“[T]he dictators in North Korea thought that we should die, we were not worth living, they were just extending our lives, and they just let us live so that we would produce for them and we could die in the process [of] working.”

(Shin Dong-hyuk, former inmate of Prison Camp No. 15)[1]

The account described above resembles just one of many previously unheard voices of the North Korean people. Mr Shin Dong-hyuk told his story in Seoul last year, at a public hearing organised by a Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, released its findings this February.

The UN Report

In a nearly 400 page-long report, the Commission of Inquiry completely and utterly condemned the North Korean state by accusing it of committing systematic and widespread crimes against humanity against its own citizens. These violations – essential components of the totalitarian system, according to the report – are of such gravity, scale and nature that they “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”[2]

Numerous witness accounts describe in horrific detail the deliberate starvation, structural discrimination, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and murder prevalent in the country. The report takes a firm stand for the people of North Korea “who have suffered for too long”, by stating that it is the “duty of the DPRK and, failing that, the responsibility of the international community” to ensure that these crimes end immediately.[3]A referral of the situation in the DPRK to the Security Council is therefore one of the Commission’s foremost recommendations, especially since the DPRK authorities have “totally and categorically”[4] rejected the Commission and its findings.

The Commission of Inquiry

The Commission of Inquiry, created in March 2013, consists of three members: Michael Kirby of Australia (the Commission’s Chairman), Sonja Biserko of Serbia, and Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia. They worked intensively for over a year, mandated by the UNHCR to “investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular, for violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.”[5] The findings, judgments and, ultimately, recommendations of the Commission are based on testimonies of over 80 witnesses and experts who testified in public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. In addition, 240 confidential interviews were conducted with individual witnesses, and over 80 countries assisted by giving further information. [6]

Most of the atrocities cited by the Commission were to some extent already known by the general public. However, this extensive report is the first to attempt a thorough and comprehensive overview of the entire situation in North Korea. It goes beyond merely listing which types of human rights are being violated and provides a deeper understanding of the DPRK’s society and how it came to be. The Commission realised that in order to comprehend the political, cultural and economic causes underlying the current human rights violations, an assessment of the historical background of the DPRK is crucial.[7]

A short overview of the history of the DPRK

Since pre-modern history, the Korean society has been deeply rooted in Confucianism, an ethical and philosophical system in which obedience to strict hierarchies (such as sovereign above subject and husband above wife) is essential for social harmony and personal happiness.[8]

Before the formation of the DPRK, the Korean peninsula struggled for centuries to maintain its independence. Nonetheless, in 1910 Japan formally declared Korea a colony and subjected the Korean people to discriminatory laws.[9] After the Axis powers (including Japan) lost the Second World War, the Korean peninsula was divided into two zones of control: the north came under a Soviet sphere of influence, the south under an American one. Whereas the United States suppressed the rise of Korean self-governance groups, the Soviets welcomed them and put local war hero Kim Il-sung de facto in charge of the north. In 1948 both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) were established. After he secured support from both the Soviet Union and China, Kim Il-sung attacked the ROK in 1950, and the three-year-long Korean War commenced. [10]

The war left the Korean peninsula completely devastated. For the DPRK the conflict is regarded as the Fatherland Liberation War, in which Kim Il-Sung defended the nation. The Korean War is as yet unresolved, as the Armistice Agreement of 1953 is merely a ceasefire and not a peace treaty. On both sides of the border a fear of invasion remains. In the DPRK, this fear has been crucial: the continuous state of emergency legitimised harsh governmental rule and its accompanying human rights violations for years to come.[11]

After the war, Kim Il-sung used and stretched the Confucian principles to his advantage by establishing theSuryong (Supreme Leader) system, which positioned him and his heirs as “unchallenged rulers”.[12] Purges of opponents of Kim Il-sung were justified by the Suryong system, and the first political prison camps were set up. The implementation of another system helped identify these “enemies of the state”: i.e. the Songbunsystem. It categorises citizens of the DPRK into three classes, based on their assumed political allegiance to the regime: core, wavering and hostile. The Songbun classification is inheritable through three generations, and determines one’s opportunities in life, such as occupation, residence and access to food.[13] As the Suryong and Songbun systems consolidated his reign, Kim Il-sung further exploited the fear existing since the Korean War by introducing a policy of self-reliance and extreme nationalism, known asJuche. This ideology in turn legitimised further state control by demanding self-sacrifice and hard work of all citizens.[14]

Until the day he died in 1994, Kim Il-Sung’s power was undisputed and formed the legitimisation of his son, Kim Jong-il, as rightful heir. Kim Jong-il solidified the Suryong and Songbun systems, and strengthened theJuche ideology by imposing the Songun, or Military First, doctrine. According to Songun, expenditures on the army and a nuclear programme ‘came first’ in the DPRK, even at the expense of its own inhabitants: in the 1990s, as natural disasters combined with the faltering of Soviet and Chinese support, a large-scale famine commenced, also known as the ‘Arduous March’. Despite mass starvation and many deaths, Kim Jong-il still prioritised the military over (the provision of) food.[15]

The Songun-inspired nuclear programme resulted in international tensions, leading to several crises in the 2000s.[16] There was a glimmer of hope after the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 and the succession by Kim Jong-un that this nuclear threat would abate, along with an improvement of the human rights of the North Korean people. But this hope turned out to be false, as the bleak conclusions of the UNHCR’s report make perfectly clear.

The Commission’s findings

The current human rights situation in the DPRK of Kim Jong-un has been shaped by events of the past, such as Confucianism, the Japanese occupation, the legacy of the Korean war, ‘Kimilsungism’ and ‘Kimjongilism’. Violations of basic human rights are on-going and ubiquitous. The Commission has dedicated the main part of her report on a detailed account of how, why, where and by whom these violations are committed.

First of all, the freedoms of thought, expression and religion are violated in the DPRK. As a confidential witness told the Commission: “In North Korea, the only ideology, the only religion that is allowed is the ideology of Kim Il-sung.”[17] From a very early age the people of the DPRK are subjected to an “all-encompassing indoctrination machine”, which is designed to instil the highest loyalty and commitment towards the Supreme Leader (Suryong) as well as to “internalise the state ideology as their own thoughts and conscience.”[18] To ensure total obedience, no wavering thoughts, political deviation or religious affiliation can be allowed.[19] “North Korea is not open to the outside world, is a fenced world. (…) They want the people to be blind, deaf to the outside world, so that the people won’t know what is happening.”[20]

Secondly, the Commission has found ample evidence of state-organized discrimination through theSongbun system.[21] In this “rigidly stratified society”, the songbun of a citizen is arbitrarily decided on the basis of social class, birth, political opinion and religion. As Mr Shin Dong-hyuk told the Commission: “I was born a criminal and I would die a criminal, that was my fate.” Furthermore, the difference in living conditions between high and low songbun is immense: high lives well, whilst low lives generally in poverty. The Jucheideology is cause for discrimination as well: the extreme nationalism brings forth a notion of a “pure Korean race that has to be kept clean,”[22] and anyone who ‘dirties’ this image is considered a threat.

Besides influencing living conditions, the Songbun also decides where one is allowed to live. The freedom of movement and residence is further violated by the de facto travel ban on ordinary citizens. Even though the famine is ‘officially’ over, food remains scarce in the DPRK. Illegally crossing the border in search for food is considered defection, which must be “mercilessly suppressed.”[23] DPRK state policy considers anyone who has fled to China a traitor, no matter their reason, and “would not treat them as human.”[24]North Korean women crossing the border to China often fall into the hands of human traffickers.[25] Those who do make it across the border risk being forcibly repatriated by the Chinese government. Once back in the DPRK, the repercussions are grave: torture, imprisonment, and even forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children.[26] Following the Juche ideology, mixed race children could contaminate the ‘pureness’ of the Korean race.[27]

The fourth area of the Commission’s inquiry into human rights violations deals with the ordinary (kyohwaso) and political (kwanliso) prison camps. Many of the inmates of the prison camps are send there without any proper legal proceedings.[28] Once in, there is the chance you will never make it out alive. Inside the camps fear, torture and death are part of everyday life. Inmates are subjected to harsh labour, often in deplorable conditions. The Commission finds that the “political prison camp system has served, and continues to serve, the purpose of preventing the emergence of any future ideological, political or social challenges to theSuryong system and preserving its power base.”[29]

Fifthly, the DPRK has utterly ignored its responsibility of providing each citizen with enough adequate food.[30] Moreover, the state still has not altered its faltering system, thereby upholding and even aggravating the dire situation of its starving population.

Lastly, the DPRK violates the human rights of people of other countries, by engaging in systematic abductions and other forms of enforced disappearances. These people are thought to ‘enhance’ the DPRK with their knowledge, or are used for espionage.[31]

Crimes against humanity

That the human rights of the North Korean people are continuously being violated, has been made abundantly clear. However, for these violations to be considered crimes against humanity under international law, they have to be part of a widespread or systematic attack, and intentionally inhumane acts have to be proven.

According to the report, there are three distinct state attacks against civilian populations in which crimes against humanity are committed; 1) the systematic and widespread attack against anyone considered a threat to the political system and the leadership of the DPRK; 2) the systematic and widespread attack against the general population by knowingly aggravating its starvation; and 3) the systematic and widespread manner of abducting and forcibly disappear persons from other countries.[32]

Throughout these attacks the DPRK state has intentionally committed the following inhumane acts against its citizens: murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation or forcible transfer of a population; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced abortion and sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; persecution against any identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law; and the ‘residual category’ of inhumane acts of intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.[33]

Accountability and recommendations

The Commission was required to carry out its inquiry into the deplorable situation of the North Korean people “with a view to ensuring full accountability.”[34] Evidently, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials have committed crimes against humanity and are still committing them as we speak, because “the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their root remain in place.”[35] Moreover, the DPRK is a state where the commission of crimes against humanity is “ingrained into the institutional framework.”[36]

Although the Commission is not a prosecutor itself, her findings do create reasonable grounds for a criminal investigation by a competent judicial body. The Commission urges the international community to ensure that “those most responsible for crimes against humanity in the DPRK are prosecuted before an international court and brought to justice.”[37] It recommends that the case should be either brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) or that an ad hoc International Tribunal should be established. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages. The ICC would not have jurisdiction over crimes committed before July 2002, an ad hoc Tribunal would have. However, an ad hoc Tribunal requires substantial resources and its establishment would further delay bringing the perpetrators to justice, whereas the ICC is already in existence and could start prosecuting promptly.[38]

Besides these legal proceedings, the Commission recommends the international community, and specifically China, to end forcible repatriation, provide the UN with access and assistance to further their investigation, prevent abductions and stimulate inter-Korean dialogue.[39]

The Commission addresses the authorities of the DPRK as well, and recommends them to: hold free elections; introduce a genuine checks and balances system upon the powers of the Supreme Leader ruling authorities; allow access to international human rights organisations; abolish the death penalty; allow independent newspapers and other media; abolish propaganda; allow religious believers to exercise their religion independently and publicly; end the discriminatory Songbun system; ensure gender equality; ensure the right to food; abolish the de facto prohibition on foreign travel; provide full information on abductees; allow separated families to reunite; prosecute and bring to justice those most responsible; and, finally, end all other human rights violations.[40]

In conclusion

The Commission has once and for all let the world know that the suffering of the people of the DPRK has gone on for far too long. This report forms a stark reminder that the international community can no longer close its eyes and turn its back on the situation in North Korea. It must accept its responsibility and take immediate action to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from the horrendous crimes committed against them by their own leaders.

Dorien Nicolien Admiraal

Dorien Nicolien Admiraal

(1988) was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is a Holocaust & Genocide Studies Master student at the University of Amsterdam and a student of the OpenEyes Academy, a one-year programme for investigative journalism. She previously studied history, journalism, and Spanish. Currently, her Master Thesis explores the impact of controversial acquittals made by the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia and the limits of accountability for war crimes. She is also researching the boundaries between fact and imagination regarding family histories and memories of the Second World War in the Netherlands. She does this by investigating the story of her own Dutch-Jewish grandfather.


[1] United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/25.CRP.1), February 7th 2014, p. 239.
[2] UNHRC, Report on human rights in the DPRK (A/HRC/25.CPR.1), p. 365.
[3] A/HRC/25.CRP.1, p. 330.
[4] Idem, p. 9.
[5] Idem, p. 5-7.
[6] Idem, p. 10-15.
[7] Idem, p. 8.
[8] A/HRC/25.CRP.1, p. 20.
[9] Idem.
[10] Idem, p. 22-24
[11] Idem, p. 26, 45.
[12] Idem, p. 27.
[13] Idem, p. 29-30, 75-84.
[14] Idem, p. 33.
[15] Idem, p. 35-41.
[16] Idem, p. 39-43.
[17] A/HRC/25.CRP.1, p. 68.
[18] Idem, p. 54, 73.
[19] Idem, 67.
[20] Idem, p. 55.
[21] Idem, p. 98.
[22] Idem, p. 98.
[23] Idem, p. 109.
[24] Idem, p. 114.
[25] Idem, p. 139.
[26] Idem, p. 122.
[27] Idem.
[28] Idem, p. 209.
[29] Idem, p. 245-350.
[30] Idem, p. 148.
[31] A/HRC/25.CRP.1, p. 317.
[32] Idem, 319-320.
[33] Idem, p. 321.
[34] Idem, p. 319.
[35] Idem, p. 351.
[36] Idem, p. 358.
[37] Idem, p. 362.
[38] Idem.
[39] Idem, p. 369.
[40] A/HRC/25.CRP.1, p. 367-369.