New Report Documents Rights Abuses in North Korea’s Pre-Trial Detention Facilities

North Koreans awaiting criminal trial routinely endure beatings and starvation in overcrowded, unsanitary cells with no access to legal representation, according to a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. In interviews with HRW, eight former North Korean officials and 22 former detainees who fled the country since leader Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011 describe systematic torture, dangerous jail conditions, and unpaid forced labor in a system where guilt is presumed before the trial begins. “North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “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.” In Worth Less Than an Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea, Lim Ok Kyung, one of the former detainees, described extremely harsh conditions when she was arrested in 2014 for having appliances smuggled from China in her house. Because she was very well-connected through her marriage to a mid-level member of the Korean Workers’ Party, she got off with a relatively light 10 days – but even then the physical abuse increased daily, she told HRW. “The investigator didn’t hit me at the waiting cell. But they hit me during questioning… First, they said to write everything, everything from the moment of my birth until the present. I had to write my whole story for hours,” she said in the report. “The next day the preliminary examination officer came in, said what I wrote was a lie, and asked me to write it again.... When things didn’t match, he slapped me in the face.... Beatings were hardest the first day,” said Lim. Lim also described being beaten or kicked by guards passing her cell, and being forced to stand without sleep for five consecutive days. “When a police guard I knew came in, they’d give me candy saying I was suffering, they’d let me sit and rest. But when the guards I didn’t know were in charge of watching me… they wouldn’t let me sleep,” she said. Yoon Young Cheol was arrested in 2011 on suspicion of being a spy and was beaten severely upon arrival at the detention center, but he did not learn why he was arrested until the next day. “They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fists, everywhere on my body,” said Yoon. “The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first… I asked, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy,” he said. Yoon said he was beaten constantly at the beginning, but towards the end of his month-long examination, they tapered off after he finally confessed. Six months later the secret police determined he was not a spy, but the police then investigated him further on smuggling charges and he was sentenced to five years hard labor. The former government officials, meanwhile, told HRW that mistreatment and humiliation are “a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system.” “The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes,” said Adams. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights said that North Korea’s criminal justice system and its related systematic human rights violations amounted to crimes against humanity. “These crimes include murder, extermination, imprisonment, enslavement, persecution, as well as enforced disappearances of and sexual violence perpetrated against North Koreans in prison and in detention after forced repatriation,” the COI said. HRW recommended that South Korea, the U.S., Japan, the EU and other countries continue to put pressure both publicly and privately on Pyongyang to initiate reforms to the penal system, support future efforts to document the situation in North Korea, and help North Korea bring its criminal justice system up to international standards. The report noted a lack of accurate data coming out of North Korea regarding pretrial detention, and said that with most of the country off-limits to foreigners, there is no opportunity for accurate human rights research. The U.S. State Dept. in 2016 estimated that the country’s total prison population was between 80,000 and 120,000.

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US Military Chief in Korea Confirms North Korean Kill Zone on China Border

North Korea has set up a shoot-to-kill zone along its border with China to prevent citizens from crossing into China and bringing the coronavirus back with them should they return, the senior U.S. commander on the Korean peninsula said this week. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the United States Forces Korea, told an online forum hosted by a Washington think tank Thursday that North Korea had taken drastic measures on its border to stop the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading among its malnourished population and decrepit healthcare system. “North Korean smugglers have been trying to get across, and as a result, the regime issued out instructions. So now they’ve got an additional buffer zone, 1-2 kilometers up on the Chinese border,” he said. “They’ve got North Korean SOF [special operations forces] out there manning these things, strike forces, they’ve got shoot to kill orders in place, and this is fundamentally about preventing COVID from getting into North Korea,” Abrams told the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies on-line panel. The severe border control policies described by Abrams, who commands the 28,500 troops based in South Korea under a longstanding defense treaty, are nearly identical to accounts shared with RFA’s Korea Service last month in a series of reports from North Korean sources along their country’s 1,420-km (880-mile) border with China. On Aug. 26, RFA quoted sources in the North Korean military as saying that North Korea’s top brass had that day ordered military and police units to shoot on sight anyone found within 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) of the Chinese frontier in the four border provinces of North Hamgyong, North Pyongan, Chagang and Ryanggang. A build-up of forces to fight the pandemic was also revealed in earlier RFA reports quoting sources in Ryanggang province that 1,500 Special Forces soldiers and border guards had been deployed in four layers along the Sino-Korean border to prevent illegal crossings during the pandemic and prevent smuggling by guards. North Korea and China suspended all trade and closed their border at the beginning of the pandemic in January. But the frontier had remained porous, because North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on the smuggling of goods into and out of China. Smugglers skirt U.S. and UN sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs. “With COVID-19, that has accelerated the effect of sanctions on North Korea,” said Abrams, who called the harsh border controls by Pyongyang “understandable” in view of their threadbare safety net for the population of 25.5 million people. “They have a poor health system, 60 percent of their population is undernourished, they don’t have the medical capacity, and a very large outbreak could be devastating. So they are taking those matters into their hand,” the general said. Abrams said that North Korea was not showing any signs of lashing out at South Korea or Japan, or launching other provocations, prior to the November 3 U.S. presidential election. He said North Korea “is focused on getting their country back together,” referring to extensive damage caused by Typhoons Maysak and Haishen, which hammered North Korea’s eastern provinces one right after the other over the past week. Abrams said the country’s current difficulties pale in comparison to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions of North Koreans -- as much as 10 percent of its population by some estimates. North Korea has still not reported a single confirmed case of the coronavirus. Though the country maintains outwardly that it is virus-free, the government has announced in public lectures to citizens that the virus was in April spreading in three areas of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.

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