The report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) offers a new perspective on North Korea; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is now a concern of human rights. The report has an in-depth section on the historical and political context of North Korea based on the wide variety of work produced since the Korean War by academics, NGO’s, and activist organisations. The use of defector and survivor testimonies at the public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington and London is one of the remarkable ways in which the commission contributes to the body of knowledge on North Korea.

Although testimonies should be interpreted with great care, as they are highly subjective memories of traumatic experiences, they are valuable too, allowing an insight into life in North Korea and prison camps. Defector memoirs are another intriguing source in this category. Flight from Camp 14 is exemplary,[i] the story of Shin Dong-hyuk is the only testimony of a person born and raised in a camp and successfully escaped from it. However, dozen more memoirs describe life in a prison camp, Pyongyang, or the countryside, or elaborate on life as a defector and the long and dangerous route to South Korea.[ii]

For an extensive read on the history of the Korean War and Kim Il Sung’s consolidation of power, Bruce Cumings[iii] and Andrei Lankov[iv] are great authors on the subject. The first is a celebrated specialist of modern Korean history; the latter lived in Pyongyang as an exchange student from the Soviet Union and has written on a variety of subjects related to North Korea. Furthermore, Victor Cha’s[v] work elaborates on the political reality of North Korea and how it could change in the future. Victor Cha served as director for Asian affairs at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC).

The COI’s report is not the first analysis of the human rights violations in North Korea. In South Korea ‘white papers’ on North Korea are published every year by the Seoul based Korean Institute of National Unification[vi] and the Database for North Korean Human Rights.[vii] These are both governmental institutes that base their knowledge on the interviews held with North Korean defectors when they first enter the Republic of Korea, and before they receive South Korean nationality. Their reports include statistics on the numbers and demographics of defectors and contain more detailed information on the life in prison camps and daily life in North Korea. The UN Special rapporteur analyses the human rights situation in the DPRK every year and uses similar sources. These reports are available on the UN website.[viii]

Many other reports have been written on a variety of subjects, such as ideology, personality cult, security apparatus, gender, religion, and political prison camps. Robert Collins has extensively written for Human Rights Watch in Washington on the Songbun social classification system.[ix]. Young Chul-chung’s analysed the workings of the Suryon principle[x], a guideline that requires absolute loyalty to the leader. On the personality cult,[xi] the American journalist Bradley K. Martin had access to the country on several occasions and wrote extensively about the Kim family. Racial obsession and the purity of Korean blood[xii] is part of the widespread and systematic violence embedded in North Korean culture. Brian R. Myers wrote on this ideologically charged subject. Furthermore, Ken E. Gause, specialised in leadership in hard target countries, wrote for Human Rights Watch on the security apparatus of the DPRK.[xiii] Finally, Kim, Soo-am, researcher at KINU, has analysed North Korea’s most recent Penal Code and criminal procedures.[xiv]

On the newer topic of gender transition, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, both specialists in the political economy of countries in development and the North Korean economic system, wrote several articles on the changing role of women in the North Korean society and economy.[xv] An often-overshadowed subject is that of religion and the severe discrimination against Christians in the DPRK. More can be read on the systematic persecution of Christians in the report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Won Jae-chun J.D and Kim Byoung-lo conducted this research, both specialised in human rights law and comparative research of North and South Korea.[xvi] David Hawk, an expert in international human rights, has done similar research;[xvii] although he may be better known for his extensive investigation of the political prison camps for the Washington based US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.[xviii]

The Soviet records and minutes of conversation between Stalin and Kim Il Sung are part of a relatively newly opened archive that is yet to be further explored. Only a few academics to date has dug deeper into this newly available material.[xix] Other great direct sources, in particular to see the highly advanced propaganda machine at work, are the official websites of the DPRK. Unfortunately, some countries, like South Korea, have blocked access to these sites. However, in the Netherlands both the DPRK site and that of the KCNA (the official news agency) are accessible.[xx] Other sources on the human rights situation in North Korea are of course provided by NGO’s and activist organisations.[xxi] Finally, in the last couple of years, interesting documentaries on the subject have become available online or otherwise screened at festivals; most of the makers had actual access to North Korea.[xxii]

“Now we know”, according to the COI, the international community should take immediate action and no longer ignore North Korea. The report makes it clear that human rights are widespread and systematically violated. However, what action should be taken is not entirely clear. In search of ways to fundamentally change the situation in North Korea, just “to know” about these human rights violations is not enough, a deeper insight into North Korean culture and thinking is needed. However, the COI is right that “to know” is a first step towards a better future for the North Korean people.

Joo Hee Heidebrink

Joo Hee Heidebrink

(1983) was born in South Korea but grew up in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is a Master Student in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she previously obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Non-Western Sociology. She specialised in state violence and terrorism, and the mystification of national identity in the writing of history in Sri Lanka and the simultaneous myth making processes of the Tamil Tiger suicide missions. Presently, her Master thesis investigates the political prisoner camps in North Korea in the context of the DPRK state ideology. For her research she did an internship at the Korea Institute of National Unification (KINU) in Seoul, South Korea and she spoke with a camp survivor who currently lives in in the South.  She wishes to specialise in North Korea and Transitional Justice issues in both South and North Korea.


[i] Blaine Harden, Vlucht uit Kamp 14: Het Onvoorstelbare Levensverhaal van een Jongen die Opgroeide in een Noord- Koreaans Concentratiekamp (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans, 2012).[ii] Barbara Demick, Hand in Hand in het Donker: Leven en Liefde in Noord Korea, vertaald door Gerrit Jan Zwier (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2010); Charles Robert Jenkins, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Fourty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Kim, Hye-jin, Jia: A Novel of North Korea (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2007), Midnight Editions); Laura Ling and Lisa Ling,Somewhere Inside (Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), Epub Edition; Soon, Ok-lee, Zij Mogen de Hemel niet Zien: Een Ooggetuigeverslag uit Noord-Korea, vertaald door E. van der Wal (Amsterdam: Ark Media, 2011).[iii] Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War (Princeton: Princeton University Press); Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Random House, 2010), Epub Edition.[iv] Andrei Lankov, From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960 (London: C. Hurst cop., 2002).[v] Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013);Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (London: The Bodley Head, 2012).[vi] KINU,[vii] NKDB,[viii]UN,[ix] Robert Collins, Marked for Life: Songbun North Korea’s Social Classification System (Washington: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), accessed November 13, 2013,[x]Young Chul-chung, ‘The Suryong System as the Institution of Collectivist Development’, The Journal of Korean Studies 12 (2007): 43-73.[xi] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: St. Martin’s books, 2004).[xii] Brian R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2010).[xiii]Ken E. Gause, Coercion, Control, Surveillance and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State (Washington: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), accessed November 13, 2012,[xiv] Kim Soo-am, The North Korean Penal Code, Criminal Procedures, and their Actual Applications (Seoul: Korean Institute for National Unification), accessed December 11, 2012,.[xv] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, ‘Gender in Transition: The Case of North Korea’, World Development 41 (2013): 51-66.[xvi] Won Jae-chun J.D. and Byoung Lo Kim, A Prison Without Bars: Refugees and Defector Testimonies of Severe Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea (Washington: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2008); David Hawk, Thank you Father Kim Il Sung: Eye Witness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in North Korea (Washington: United States Commision on International Religious Freedom, 2005), accessed December 4, 2012,[xvii] Hawk, op.cit note 16.[xviii]David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag, 2nd Edition, The Lives and Voices of “Those Who are Sent to the Mountains” (Washington: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,2012), accessed November 13, 2012,[xix] Kathryn Weathersby, Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War 1945-1950: New Evidence from Soviet Archives, edited by Christian F. Ostermann (Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1993); Mitchell B. Lerner, ‘A Dangerous Miscalculation: New Evidence from Communistic-Bloc Archives about North Korea and the Crises of 1968’, Journal of Cold War Studies 6, no. 1 (2004): 3-21.[xx] Official DPRK website,; Official KCNA website,[xxi] U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; Life Funds for North Korean Refugees,; Liberty in North Korea, US,; Free North Korean Gulag, Seoul by NK defectors,; NK News, Seoul,; ONK, Open Radio for North Korea, Seoul[xxii] Anna Broinowski, Aim High in Creation, directed by Anna Broinowsky (Melbourne: Unicorn Productions, London: ITV, 2004), accessed April 10, 2014, and; Shane Smith, The Vice Guide to North Korea, directed by Shane Smith (New York: VBStv, 2008); Shane Smith, North Korean Labor Camps, directed by Shane Smith (New York: VBStv, 2011); Shin, Dong-hyuk, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, directed by Marc Wiese (Köln: Engstfeld Filmproduktion, 2012), accessed April 10, 2014,