Amnesty International Report 2004 - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of)

Covering events from January - December 2003

Systemic food shortages continued; more than 40 per cent of children were reported to suffer from chronic malnutrition. Concerns about the nuclear capability of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) continued to prevail in the international arena. The North Korean government continued to deny its people fundamental human rights, including freedom of movement and expression. Hundreds of people fled to China, and those forcibly returned were at risk of detention, prolonged interrogation and imprisonment in poor conditions. Independent human rights monitors were not allowed access to the country.


In April, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed its first ever resolution on North Korea. The Commission expressed "its deep concern about reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights".

In November the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised a series of questions on measures to deal with the food shortage; to introduce positive discrimination for women; to ensure trade union rights, including the right to strike; and to end the practice of forced labour.

North Korea's nuclear capability continued to affect its relationship with neighbouring countries and the USA, although efforts to find a diplomatic solution gathered momentum towards the end of the year. In January the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a resolution demanding North Korea readmit UN inspectors, who had been expelled in December 2002, and abandon its secret nuclear weapons program. Missile tests were carried out in February, March and October. In February, the IAEA found North Korea in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and referred the matter to the UN Security Council. In April, the Security Council expressed concern about North Korea's nuclear program, but failed to condemn it for pulling out of the IAEA. The US-led consortium in charge of building nuclear power plants in North Korea, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), announced in November that it was suspending the project for one year; KEDO stated that North Korea had failed to meet the necessary conditions for continuing the project.

In April, China hosted talks in Beijing between the USA and North Korea, which ended a day early when the North Korean delegation reportedly admitted to the US delegation that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons. In August, North Korea attended six-nation talks in Beijing on its nuclear program. No concrete decisions were reportedly made, although delegates agreed to meet again. In November, North Korea stated that it was ready to abandon its nuclear program if the USA dropped its "hostile policy". The North Korean government agreed to consider US President George W. Bush's offer of a written security guarantee from the USA.

China continued to assist North Korea in addressing the widespread economic crisis. It reportedly provided a million tons of fuel and 150,000 to 200,000 tons of food. China reportedly stopped fuel supplies for a few days in early 2003 after North Korea pulled out of the IAEA and conducted missile tests.

South Korea was also a major food supplier to North Korea. Family reunions between North and South Korea continued.

Relations between Japan and North Korea continued to be tense. This was attributed in large part to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean government agents in the 1970s and 1980s and reports that a substantial part of North Korea's nuclear program was built using materials from Japan. Normalization talks planned in 2002 did not take place and North Korea called for the withdrawal of Japan from the six nation talks in Beijing.

Freedom from hunger and malnutrition

According to a special report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme (WFP) in October 2003, despite improved harvests, North Korea faced another substantial food deficit in 2004. The report stated that a combination of insufficient domestic production, the narrow and inadequate diet of much of the population and growing disparities in access to food as the purchasing power of many households declines meant that about 6.5 million vulnerable North Koreans out of a total population of 23 million were estimated to be dependent on international food aid. The situation remained particularly precarious for vulnerable sections of the population including young children, pregnant and nursing women and elderly people.

An economic policy adjustment process, initiated in July 2002, led to further decreases in the already inadequate purchasing power of many urban households. Rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS) – the primary source of food for over 60 per cent of the population living in urban areas – were reportedly set to decline from the already insufficient 319g per person per day in 2003 to 300g in 2004. Despite the very low level of PDS rations, industrial workers and elderly people were believed to spend more than half of their income on these rations alone.

On 19 November, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations issued a new appeal for more aid to North Korea and warned of a continuing "emergency" because of a lack of pledges from the international community. Officials of the 15-member Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal sought US$221 million for food, health, water and education. Relief agencies said that while they sought US$225 million for aid in 2003, they received pledges for only 57 per cent of that amount. Some countries appeared to have cut off aid to North Korea after a worsening of relations over the country's nuclear weapons program.

In October, the WFP announced that it would have to cut food rations to 680,000 people beginning in November because of funding shortfalls. The North Korean authorities continued to deny access to humanitarian organizations to nearly 15 per cent of the country. Reports that food aid was being diverted to the black market and the military could not be investigated as the authorities prevented independent monitoring of the final delivery of food aid.

Denial of access

Access to North Korea remained severely restricted. The denial of access to independent human rights observers, including AI representatives, and to other independent observers, including UN Special Rapporteurs and thematic experts, severely hampered investigation of the human rights situation.

Among the concerns expressed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were lack of impartiality and independence of the judiciary, women's rights and lack of domestic legislation to combat discrimination and domestic violence. It also expressed concern about the repression faced by people who had fled the country when they returned, and the particularly severe effect of the famine on certain sectors of society. The Committee made a series of recommendations to the North Korean government. These included the adoption of legislation to give full effect to the principle of non-discrimination against women and of specific measures to promote their rights; the ending of penalties against people for travelling abroad; a review of legislation to ensure trade union rights, including the right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike; and a guarantee that the more vulnerable sectors of society would be given equal access to international food aid and priority in relation to food programs.

Freedom of expression and movement

Political opposition of any kind was not tolerated. Any person who expressed an opinion contrary to the position of the ruling Korean Workers' Party reportedly faced severe punishment, as did their family in many cases. The domestic news media continued to be severely censored and access to international media broadcasts was restricted. Religious freedom, although guaranteed by the Constitution, was in practice sharply curtailed. There were reports of severe repression – including imprisonment, torture and execution – of people involved in public and private religious activities. Many Christians were reportedly being held in labour camps, where they faced torture and were denied food because of their religious beliefs. There were reports of severe restrictions on internal travel. North Koreans faced punishment if they left their country without permission, even if they had gone in pursuit of food.

Returned asylum-seekers from China

Hundreds of North Koreans continued to cross the border into China. In October, the South Korean consulate in Beijing was reportedly occupied by some 300 North Koreans seeking asylum. Many were allowed to leave China for South Korea via a third country.

Thousands of North Koreans were reportedly apprehended in China and forcibly returned to North Korea. A number of sources reported that on their return they often faced prolonged detention, interrogation and torture. Some were reportedly sent to prison or labour camps, where conditions were cruel, inhuman or degrading.


Reports of public executions continued to be received. Executions were by firing squad or hanging. In April, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on North Korea expressing concern at public executions and imposition of the death penalty for political reasons. Reports suggested a decline in the trend of public executions, although it was feared that extrajudicial executions and secret executions may have taken place in detention facilities.

Violence against women

There were reports indicating that women detainees were subjected to degrading prison conditions. For example North Korean women detained after being forcibly returned from China were reportedly compelled to remove all clothes and subjected to intimate body searches. Women stated that during pre-trial detention the male guards humiliated them and touched their sexual organs and breasts. Women who attempted to speak up about these conditions were reportedly beaten. All women, including those who were pregnant or elderly, were forced to work from early morning to late at night in fields or prison factories. Prisons lacked basic facilities for women's needs. There were unconfirmed reports that pregnant women were forced to undergo abortions after being forcibly returned from China.

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