North Korea’s pretrial detention system is rife with forced labour, sexual abuse and filthy prison conditions, according to testimony obtained by Human Rights Watch.
The new allegations of rights abuses returns to the fore questions about whether the US and South Korea can hold Kim Jong Un to account for crimes in his country while also convincing the 36-year-old dictator to abandon his nuclear weapons.
Eight officials and 22 former detainees in detention and interrogation facilities described “inhumane conditions and mistreatment” often amounting to torture, the New York-based NGO said.
“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,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, adding the system was “arbitrary, violent, cruel and degrading”.
The testimonies — given by people who experienced the pretrial system after Mr Kim took power in 2011 — highlight the squalor that detainees endured. “One former police officer said many guards did not care about women having their period and sometimes women bled through their trousers and had no other clothes to change into, and were not able to wash properly,” the report said.
Yoon Young Cheol, a detainee, said notwithstanding the crowded, insect-ridden cold conditions, “hunger” was the worst part of the suffering. “You are just treated like you are worth less than an animal, and that’s what you end up becoming.”
Former government officials said North Korea’s ruling Workers’ party sees detainees as inferior human beings, referring to them only by numbers and discouraging eye contact between detainees and guards.
The 82-page report published Monday also alleges widespread corruption amid a lack of funding. Ninety per cent of cases were dropped or sent for short-term hard labour after officials were bribed — 10 per cent move through to preliminary examination, criminal prosecution and trial. “The police also need to survive, and they need to get bribes to do so,” a former Worker’s party member said.
The report’s publication comes just a week after Kim Jong Un unveiled North Korea’s biggest intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang continues to develop nuclear weapons in the face of sanctions and diplomatic outreach from US President Donald Trump and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert with US think-tank the Center for a New American Security, said neither the US nor South Korea was focused on rights in their denuclearisation efforts, despite complaints from civil society groups.
“The political reality is that it’s unfortunately difficult to address human rights simultaneously during a diplomatic process aimed at denuclearisation . . . North Korea sees US criticism of its human rights situation as part of a so-called hostile policy to topple and change the regime,” she said.
Ms Kim noted that Mr Trump previously emphasised North Korean rights issues — including the death of Otto Warmbier and the plight of defectors but “human rights disappeared once summitry began. It’s clear Trump used human rights transactionally.”