Crimes against humanity continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by state authorities.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, is one of the most authoritarian and repressive countries in the world, severely restricting universal human rights in a widespread manner. In a landmark report issued in February 2014, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the DPRK established responsibility at the highest level of government for ongoing crimes against humanity.
The CoI’s report detailed harrowing abuses committed by the DPRK government, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other forms of sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. Gross human rights violations in the DPRK involving detention, executions and disappearances are characterized by a high degree of centralized coordination between different parts of the extensive security and detention system, which includes labor camps, political prisons and other detention centers. The CoI reported that the government targets those considered to be “politically suspect,” including non-nationals who are labeled as “hostile.” Persons accused of political crimes have been subject to abduction, enforced disappearance and execution without trial.
In January 2023 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found that serious human rights violations and possible international crimes, including abductions and enforced disappearances, overseas forced labor and sexual and gender-based violence, continue to occur. Several reports by the UN Secretary-General have also documented pervasive torture and forced labor among the country’s large detainee population.
For decades the DPRK government has attempted to insulate itself from international engagement and scrutiny. The DPRK government has refused to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms and offices, including the OHCHR office in Seoul – which was established in 2015 – and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. Moreover, under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, in 2020 the DPRK government further entrenched its policy of isolation by closing international borders and enforcing repressive and unnecessary restrictions on basic freedoms. These prolonged measures have severely restricted access to food, medicine, healthcare and livelihoods. According to the World Food Programme, nearly 12 million people are undernourished.
Prior to 2014, the UN Security Council (UNSC) engaged with the DPRK almost exclusively in the context of nuclear non-proliferation and had never directly addressed ongoing human rights abuses. In response to the CoI’s findings, in December 2014 the human rights situation in the DPRK was added as a separate UNSC agenda item. Meetings were held annually from 2014-2017. On 17 August 2023 the UNSC convened its first open briefing on the human rights situation in the DPRK since 2017, which was preceded by a closed Arria-Formula meeting on the human rights situation in the country on 17 March 2023.
On 26 August the DPRK government announced the partial reopening of its borders. Reports surfaced in October that Chinese authorities forcibly returned more than 500 people to the DPRK. Despite being party to conventions that prohibit refoulement, China considers border-crossers to be illegal “economic migrants” and does not allow them to seek asylum or resettlement and deports them under a 1986 bilateral treaty with the DPRK. On 17 October a group of UN experts released a statement calling on China to respect the principle of non-refoulement.
The UN Special Rapporteur, Elizabeth Salmón, released a report on 12 October, which highlighted continued gross violations of human rights, particularly the rights of women and children, and stressed that the DPRK’s extreme militarization has come at the expense of human rights and fundamental freedoms while further entrenching isolation. On 19 December the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 78/218, which expresses deep concern at the grave human rights situation in the DPRK, the pervasive culture of impunity and the continued lack of accountability for human rights violations and abuses. The resolution also condemned the DPRK for continuing to divert resources to illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs over the welfare of its people.
Satellite imagery collected in October revealed that Russia has purportedly begun shipping munitions from the DPRK, in direct violation of several UNSC resolutions that prohibit DPRK from exporting or importing arms.
Despite international engagements focused on denuclearization and other security issues, the human rights and humanitarian situation in the DPRK has largely been neglected. The repression of civil society and independent media, as well as the absence of free elections or political space for open debate, is intended to perpetually silence criticism of the authorities and diminish opportunities for the review and reform of the DPRK’s human rights practices.
The country’s human rights record is intimately linked to its weapons development program, which benefits from forced labor, contributes to widespread poverty and hunger through unequal resource distribution and enhances the government’s capacity to repress dissent without fear of international response or intervention. The alleged increase in weapons distribution with Russia heightens the risk of atrocity crimes in the DPRK and conflict zones around the world, including in Ukraine.
Forced repatriation of refugees and asylum seekers by neighboring states has left these populations at grave risk of internment, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearance or execution.
The DPRK authorities must allow for the return of international humanitarian organizations and guarantee rapid and unhindered access to vulnerable populations. Neighboring states have a responsibility under international law to provide safe passage out of the DPRK for civilians at risk of human rights violations and must strictly adhere to the principle of non-refoulement.
The international community’s legitimate pursuit of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula should not overshadow the need to uphold the universal human rights of all Koreans. Any negotiations on rapprochement with the DPRK should aim to address ongoing human rights abuses, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity. The DPRK government should fully cooperate with OHCHR and allow entry to Special Rapporteur Salmón.
At the 55th session of the HRC, UN member states should renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and request the High Commissioner prepare a detailed follow-up assessment to the 2014 CoI report to be presented to the HRC within a period of two years. The UNSC must remain seized of the human rights situation in the DPRK and hold regular open briefings on the issue. Council members should act on the recommendations made by the CoI and other relevant human rights mechanisms and offices, including by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court and imposing targeted sanctions against those responsible for or complicit in crimes against humanity, regardless of the position of the alleged perpetrator. UN member states should explore creative ways to maintain maximum international scrutiny and explore potential avenues for both judicial and non-judicial accountability mechanisms.