Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November 2014, 13:54 GMT

Independent UN experts urge human rights inquiry into ‘gulags' in Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Publisher UN News Service
Publication Date 28 February 2013
Cite as UN News Service, Independent UN experts urge human rights inquiry into ‘gulags' in Democratic People's Republic of Korea, 28 February 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/513094532.html [accessed 21 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

A group of United Nations independent human rights experts today urged an international inquiry into human rights abuses in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), where hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families are believed to suffer in the country's extensive political prison camp system.

"I call on the UN Member States to set up an inquiry into grave, systematic and widespread violations of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and to recommend ways to ensure accountability for possible crimes against humanity," the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman, said in a news release.

He and the other experts stressed that reports coming from the DPRK are "extremely serious and disturbing" and that the time has come to shine a light of truth on these allegations by appointing a robust independent international inquiry.

In December 2012, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, met with two survivors of the country's political prison camps – which are believed to be in operation since the 1950s and contain at least 150,000 people – urging the international community to launch an inquiry.

In today's press release, the experts noted that prisoners do not have access to healthcare and very limited food rations resulting in near starvation. Prisoners are allegedly commonly forced to work seven days a week in laborious industries like mining and farming, and sometimes in dangerous conditions.

"Many prisoners have been declared guilty of political crimes such as expressing anti­socialist sentiments, having unsound ideology, or criticizing the Government," said El-Hadji Malick Sow, who currently chairs the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. "But all it takes to be sent to the camps is reading a foreign newspaper."

According to the experts, up to three generations of family members of detainees are sent to the camps on the basis of guilt by association, or yeonjwa je.

Female prisoners are reportedly subjected to rape or sexual exploitation by prison guards in return for food or less dangerous work assignments, and resultant pregnancies are met with forced abortion or killing, said the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez. He added that torture is common for breaking the camp rules such as not meeting production quotas.

"Escape attempts are allegedly punished by executions, mostly by firing squad or by hanging, which prisoners are frequently made to watch at close range," said the Special Rapporteur on summary, arbitrary and extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns.

In October 2012, the group sent a joint allegation letter to the DPRK Government expressing concern and seeking answers to the apparent use of six labour camps for political prisoners, also known as kwan-li-so, referred to by some as gulags.

The group today urged the Government to cooperate fully with the international human rights mechanisms, as they continue to wait for a response from the Government.

A detailed report on the human rights situation in the country is expected to be presented on 11 March to the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently meeting in Geneva.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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