The Situation of Detainees in the Gulag System (Kwan-li-so) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Remarks of Jared Genser1
Counsel to the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea
April 2-3, 2012
On December 19, 2011, state-run television in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) announced the death of its leader Kim Jong-il. His youngest son, Kim Jong-eun, immediately assumed power. It has been an important time of transition in the DPRK, but it remains unclear whether this will have an appreciable effect on the people of the country or on how the country engages with the international community. On February 29, 2012, the United States and DPRK announced a deal under which North Korea had agreed to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment, long-range missile launches, and to allow checks by nuclear inspectors in exchange for 240,000 tons of food. But a short-time later, Pyongyang announced it intended to launch a satellite into orbit, which would be in flagrant violation of Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibited the DPRK from conducting any launch using ballistic missile technology.
Once again, the world has focused intensely on a provocative act by the DPRK and is seeking to defuse rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. But as has often been the case, what gets lost in these debates is the ongoing and profound suffering of the North Korean people.
Today, I am pleased to announce the Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea launches a major new initiative to engage the United Nations and international community to shut down that North Korean kwan-li-so or gulag system.
The global movement pressing for human rights and humanitarian improvements in the DPRK has made important strides in the last decade, but the impact of this work has been highly limited relative to the size of the challenge. Specifically, the United Nations, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have been unable to do much more than provide detailed reporting on the abuses, and, on a limited basis, respond to immediate humanitarian needs of those who escape from DPRK and provide targeted relief inside the country. Even with such efforts, there has been no appreciable impact on the DPRK – on its leadership, governmental structure, or on its policies.
Some of the most horrific abuses committed against the people by DPRK government officials have been through its operation of a gulag system (kwan-li-so), which is estimated to imprison some 150,000-200,000 persons in six massive camps in the country. It is also estimated that more than 400,000 prisoners have died in these camps over the past few decades. These atrocities have been documented by various organs of the United Nations and reputable
NGOs over many years – and have been flatly denied by DPRK government officials. Nevertheless, the ongoing operation of this system constitutes crimes against humanity under international law.
The prisoners in the gulag system are mainly real or alleged political dissenters – persons who have committed or are perceived to have committed a political crime. A wide range of activities are considered political crimes, including expressing anti-socialist sentiment, having “unsound ideology,” criticizing the regime in any manner, reading a foreign newspaper, expressing exasperation with the difficulty of life in North Korea, or practicing any religion inconsistent with the state’s juche (self-reliance) ideology. The accused is not informed of what crime he or she allegedly committed nor is the person processed through the judicial system. There is no access to a lawyer and no formal trial. Instead, the accused is kidnapped, placed in an interrogation facility, and typically tortured until a confession is elicited. When the accused is declared guilty, he or she is either immediately executed or sent to the gulag. Perhaps most shocking, under North Korea’s guilt by association system initiated by Kim Il-sung, three generations of the accused’s family are taken with the accused.
Once imprisoned, prisoners face impediments to their survival so powerful that the gulag system can be described only as being comprised of death camps. Prisoners, including children, are subjected to back-breaking labor, such as mining, logging, and farming, seven days a week for twelve or more hours a day. The labor is often dangerous and approximately 20-25 percent of the prison population dies each year as a result of prison labor. In addition to enduring back-breaking labor, prisoners are forced to survive on starvation-level food rations. One defector described the daily ration as approximately twenty grains of corn per inmate, a ration so meager that this defector reported that, to stave off death, prisoners would dig through cow dung in search of undigested grain. Although pneumonia, tuberculosis, pellagra, and other diseases run rampant in the camp, there is no medical treatment available for prisoners. Prisoners are forced to work through illness, with those who are no longer physically able to work sent to sanatoriums to await death. Torture, extra-judicial killing, and rape of women prisoners are routine occurrences.
Whether he realizes it or not, North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun has a decision to make. By choosing to do nothing and continuing the operations of the gulag system, he is responsible for the ongoing crimes against humanity being committed in the DPRK. Alternatively, he can shut down the gulag system and close a terrible chapter in the history of his country. Either way, this is a question that needs to be posed to him and his government directly by the international community.
The Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (“Coalition”) is submitting this petition to the UN Human Rights Council to engage the full range of UN “Special Procedures”2 to investigate and report on the gulag system, consistent with its precedent having undertaken a similar process in its joint study entitled Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Through the initiation of this process, the Special Procedures can try to engage directly with DPRK authorities about this mass detention situation and even have the opportunity to visit the gulag and observe conditions themselves. Regardless of whether this is possible, the Coalition requests the United Nations to declare the operations of the gulag system in the DPRK to be in violation of international law and make recommendations about how the situation can be comprehensively addressed. In parallel with this petition, counsel is contemporaneously filing petitions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf family members of Kang Cheol-hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk, prominent survivors of the gulag system who both escaped to South Korea and who remained behind. Highlighting their stories is intended to bring to life the impact of the gulag system in North Korea on two families.
The international community knows and understands the crimes against humanity being committed against some 150,000-200,000 North Koreans in the gulag system in the country. Yet, to date, no effective measures have been taken to ameliorate the suffering of those suffering under this system. Therefore the Coalition makes the following recommendations:
1. The Special Procedures should initiate an investigation into the operation of the gulag system in the DPRK;
˗ The investigation should include having the Special Procedures request an opportunity to visit the six camps in the DPRK gulag system;
˗ The investigation should include consultations with victims of the gulag system who have escaped as well as relevant international experts;
˗ The investigation should assess and apply the DPRK’s obligations in relation to the gulag system under relevant international law, including treaties to which the country is a party;
˗ The investigation should make both conclusions of fact and conclusions of law regarding the situation in the DPRK gulag system;
˗ The investigation should issue recommendations regarding the implications of these findings of fact and law;
2. While the Coalition expects the Special Procedures to conduct an independent and impartial investigation that does not pre-judge the merits of the claim, it believes that upon the completion of its work, the Special Procedures should be in a position to render the following conclusions of fact and law:
˗ The DPRK is operating a gulag system that imprisons an estimated 150,000-200,000 people;
˗ The DPRK has a responsibility to protect its own citizens from crimes against humanity being committed against them, let alone not commit those crimes;
˗ Through its ongoing operation of the gulag system, the DPRK is committing crimes against humanity against the prisoners in this system by widespread and systematic acts such as imprisonment, enslavement, extermination, torture, persecution based on political and religious grounds, and other inhumane acts designed to cause great suffering or death;
˗ The DPRK is also violating its obligations under such treaties as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, and Social Rights, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and Convention on the Rights of the Child;
The Special Procedures should also be in a position to make such recommendations as the following:
˗ The DPRK should shut down its gulag system, and immediately and unconditionally free all those persons currently imprisoned;
˗ The DPRK should initiate a process to hold perpetrators accountable for the commission of crimes against humanity and other violations of international and domestic law;
˗ The DPRK should provide appropriate compensation to victims and their families affected by the gulag system;
˗ The UN Human Rights Council should initiate a commission of inquiry into the crimes against humanity being undertaken in the DPRK for the purpose of holding the state and individual perpetrators to account for the ongoing commission of these crimes;
˗ The full range of UN organs should engage with the DPRK regarding its ongoing operations of the gulag system until the system is shut down;
3. And the Special Procedures should present its joint report to the Human Rights Council for consideration and potential further action.
In sum, the goal of these efforts is to close the North Korean gulag system and, in the meantime, maximize the use of the UN system for the benefit of those imprisoned within it. While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are an obvious priority, the international community has unfulfilled obligation to help ameliorate the suffering inside North Korea. It is time for the UN to take the lead in helping put an end to the gulag. The people of North Korea deserve nothing less.
1 For further information, please contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or +1 (202) 320-4135.
2 “Special Procedures” is “the general name given to the mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Currrently, there are 33 thematic and 8 country mandates. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides these
mechanisms with personnel, policy, research, and logistical support for the discharge of their mandates.” Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/index.htm.