The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Seoul Office) circulated on 31 August 2022 via e-mail the report of the United Nations Secretary-General dated 29 July 2022 titled "Situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."1 The report will be presented to the United Nations General Assembly's Third Committee this October 2022.
Below are excerpts of the report on some issues that affect the ordinary North Koreans.
1. The present report is submitted pursuant to General Assembly resolution 76/177 on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It provides an update on the human rights situation since August 2021 (see A/76/242), including an overview of the situation of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in the country, and an update on cooperation with the United Nations to improve the situation of human rights.
2. On 1 July, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent a note verbale to the Permanent Mission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the United Nations in Geneva inviting the Government to provide factual comments on the draft report. No response had been received at the time of writing.
3. The challenges of gathering independent and credible information on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have increased over the reporting period. The Government's strict coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions imposed in January 2020 meant that no United Nations international staff were present in the country during the reporting period.2 Another source of information on the human rights situation - people who have escaped from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and share their experiences, including with OHCHR - has also decreased dramatically following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. In 2021, only 63 escapees entered the Republic of Korea (40 male and 23 female), compared with 1,047 in 2019 and 229 in 2020. The vast majority left the Democratic People's Republic of Korea before the COVID-19 restrictions were introduced, having been residing in other countries, including China and the Russian Federation, before arriving in the Republic of Korea. OHCHR continued to conduct interviews with the escapees, which are referred to in the present report, although most of the violations documented occurred prior to the reporting period. OHCHR also made use of data and analysis provided by relevant United Nations entities, as well as open-source materials from State media, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations.
4. The Secretary-General reiterates the need for constructive engagement by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with the United Nations and its mechanisms in addressing the human rights challenges outlined in the present report. This engagement can support the Government in fulfilling the obligations to which it has agreed voluntarily under international human rights law and thereby improve the well-being of the people. The Secretary-General makes recommendations to the international community, including on the need to commit to sustained and principled engagement on human rights with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Songbun and the right to non-discrimination
15. Underlying the widespread and systematic repression of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a system of social categorization and control known as songbun. Through this form of categorization, the Workers' Party of Korea assigns all people to one of three classes according to the Party's judgment of their loyalty and acquiescence to its centralized rule. These judgments by the Party include consideration of a person's family history and background together with an ongoing assessment of current behaviour, enabled by the extensive apparatus of State surveillance in place throughout the country. The obligation of States not to discriminate in the exercise of their power, including on grounds of political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, is a core principle of international human rights law, as reflected in the human rights treaties that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has signed.
16. The songbun social categorization system enables the State to effectively monitor people and marginalize those deemed to challenge the legitimacy of its rule.
It also enables the State to reward an elite whose loyalty is considered essential to the stability of its rule. During the third cycle of the universal periodic review in 2019, the Government rejected recommendations related to songbun (A/HRC/42/10, paras. 127.18-127.22). Escapees interviewed by OHCHR during the reporting period continued to attest to the influence of songbun in a person's access to a range of human rights, in combination with other forms of discrimination, including gender.3
This includes access to higher education, housing, food, employment, participation in public affairs, married and family life and place of residence. Only people who are part of the core/loyal class are able to reside in the capital, Pyongyang, and thereby have access to superior social services relative to other parts of the country.4 Those of lower songbun are assigned residency in isolated parts of the country, where they are often required to perform hard labour in mines and on farms. Escapees have also cited the ongoing role of songbun in influencing the outcome of criminal prosecutions, including the length of prison sentences handed down and the likelihood of being sent to a political prison camp. Those who are categorized in the core/loyal class always remain vulnerable to being "demoted" to less privileged classes for "transgressions" adjudged by the Workers' Party of Korea, further institutionalizing incentives not to challenge the legitimacy of State decisions and the processes by which they are made.
27. The increased confinement of families in the home during the pandemic has increased exposure to domestic violence globally.5 In the voluntary national review of its implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2021, the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea stated that "mental and physical violence is not a social issue in the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] where the people are masters of everything and everything serves for people".6
Nevertheless, the Government has agreed to implement a number of recommendations relevant to the issue of domestic violence during its universal periodic reviews, including the recommendation made in 2019 to "take immediate measures to ensure gender equality and protect women from gender-based violence" (A/HRC/42/10, para. 126.172).7
28. Domestic violence has often been raised as a concern by escapees interviewed by OHCHR. One woman who left the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 2019 said: "The issue of domestic violence is quite severe. The State does not intervene or investigate cases. There is no place to go for victims of domestic violence. The [Ministry of People's Security] does nothing for domestic violence".8
It is the obligation of all States parties to the relevant instruments of international human rights law to take steps to prevent, address and eliminate all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence. This involves clearly defining concepts of domestic violence and marital rape in the Criminal Code, conducting thorough, effective and impartial investigations and prosecuting offences in accordance with the law. Furthermore, States are obliged to introduce preventive and supportive measures.
Access to livelihoods
29. Much of the lower-level private market activity in daily necessities, which is led by women, continues to be unregulated. This leaves the people involved vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, extortion and economic downturns, with no adequate social safety nets in place. Owing to the strict COVID-19 measures in place since 2020 and subsequently increased in response to the first reported outbreak, there remain particular concerns about individuals and their families who have come to rely on private market activity for survival. One man interviewed by OHCHR during the reporting period mentioned the soaring prices of food and additional restrictions on market activity to generate income. He noted that some people had sold personal property such as televisions for money to buy food, but others with no property to sell had starved to death.9 Highlighting the interconnectedness of the repression of civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural rights, the system allows no possibility for affected populations to organize, provide feedback and make demands on State authorities when material circumstances deteriorate.
Furthermore, there are no accountability mechanisms in place to ensure that the State responds appropriately to the grievances raised by the people.10
Forced labour and workers' rights
30. Given the harsh COVID-19 restrictions that remain in place, including the border closure with China, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the State has relied increasingly on the extraction of unpaid forced labour from the general population. The State has a number of means to extract forced labour, often in hard and hazardous forms of work, including through the prison system and the military, as well as through "shock brigade" deployments, inminban and "community" groups and the school system. Those in detention, low-level conscripts and "shock brigade" members on long-term forced labour deployments away from home are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation.
31. As part of the repression of the right to freedom of association, no independent trade unions are allowed to exist to help to democratize the workplace and ensure the protection of workers' interests.
32. The World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization released a global monitoring report, raising concerns about occupational health and safety in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.11 The study calculates a severe regression in workers' safety in the country from an already high starting point, with a rate of 56.2 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2000, 78.1 in 2010 and 79.5 in 2016, which is higher than any of the other 182 countries listed.12 In the report's calculation of deaths as a result of stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours (more than 55 hours per week), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was again the highest ranked and regressing, with a rate of 17.5 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2000, 27.5 in 2010 and 28.1 in 2016.13
Right to adequate food
33. With strict COVID-19 measures in place, including the closure of borders and restricted mobility within the country, serious concerns remain over the food situation. A male escapee interviewed by OHCHR indicated the seriousness of the situation: "Because of COVID, imports can't come into the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and I thought things would only get worse. The prices of goods were multiplying many times over. Because I thought things would get worse, it would be better if my mother had one less mouth to feed".14 However, there is no clear picture of the current situation owing to the absence of published government statistics, as well as the humanitarian community's inability, following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions (and the subsequent departure of all international staff), to access vulnerable populations and conduct assessments of the food, nutrition, health and water, sanitation and hygiene situation in the country.
34. In a letter sent to the Ninth Congress of the Union of Agricultural Workers on 27 January 2022, Kim Jong Un described the "food problem" as the "most pressing and critical matter at the moment", and said that "last year everything was in shorter supply than ever before".15
There are particular concerns regarding possible food shortages in the more remote parts of the country, including rural areas and northeastern border provinces, where people of lower songbun reside.16
The Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council resolution 1874 (2009) quoted international humanitarian non-governmental organizations, which believe that "North Koreans, already highly vulnerable to food insecurity, may be dying due to the precarious food situation in the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]" (S/2022/132, p. 391). The closure of schools for extended periods is likely to have led to food-insecure children missing out on food handouts that are usually provided at school. Other people who can be particularly vulnerable to increased food insecurity include pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under 7 years, older persons, persons with disabilities and persons in detention.
35. The World Food Programme, which has not distributed food aid in the country since March 2021 owing to the COVID-19 restrictions, reported that 5.5 million metric tons of food were harvested in September and October 2020, resulting in an estimated food gap of around 860,000 metric tons. Even before restrictions were introduced in January 2020, the country was suffering from chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, resulting in high rates of undernourishment, stunting and anaemia.17
The most recent rapid food security assessment, conducted jointly in 2019 by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Programme, estimated that 10.1 million people (40 per cent of the population) were food-insecure and in urgent need of food assistance. National food production remains insufficient to avoid chronic food insecurity, requiring support from international humanitarian organizations that is currently not being provided.
For further information, please contact: OHCHR-Seoul, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 The full document is available at : https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N22/444/65/pdf/N2244465.pdf?OpenElement.
2 The diplomatic presence has further decreased as well.
3 Interviews conducted by OHCHR.
4 Interviews conducted by OHCHR. This is not to say that residents of Pyongyang do not also suffer serious human rights violations, including of their economic, social and cultural rights.
5 See www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19#:~:text=Emerging%20data%20shows%20an%20increase,in%20public%20spaces%20and%20online.
6 Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Voluntary National Review on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda (2021), pp. 23 and 24.
7 Other relevant accepted recommendations include paras. 126.173-126.175 and 126.181 of A/HRC/42/10.
8 Interviews conducted by OHCHR. See also Database Center for North Korean Human Rights submission to the sixty-eighth session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, November 2017; available at https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/PRK/INT_CEDAW_NGO_PRK_29168_E.pdf.
9 Interviews conducted by OHCHR.
10 For more on the interlinkages of rights violations in the context of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, see OHCHR, "Implications of the right to development for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and other United Nations Member States", discussion paper, pp. 5-8.
11 World Health Organization and International Labour Organization, Global Monitoring Report: WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury, 2000-2016(Geneva, 2021).
12 Ibid, p. 60.
13 Ibid, p. 67.
14 Interviews conducted by OHCHR.
15 See https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1643520715-235209836/let-the-union-of-agriculturalworkers-of-korea-become-vanguard-in-the-struggle-for-achieving-our-style-of-socialist-ruraldevelopment.
16 See www.asiapress.org/korean/2022/04/nk-economys/remedy; www.dailynk.com/20220408-5; and http://www.dailynk.com/%EC%8B%9D%EB%9F%89%EB%82%9C-%EC%8B%AC%ED%99%94%ED%95%98%EB%A9%B0-%EC%A0%88%EB%9F%89%EC%84%B8%EB%8C%80-%EC%A6%9D%EA%B0%80%EC%A3%BC%EB%AF%BC%EB%93%A4-%EB%82%A8%EC%A1%B0%EC%84%A0-%EC%8B%9D/.
17 World Food Programme, Democratic People's Republic of Korea country brief, December 2021.