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Considering that there is probably no organized horror in the world today that matches this, it’s striking how little is written about it [1].


Sadly, in today’s world, the term ‘horror’ could be applied to any number of humanitarian crises going on across the globe. Natural disasters, inter-state wars and civil conflicts continue to claim the lives of thousands whilst homelands are decimated and whole populations are left destitute and hopeless. The above quotation, however, refers to a very different situation. In the country referred to, the people are not the victims of an indiscriminate natural disaster or civilians caught up in conflict; this horror is organized, systematic and deliberate, and it is going on right now, in North Korea.


As Wolfowitz rightly observes, although awareness of the situation is gradually increasing, remarkably little has been written about North Korean human rights abuses up to this point. In order to discover the reasons behind this eerie silence, the various inter-related aspects of the North Korea issue must first be considered. The nuclear issue continues to dominate media coverage. Humanitarian problems also continue to plague the country, and are closely related with human rights issues (see below). Finally, within the area of North Korean human rights several key issues arise: prison and labour camps, child soldiers, human trafficking and sexual exploitation to name but a few. NGOs and religious groups continue to fight to raise awareness of these issues, both at the inter-state and UN level and at the level of the general public, whilst simultaneously contributing in a variety of ways to the welfare of North Koreans both inside and outside of the country. This essay aims to consider in some detail the concerns central to North Korean human rights and the work of rights groups, and endeavours to expose some of the reasons for the long and weighty silence surrounding this modern-day horror.



North Korean Human Rights

North Korean human rights can be divided into those concerning citizens living inside the DPRK and those living outside its heavily-guarded borders. Inside, North Korean citizens live with oppression and fear every moment of their lives, from birth until death. As always, children are one of the groups most vulnerable to the affects of humanitarian crises. In the 1990s, millions of people starved to death or died from food poisoning whilst trying to subsist on wild plants during a nationwide famine. Since that time unstable weather conditions and poor management of resources have been blamed for widespread starvation and malnutrition.

Yet these are not the only reasons for the suffering of the population. During the worst years of the crisis food aid poured in from South Korea, the US, and other concerned donor countries. Despite the vast amounts of rice still being sent into the country, a member of the Unification, Foreign Affairs, and Trade Committee in South Korea recently reported that eight out of ten defectors who reached the South claimed they never received South Korean food aid whilst living in North Korea [2] . Defectors who have previously been involved with the armed forces in the North claim that much of the food aid donated is siphoned off to the military and elite party members [3]. As a result, some observers in donor countries have argued for the cessation of food aid, claiming that donations only serve to support an oppressive military regime. The crucial issue here, however, is monitoring. Only if aid can be monitored closely and effectively by donor agencies at every stage of delivery can donors be sure that food and supplies are reaching the most vulnerable, including and especially babies and children.

Young students are also at risk. Middle and high school students are used as unpaid farm labourers by their schools as part of nationwide labour mobilization campaigns. To even attain the privilege of attending school, students must provide annual fees in the form of bracken, scrap metal or rabbit skins [4]. The securing of these materials takes up all of students’ free time outside school. If a child fails to attend school, her/his parents face punishment in a labour camp.

After leaving school, all males between 18 and 24 must complete ten years of military service. During this time, they are subject to some of the harshest conditions in, ‘the second ultimate human rights vacuum [in North Korean] [5]. Those attempting to leave the army are severely punished, yet those who remain face inadequate food rations and hard labour.

However, without doubt the most appalling human rights concern inside North Korea today is the existence of vast prison camps containing an estimated 2 000 000 prisoners. The conditions in these camps are almost unbearable. Though the North has long since denied the existence of such camps, human rights groups have diligently collected information from the tens of thousands of refugees pouring out of the country. The testimonies are simply too detailed and too plentiful to ignore [6].

Those who somehow manage to survive a term in a prison camp are kept under close surveillance. They and their families are considered ‘hostile’ and ‘anti-revolutionary’ for years to come. Former prisoners face restrictions in terms of employment, marriage and movement. As a result, many living near the Chinese border choose to defect rather than remain living under such conditions. Defection itself is a serious crime which always results in a lengthy prison sentence, and sometimes torture and death. The process of defection is in some cases no less perilous: the River Tumen which divides the two countries is guarded on both sides by fully armed soldiers. The vast majority of refugees cross with the help of a broker, who promises a good job and a safe return to their country if they so wish. The reality, however, is often painfully different.

The vast majority of female refugees are victims of human trafficking. These women, and children, are either sold as ‘brides’ to Chinese farmers in Northern China or are forced to work in the sex industry, usually in ‘song rooms’ or video chat rooms. In both cases rape and sexual violence quickly become a part of every day life. Brides may be discarded and resold a number of times, each time losing ‘value’ as they get older and their health deteriorates. Unwanted pregnancies are particularly risky for those forced into marriage if they are repatriated to the North. If a North Korean woman is found to be pregnant with a Chinese man’s child, she is often forced to undergo a painful and dangerous abortion; if the pregnancy reaches full term, the child is murdered before her eyes.

Fear of repatriation haunts refugees every moment they remain in China. Despite international and constitutional laws forbidding forced repatriation of refugees, China continues to send hundreds of refugees back across the border every year. Consequently it is impossible for a North Korean refugee to feel safe in China. For those who have the means, China is just a stepping stone on the long journey to safety in South Korea, Europe or the US. Around 17 000 refugees are currently living in South Korea, most with their own story of hardship, misery and loss [7].


Conclusion: Human Rights Groups, the Need for Awareness, and the Future

The issue of North Korean human rights has not been totally ignored, however. NGOs, religious groups and international humanitarian agencies are working diligently and in the face of enormous obstacles to bring the issue to the attention of the international community and to better the lives of those suffering under the regime.

At the inter-state level, certain human rights groups are actively lobbying governments and the UN. In the last year or so these groups have begun to make use of the UN’s new Universal Periodic Review, under which the human rights situations for all states will be periodically reviewed every four years. Other groups choose to focus on the humanitarian aspect, and continue to send vital aid into the North, though as mentioned before, this is in itself a controversial move. Still other groups operate at the grassroots level, working with refugees in China or sending messages through radio and personal contacts into North Korea revealing the truth about their situation. By far the most dangerous work is going on inside China, where an intricate network of missionaries and activists referred to as the Underground Railroad risk their safety to help refugees escape from their homeland. If caught by the Chinese authorities they risk a fine, deportation or even imprisonment. Many of these individuals are genuine, peace-loving people risking everything for the sake of freedom and safety; sadly, however, there do exist a few who exploit refugees’ vulnerability for their own gain, either for money or sex. The accounts of refugees testify to the fact that even pastors have been guilty of sexual bargaining and manipulation of refugee women. This despicable practice may in time deter vulnerable women from seeking help, leaving them trapped in abusive situations.

The reasons behind the silence on North Korea are complex and various. Firstly, it is clear that the nuclear concern has long since overshadowed human rights and humanitarian concerns. The North Korean state has played a significant part in this: the nuclear issue is the county’s best bargain chip, and it consistently uses the threat of nuclear action to silence others on the subject of rights. The North has also been careful to construct an image of itself beyond its borders which distracts from and contradicts the truth. It has ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and regularly boasts of achievements in literacy and gender equality.

However, few if any outside the state can really believe North Korea’s soviet-style propaganda. Instead I would like to propose another reason for the silence on the part of the international community, and particularly the Asian human rights community. Given the complexity of the issue, the various elements involved, and the reclusive nature of the regime, it seems to be a hopeless case. In Burma there is at least some hope of reform arising from the people themselves. In recent years an increasing number of Burmese activists have spoken at human rights conferences. Vietnam will soon be forced to engage further with human rights at the international level because of its role in ASEAN. In India the rights of Dalits are being defended by countless NGOs both inside and outside the country. In all these cases we can see the potential for change; the will of the people is clear. In contrast, it seems that North Korea lies behind an impenetrable wall, standing alone and untouchable. The international community must realize that this wall is in fact a mirage: in reality, no state can stand alone. It is our responsibility to use every method of engagement, be it economic, cultural or diplomatic, to pressure the regime to respect the rights of its people. If not, I believe that in ten, twenty or fifty years time, history will regard this as one of the most horrific crimes against humanity since the holocaust, and the world will have no answer for the 2 000 000 political prisoners suffering in North Korea today.



Bak Myung Ho (2008) ‘A Viewpoint and Questions from the Experience on International Assistance to North Korea’ [Paper] In North Korea New Approaches, NKHR, London: NKHR. 

Kang, Chol-hwan (2009) Chosun Ilbo: N.Korea’s Concentration Camps Are a Burning Issue. Available from:, [Accessed 25 September 2009]

Min, Namgung (2009) The Daily NK: 8 out of 10 Defectors Never Got Aid Rice. Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2009]

Moon, Sung Hwee (2006) The daily NK: Student Exploitation Never Ends in North Korea. Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2009]

Wolfowitz, Paul. (2009) American Enterprise Institute [blog]. Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2009]

Kang, Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot (2000) The Aquariums of Pyongyang. France: The Perseus Press.


Fotnote References

[1]  Wolfowitz, Paul. (2009) American Enterprise Institute [blog]. Available from:

[2]  Min, Namgung (2009). The Daily NK: 8 out of 10 Defectors Never Got Aid Rice. Available from:

[3]  Bak Myung Ho (2008) ‘A Viewpoint and Questions from the Experience on International Assistance to North Korea’ [Paper] p. 22, 25

[4]  Moon, Sung Hwee (2006) The daily NK: Student Exploitation Never Ends in North Korea. Available from:

[5]  Bak Myung Ho (2008) ‘A Viewpoint and Questions from the Experience on International Assistance to North Korea’ [Paper] p. 24

[6]  In the interests of safety, it is impossible to provide many details here, but some accounts of prison camp conditions may be found in The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, and torture reports published by the NKHR, the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

[7]  Kang, Chol-hwan (2009) Chosun Ilbo: N.Korea’s Concentration Camps Are a Burning Issue. Available from: