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Women forcibly returned to North Korea suffer appalling violations in detention – UN report

28 July 2020

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GENEVA / SEOUL (28 July 2020) – Women detained in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are subjected to multiple and serious human rights violations by State security and police officials according to a UN human rights report published on Tuesday.

The report is based on 100 first-hand accounts by North Korean women who were detained in the DPRK from 2009 to 2019 after being forcibly returned. These women, who eventually managed to escape the DPRK, gave detailed interviews to UN Human Rights staff.

Although traveling abroad is effectively prohibited in the DPRK, women embark on dangerous journeys looking for life-saving sources of income or a new life abroad. They often fall into the hands of human traffickers, ending up as cheap bonded labour or exploited sexually, and, at times, forced into marriage. Upon their return to the DPRK, these women are detained by the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of People’s Security. They are often sentenced to imprisonment by State officials without a trial, or after proceedings that do not meet international norms and standards for due process and a fair trial.

The report highlights that returnees, especially those who are labelled as “traitors”, including for attempting to reach the Republic of Korea (ROK) or contacting Christian groups, are systematically punished and subjected to a myriad of human rights violations.

“I was beaten with a club by a preliminary investigation officer and was kicked by the officer. The treatment was particularly harsh at the Ministry of State Security. If one is found to have gone to a South Korean church while staying in China, they are dead. I therefore tried hard not to reveal my life in China. I was beaten up as a result. I was beaten to a level that my rib was broken. I still feel the pain,” a witness said.

Women recounted how they are detained in inhumane, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with little or no access to daylight and fresh air. They are regularly subjected to torture and ill-treatment through beatings and personal or collective punishment by prison officials, including for failing to complete the hard manual labour assigned to them.

“I did not sleep and worked because I did not want to be beaten. It was excruciating to a level that I even attempted to commit suicide,” another woman said. 

Detainees are subjected to forced nudity and invasive body searches, which according to international law may constitute sexual violence and ill-treatment and, under certain circumstances, may amount to torture and rape. Some women reported sexual violence by guards or seeing other detainees subjected to sexual violence. 

According to several witnesses interviewed, in some cases prison officials sought to cause pregnant detainees to abort, beating them or making them do hard labour.

Women detainees faced other types of gender-specific human rights violations such as denial of access to facilities and materials required to meet women’s special hygiene needs, as well as being constantly watched by male guards.

All women reported being given insufficient food, leaving them malnourished and sometimes interrupting their menstrual cycles.

“During my time in prison about five to six people died. Most of them died due to malnutrition,” said a witness included in the report.

“It is heartbreaking to read these stories of women who fled their country looking to make ends meet, but who ended up being punished. These are women who have often been the victims of exploitation and trafficking who should be taken care of, not detained and subjected to further human rights violations,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “These women have a right to justice, truth and reparation.”

The report contains a set of recommendations for the DPRK Government to bring the detention system into line with international norms and standards, including meeting the needs of female detainees, based on the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules. The UN Human Rights Office stands ready to work and engage with the authorities in a meaningful and constructive way.

The report also calls on other States to respect the principle of non-refoulement by not repatriating people to the DPRK in which there are substantial grounds for believing that they would face a real risk of serious human rights violations and other irreparable harm, and to support any accountability process to investigate whether international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity, have been and continue to be committed in the country.

“These accounts show once again the systemic nature of human rights violations in the DPRK, and the need to keep seeking pathways to proper accountability for such crimes,” said the UN Human Rights Chief. “The UN Human Rights Office will continue to gather evidence of this kind to support a process of criminal accountability, whenever and wherever possible.”

To read the full report in English, click here

To read the full report in Korean, click here


For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]or Liz Throssell- + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected]or Jeremy Laurence - + 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected]

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