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Report: N. Korea Holding Fewer Political Prisoners


FILE - Kim Jong-un

FILE - Kim Jong-un

The number of political prisoners in North Korea is significantly lower than previously thought, according to South Korea’s latest white paper on the Stalinist country’s human rights situation.

The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), South Korea’s state-run research institute, estimates the number of political prisoners in the North to be somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000.

That is a drastic drop from previous estimates of 150,000 to 200,000.

Based on in-depth interviews of some 240 North Korean defectors, the white paper noted that one of the six prison camps in the North, Camp 22 in North Hamgyeong Province, was shut down in May 2012.

In addition, Camp 18 in South Pyongan Province downsized from holding some 190,000 prisoners to around 4,000 after being relocated to North Pyongan Province.

The institute indicated, however, that the shrinking number of prison camps and prisoners is due to rise in the death toll from forced labor and rules that ban childbirth inside the camps, not because of shift in Pyongyang’s stance.

"The mere existence of prison camps continues to play a strong role in suppressing North Korean citizens from revolting politically," said Keum-soon Lee, head of the Center for North Korean Human Rights Studies, the research body of KINU.

Public executions increased

The white paper said public executions of those charged with drug-related crimes increased in 2012 and the following year. It cites an insufficient medical system, bureaucracy, and prevalent psychological despair in the rigidly controlled society as the main reasons.

The North Korean government reformed its criminal codes two years ago and stipulated those involved in drug trafficking and smuggling would face the death penalty.

KINU also noted gross human rights violations against North Korean expats.

The South Korean institute estimates some 45,000 North Koreans are working overseas. The largest number of expats, around 25,000, work in Russia. Around 17,000 and 8,000 are employed in Mongolia and throughout the Middle East respectively, according to the white paper.

The expats work an average of 16 hours a day and pay roughly 80 to 90 percent of their wages to Kim Jong-un’s regime.

"The North Korean workers live as a group and are constantly monitored," said Kyu-chang Lee, a researcher with the Center for Inter-Korean Integration Studies. "If they complain, they will be physically assaulted by the North Korean officials there or forced to return to the North."

Outside influence encouraged

The think tank urged the international community to take interest in the issue, as cash-strapped Pyongyang relies more heavily on the expat community for foreign currency than ever before.

The report comes as the special U.N. investigator for human rights in North Korea said Thursday that the world body must do more to hold Pyongyang accountable for abuses of its own citizens.

Marzuki Darusman said the U.N. Security Council is the only body that can refer perpetrators to the International Criminal Court. He said China and other countries that have influence on North Korea should be urged to increase pressure on the government to end its violations.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.
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    Jee Abbey Lee

    Jee Abbey Lee is a veteran broadcast journalist with more than 10 years of experience in TV, radio, and the web. She serves as Voice of America's social media correspondent and is an expert of millennial lifestyle. 

    Lee received her graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to joining VOA, she worked at the Seoul bureau of CNN Travel and served as the chief Bank of Korea correspondent for Arirang TV. 

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