Covering events from January - December 2004

The government continued to fail in its duty to uphold and protect the right to food, exacerbating the effects of the long-standing food crisis. Chronic malnutrition among children and urban populations, especially in the northern provinces, was widespread. Fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association and movement, continued to be denied. Access by independent monitors continued to be severely restricted. There were reports of widespread political imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment, and of executions.


Relations between North and South Korea cooled during the year. In July South Korean navy ships fired at a North Korean ship that had crossed the western sea border. Notwithstanding, in October, South Korea pledged to support a World Food Programme (WFP) emergency operation in North Korea aimed at 6.5 million vulnerable people, most of them children and women. In addition, South Korea promised 1.2 million tons of rice in the form of concessional loans to North Korea.

The third round of six-party talks (involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the USA) aimed at persuading North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons programme met in Beijing in June, but little progress was achieved. North Korea refused to attend a fourth round scheduled for September. North Korea warned in October that it would use "war deterrent force" if the USA brought the nuclear dispute before the UN Security Council.

In October, the US President signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which provided humanitarian assistance and for North Koreans to be granted asylum in the USA.

International scrutiny of human rights record

In April, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution expressing deep concern about continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights. A Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea was appointed in July.

In June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) expressed concern at the limitations on civil and political rights of North Koreans, including children. It also expressed concern that the minimum age for voluntary enlistment in the armed forces was 16 and that school children were taught to assemble and dismantle weapons. The CRC raised concerns about the independence and impartiality of the authorities taking sentencing decisions in the juvenile justice system.

Denial of access

Information and access continued to be highly controlled. A three-member delegation of the CRC was allowed unprecedented access in April. However, despite repeated requests, the government continued to deny access to the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food as well as to AI and other independent human rights monitors.

In October, the WFP announced that its staff in North Korea were not permitted free access to monitor aid distribution for "security reasons". This continued obstruction by the government and denial of access to monitors undermined accurate assessment of the population's need for food assistance.

Freedom of expression

Severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association persisted. The news media was controlled by a single political party, which journalists were coerced into joining. According to reports, at least 40 journalists since the mid-1990s have been "re-educated" for errors such as misspelling a senior official's name. Radio and television sets were tuned to receive only state broadcasts and those who listened to foreign radio stations risked being punished.

Freedom from hunger and malnutrition

Millions of North Koreans continued to suffer hunger and chronic malnutrition. Continued government restrictions on freedom of movement and information, lack of transparency and hampering of independent monitoring meant that food aid may not always have reached those most in need.

Rations from the Public Distribution System – the primary source of staple food for more than 70 per cent of the population – were reportedly set to decline from the already insufficient 319g per person per day in 2003 to 300g in 2004. Urban families reportedly spent up to 85 per cent of their incomes on food. Such households were heavily dependent on inflation-prone private markets, where staples cost 10 to 15 times more than in the government-run system.

Much of the population was afflicted by critical dietary deficiencies, consuming very little protein, fat or micro-nutrients. The CRC expressed concern about increasing infant and child mortality rates, high rates of malnourishment and stunting in children, and alarming increases in maternal mortality rates. It also expressed serious concern about lack of access to clean drinking water and poor sanitation.

The acute food shortages forced thousands to cross "illegally" to China's north-eastern provinces. Those repatriated faced detention, interrogation and imprisonment in poor conditions.

Torture and ill-treatment

North Koreans forcibly repatriated from China were detained and interrogated in detention centres or police stations operated by the National Security Agency or the People's Safety Agency.

  • Three North Korean nationals – Chang Gyung-chul, his brother Chang Gyung-soo and their cousin Chang Mi-hwa – were arrested by Chinese Security Police in Shanghai, China, in August 2003. They were taken to Sinuiju City, North Korea, for interrogation, then transferred to the National Security Agency detention centre in North Hamgyung Province.

In September 2004 Chang Gyung-chul and Chang Gyung-soo were each sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, apparently because of their unauthorized departure from North Korea. The unusually harsh sentence was attributed to the fact that their mother, Shin Jong-ai, who is now a South Korean citizen, was earlier imprisoned on similar charges.

Beatings were reportedly common during interrogation. If prisoners were caught communicating, they were beaten with wooden sticks or iron bars. After the beating, cold water was reportedly poured over the prisoners' bodies, even in the middle of winter. Some prisoners were reportedly subjected to "water torture", where they were tied up and forced to drink large quantities of water.

Conditions in detention centres and prisons (which were severely overcrowded) worsened, partly as a result of the lack of food. Food shortages also reportedly resulted in deaths from malnutrition in political penal labour colonies or "control and management places". Prisoners charged with breaking prison rules had their food cut even further.

In June, the CRC expressed concern at reports of institutional violence against juveniles, especially in detention and in social institutions.


Reports of public executions continued to be received, although fewer in number than in previous years. Executions were by firing squad or hanging. The UN Commission on Human Rights resolution on North Korea expressed concern at public executions and the imposition of the death penalty for political reasons. Reports also suggested that extrajudicial executions and secret executions took place in detention facilities.

Women in custody

Women detainees were reportedly subjected to degrading prison conditions. Women detained after being forcibly returned from China were reportedly compelled to remove all clothes and were subjected to intimate body searches. Women stated that, during pre-trial detention, the male guards humiliated them and touched them inappropriately. 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.

North Korean asylum-seekers in Asia

Hundreds of North Koreans tried to enter foreign diplomatic missions and foreign-run schools in Beijing. More than 100 were in diplomatic missions, waiting for permission to leave China. In October, the Chinese government claimed that the diplomatic missions involved were too tolerant.

In July, at least 468 North Koreans flew from Viet Nam to South Korea, becoming the biggest single group of North Korean asylum-seekers to arrive there since the division of the peninsula. More than 5,000 North Koreans had reached South Korea and been granted South Korean nationality.

In October, Mongolian authorities detained two North Koreans seeking to reach the USA. They were attempting to fly to South Korea from where they hoped to take advantage of the US North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

The CRC expressed concern at reports of North Korean street children in Chinese border towns. It was also deeply concerned at reports that children (and their families) returning or deported back to North Korea were considered not as victims, but as perpetrators of a crime.

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