17 Feb 2014

Life in North Korea: executions, starvation and fear

The horrific brutality of life in North Korea is laid bare in a UN report, which describes how the state maintains a climate of fear through executions, enforced disappearances and starvation.

The report, a rare, hard-hitting rebuke from the United Nations, compares North Korea, and its use of political prison camps, to the “totalitarian states” of the 20th century, a reference to regimes such as Nazi Germany.

The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. UN report

It details findings that North Korea, through its state security apparatus, is committing “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations”. The report says that many of these violations “constitute crimes against humanity”.

“These are not mere excesses of the state,” the report says. “They are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded.

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. Political scientists of the twentieth century characterised this type of political organisation as a totalitarian state: a state that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.”

The United Nations has warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that it will recommend to the Human Rights Council, which takes place in Geneva next month, that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court to “render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity”.

The detail provided in the report paints a shocking portrait of a totalitarian, dystopian society, more closely paralleled to George Orwell’s 1984 than any other society existing today.

Freedom of thought, expression and religion

State surveillance permeates the private lives of all citizens to ensure that virtually no expression critical of the political system or its leadership goes undetected. UN report

Kim Jong-un’s North Korea operates an “all-encompassing indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood”, the UN report found.

The purpose of this machine is to “propagate an official personality cult and to manufacture absolute obedience”. This propaganda also incites “nationalistic hatred towards the official enemies of the state”, the report says.

North Koreans walk in front of propaganda posters in North Korea's capital Pyongyang

Above: North Koreans walk in front of propaganda posters in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang

Additionally, the report says that “state surveillance permeates the private lives of all citizens” in order to root out any critical expressions against the regime. This is aided by the fact that virtually all social activities are controlled by the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea.

People in North Korea are denied access to any external media including foreign films and soap operas. Access to television and radio broadcasts and the internet is severely restricted, and telephone calls, which are mostly domestically confined, are monitored.

Technological advancements has made it easier for people in north Korea to access external media, and in response, the report says, authorities are enforcing harsh punishments on those who do.

The state is also said to consider Christianity to be a “particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult”. The report says that people caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments.


Discrimination remains a major means for the leadership to maintain control against perceived threats, both internal and external. UN report

North Korea’s “songbun” system, which classifies people via state-assigned social class and birth, dominates the way in which North Koreans live. Those higher up the class structure live in better places, have access to better jobs, and receive more food – those lower down do not, and face starvation as a result.

Discrimination against women “remains pervasive in all aspects of society”, the report says, whether against “economically advancing women” or those who have been marginalised.

The UN says that the North Korean government has imposed “blatantly discriminatory restriction on women” in an attempt to “maintain the gender stereotype of the pure and innocent Korean woman”.

This discrimination, the report argues, has led to sexual and gender-based violence being common place, and becoming vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution.

Freedom of movement

Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed. UN report

Inherent to the songbun system is the power of the state to impose on people the locations where they must live and work – something that the UN report saysviolates “all aspects of the right to freedom of movement.”

People who are considered to be “politically loyal” are allowed to live in more favourable locations, the report says, with the most loyal allowed to live in the capital Pyongyang.

In a bid to keep Pyongyang “pure”, the state “systematically banishes entire families from the capital city if one family member commits what is deemed to be a serious crime or political wrong”.

For the same reason, street children who “clandestinely migrate” to Pyongyang in search of food “are subject to arrest and forcible transfer”.

Villagers travel in a truck in a field northwest of Pyongyang

Above: Villagers travel in a truck in a field northwest of Pyongyang.

It is not just domestically where people’s freedom of movement is removed, the report says. Those who leave North Korea, especially if they find themselves in China, are often “forcibly repatriated”.

When returned, the UN found, people would be subjected to “persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence”.

The report said that pregnant women who are returned to North Korea are “regularly subjected to forced abortions” and that babies born to repatriated women are “often killed”.

The report criticised China’s role in the forcible repatriation of North Korea’s migrants, and called on the country to treat the people concerned as refugees.


The state’s monopolisation of access to food has been used as an important means to enforce political loyalty. UN report.

The UN says that North Korea uses food “as a means of control over the population” – with those deemed to be important to maintaining the state prioritised over those deemed to be “expendable”.

The report describes how, despite food shortages and an inability to adequately provide food to the population, the country maintains laws that prevent people from trying to fend for themselves – such as moving around the country to search for nourishment.

State resources, the UN says, are devoted to military spending and the development of the country’s nuclear programme, instead of feeding the por. On top of this, large amounts of money are spent on luxury goods and the advancement of the Supreme Leader.

In North Korea’s prisons, deliberate starvation is used “as a means of control and punishment”, the report said.

Detention, torture, execution and prison camps

Public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorise the population into submission. UN report

“Unspeakable atrocities” are exacted on the prisoners of North Korea’s political gulags, the report says. Starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape, forced abortions and infanticide are all tools reported to be used by the regime on those considered to have committed a political crime.

A video released by Amnesty International (below), including testimony from former prisoners and guards, describes how inmates would be so hungry they would eat beans and maize kernels found in animal dung, how prisoners would dig their own graves before being executed with a hammer, and how whole families would be disappeared because of the “crimes” of one family member.

Read more: Inside North Korea's gulags

The UN report says that it is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 people are currently detained at four large political prison camps.

Additionally, public executions are carried out, for a range of crimes, in order to instil fear in the population.

What does the UN recommend?

The UN has called on North Korea to undertake "profound political and institutional reforms", to acknowledge the existence of human rights violations, and to allow the UN into the country to help with human rights reforms.

The UN has called on China and other countries to refrain from forcibly repatriating North Koreans, and prevent abductions by North Korean state personnel from Chinese territory.

The UN has called on the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC, and for those who are already friendly with North Korea to engage with it on the issue of human rights.