Group identifies 600 alleged North Korean rights abusers

The United Kingdom-based non-profit Korea Future has released a list of nearly 600 people associated with human rights abuses in North Korea’s penal system to flag them for eventual prosecution.

North Korea’s human rights abuses have been widely documented by rights groups, but its government headed by Kim Jong Un and the Workers’ Party of Korea has been difficult to prosecute from abroad.

“Uniquely for North Korea, we have identified nearly 600 individual perpetrators responsible for more than 5,000 violations of international law. Armed with this evidence, we call upon states and international justice actors to use our findings to challenge impunity in North Korea,” said Hae Ju Kang, co-director of Korea Future.

Korea Future says it hopes that by naming officials and supplementing their list with a new database of evidence, they can encourage governments and others to move forward with prosecution or other measures, including Magnitsky-style sanctions, which target individuals suspected of the systematic violation of human rights.

“As justice actors around the world document the international crimes being committed in Ukraine today, they seek to challenge impunity, hold perpetrators to account, and ultimately fight for the sacred human values and norms that cannot be taken for granted,” said Hyeonsim Lee, an investigator with Korea Future. “We seek to do the same for the crimes against humanity committed, both today and in yesteryears, and largely under the scene, in North Korea.”

North Korea’s government is already heavily sanctioned, including with Magnitsky sanctions from the US Treasury which it announced last December. The current list of those sanctioned under the law, named for a Russian whistleblower who died in detention, ranges from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to individuals linked to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and blocks them from travelling to the United States or accessing funds there.

Korea Future’s latest report details evidence of human rights violations committed against nearly 800 detainees across 148 facilities operated by the Ministry of People’s Security, the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Committee of North Korea.

The abuse violates a wide range of international agreements on the rights of prisoners as well as those protecting civil and political lights, it said.

A mock-up of the Onsong County MPS Detention Centre showing cell blocks and other facilities {Courtesy of Korea Future]

Individual accounts describe in detail how prisoners are often held in pre-trial detention for lengthy periods and lack access to adequate defence counsel – or sometimes any at all – before they are sentenced. In other cases, punishments like forced labour may be handed out at public criticism sessions that are overseen by government officials.

Prison terms may be served at a variety of facilities depending on the type of crime and length of sentence, ranging from re-education centres to “labour training” camps. Regardless of their location, prisoners regularly face human rights abuses like violence, torture, and forced labour while also lacking access to adequate food, water and hygiene products, leaving them vulnerable to disease.

Following prison time, some inmates may also be stripped of their citizenship or membership in the Worker’s Party, which is made up of North Korea’s elite and receives special benefits.

A major United Nations investigation in 2014 found that as many as 120,000 people were held as political prisoners in detention camps across the country.

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose testimony was included in the report and who wrote a book of his experience, told the UN he had been born in a political prison camp and had been subjected to numerous abuses, including being forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother.

Last month, the UN rapporteur on human rights in the country, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said he continued to receive allegations about such camps and that their existence constituted a “crime against humanity”.

But Korea Future stressed the regime does not confine abuse to its critics, but also individuals found guilty of lesser “administrative” crimes like practising religion, crossing the border into China, or even using a phone card.

“What we are seeing is not simply the detention and brutalisation of political enemies of the state. Rather, we see how arbitrary mass detention and penal violence are being wielded against all categories of detainee,” said Suyeon Yoo, another co-director of Korea Forward.

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