Detainees in North Korea are forced into gruelling manual labour and beaten so severely it may be a form of torture, the UN has said, as it warned that Covid-19 had exacerbated human rights concerns in the notoriously oppressive country.
In a report to be presented at the UN general assembly in September, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said fresh accounts given to the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) had added to “a growing body of information confirming consistent patterns of human rights violations”.
They included a woman who said she was hit so hard with firewood that “the skin on my face tore open, my chin became dislocated and four of my teeth were knocked out”. Another described how she and her fellow inmates were forced into agricultural work: “[I] dragged the cart that cows normally pull,” she told the OHCHR.
In February the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said torture and forced labour were rife in North Korea’s detention centres, and amounted to possible crimes against humanity.
The new report, including accounts from 2010 until 2019, focuses again on the “systematic and widespread” use of beatings and other disproportionately harsh punishments meted out to detainees, as well as forced labour.
One former detainee said she was beaten with a stick, chair and leather belt by officers from the security ministry, adding: “Some detainees were asked to place their heads on the bars [of the cell] and the guards would beat us with a club … we were just like punching bags to them.”
“The severity of beatings described may constitute torture, which is prohibited without exception under international law,” the report noted.
A man drags a cart across a square in Rason. People who escaped from North Korea’s prisons say inmates are used as draught animals. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty
Mistreatment documented “may also constitute torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, it added, including severe forms of physical punishment for minor infractions.
One person said that, after a detainee had been found to be snoring at night, all 12 cellmates were ordered to do 1,000 squats. “I was young so it was OK, but those who were older fainted on the spot,” they said.
The use of stress positions was also detailed, with one man saying: “In the fixed position, you had to be on your knees with the rest of your body off the ground, with your hands extended forward; you had to stay like that for hours. If you moved, they made you stick your hands out and hit them with a cane.”
With the pandemic restrictions having cut off the “lifeline” of essential humanitarian supplies, the UN said it also feared the food situation for detainees – and for the population as a whole – had worsened. The country has seen a steep decline in trade with China during the pandemic, which, along with a series of natural disasters and the impact of international sanctions, has triggered an economic crisis.
Accounts given to the OHCHR indicated the food received was inadequate and poor quality. Two escapers separately stated that they had been aware of deaths as a result of malnutrition. “We were fed only corn meal, about 100 grams three times a day,” said one former inmate.
Many accounts centre on North Korea’s continued reliance on forced labour, including from conscripted soldiers, members of the general population, and children. Detainees described their work to OHCHR, ranging from making artificial eyelashes to hard manual labour such as farming, logging and construction.
A policeman stops a taxi for disinfection near Wonsan. Covid had worsened human rights concerns in North Korea, the UN report says. Photograph: Kim Won Jin/AFP/Getty
Those who had escaped said that if they did not meet their quotas they were punished with beatings, cuts to their already meagre food rations, and spells in solitary confinement.
One worker described how “two to three guards watch over you while armed with automatic guns”.
Most of the testimonies come from former detainees of North Korea’s prisons, pre-trial holding centres or labour camps. But the report also says escapers spoke of people they knew who had been sent to political prison camps for “disloyalty”, such as attempting to go to South Korea, religious activity or criticism of the state.
North Korea denies the existence of the camps, but the UN noted: “The threat of being sent to a political prison camp (kwanliso) permeates all aspects of civil and political life.”
The OHCHR said recent accounts indicated that crackdowns had been intensified against anyone found to be involved with foreign media, particularly films, television dramas and music from South Korea.
“Although cellphones are becoming increasingly prevalent, using cellphones to call abroad is also monitored with harsh sentences imposed on those caught, such as imprisonment of up to two years in a kyohwaso [prison],” the report said.
In July, young North Koreans were warned by the official newspaper of the ruling party to adhere to the country’s “superior” standard language – the dialect from around Pyongyang – and follow “traditional lifestyles” as part of efforts by Kim Jong-un’s regime to stamp out cultural influences from South Korea.
The OHCHR said it had invited the North Korean government to contribute to the report but that at the time of writing no response had been received.