Human Rights Watch this week released an eighty-eight-page report called “‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea.” The report looks at what it describes as the repressive pretrial detention conditions in that country. It reports crimes that include torture, rape and an overall lack of due process for detainees.
The pretrial detention system in North Korea, per the report, is “arbitrary and lacks any semblance of due process.” The report cited eight former government officials, as well as twenty-two North Koreans who had been held in such facilities. All were held during the regime of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un.
Those speaking to Human Rights Watch are providing information that is normally kept secret in North Korea, which is one of the most closed countries in the world and lacks a free press.
“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in the release of the report.
“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.”
Among other violations of human rights, detainees were denied access to independent lawyers and were not allowed appeals. They were also forced to sit on floors for days. In addition, female detainees reported sexual harassment, assault and rape.
“If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars,” one former soldier said of his treatment. There was also insufficient food and unhygienic conditions that led to prisoners being covered in “lice, bedbugs, and fleas.”
“Former government officials told Human Rights Watch that mistreatment and humiliation are considered a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system,” Adams said in the release of the report. “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.”
Human Rights Watch said in the report that North Korea should “end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in pretrial detention and interrogation facilities.”
The United States, under President Trump, made an historic diplomatic opening to North Korea, leading to summits between Trump and Kim in 2018 and 2019. However, the negotiations never led to any permanent peace treaty or non-nuclearization agreement. Future U.S. policy on North Korea, like most things, will likely depend on the outcome of the presidential election.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.