information; there were no national independent newspapers, media or civil society organizations.

The professional activities of the very few international journalists allowed into the country remained severely restricted. BBC journalists visiting North Korea ahead of the Korean Workers' Party Congress in May were briefly detained incommunicado, interrogated and expelled from the country because the government found the stories they produced highlighting aspects of everyday life in Pyongyang to be ‘disrespectful’. Agence France-Presse became one of the very few foreign media companies to operate in North Korea when it opened a Pyongyang office in September.

Almost everyone was denied internet and international mobile phone services. North Koreans who lived close to the Chinese border took significant risks in using smuggled mobile phones connected to Chinese networks in order to make contact with individuals abroad. People who did not own such phones had to pay exorbitant fees to brokers in order to make international calls. The use of smuggled mobile phones to connect to Chinese mobile networks exposed everyone involved to increased surveillance, as well as the risk of arrest and detention on various charges, including espionage.3

The existing computer network remained available to a very limited number of people, providing access to domestic websites and email services only. In September, the misconfiguration of a server in North Korea revealed to the world that the network contained only 28 websites, all controlled by official bodies or state-owned enterprises.

Enforced disappearances

In February, the authorities stopped all investigations into abductions of Japanese citizens, reversing the 2014 bilateral agreement to investigate cases. Media reports said that the decision followed Japan’s reinstating previously eased sanctions after North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests in January. North Korea had previously admitted that its security agents abducted 12 Japanese nationals during the 1970s and 1980s.

  1. South Korea: End secrecy surrounding North Korean restaurant workers (ASA 25/4413/2016)
  2. North Korea: U.S. citizen hard labour sentence shrouded in secrecy (News story, 29 April)
  3. Connection denied: Restrictions on mobile phones and outside information in North Korea (ASA 24/3373/2016)

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