Human Rights Council Twenty-fifth session Agenda item 4
Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea*
The present document contains the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Commission’s principal findings and recommendations are provided in document A/HRC/25/63.
I. Introduction 1–5 5
II. Mandate and methodology of the commission of inquiry 6-84 5
A. Origins of the mandate 6-12 5
B. Interpretation of the mandate 13-20 6
C. Non-cooperation by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 21-27 8
D. Methods of work 28-62 10
E. Legal framework and standard of proof for reported violations 63-78 15
F. Archiving and record-keeping of testimony 79-84 18
III. Historical and political context to human rights violations in
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 85-162 19
A. Pre-colonial history 87-89 19
B. Japanese colonial occupation (1910 to 1945) 90-94 20
C. Division of the peninsula, the Korean War and its legacy 95-109 21
D. Imposition of the Supreme Leader (suryong) system 110-128 27
E. Consolidation of power under the Kim dynasty 129-157 34
F. External dynamics and the human rights situation 158-162 43
IV. Findings of the commission 163-1021 45
A. Violations of the freedoms of thought, expression and religion 163-264 45
B. Discrimination on the basis of State-assigned social class (songbun),
gender and disability 265-354 74
C. Violations of the freedom of movement and residence, including the
freedom to leave one’s own country and the prohibition of refoulement 355-492 99
D. Violations of the right to food and related aspects of the right to life 493-692 144
E. Arbitrary detention, torture, executions, enforced disappearance
and political prison camps 693-845 208
F. Enforced disappearance of persons from other countries,
including through abduction 846-1021 270
V. Crimes against humanity 1022-1165 319
A. Definition of crimes against humanity under international law 1026-1032 320
B. Crimes against humanity in political prison camps 1033-1067 323
C. Crimes against humanity in the ordinary prison system 1068-1086 330
D. Crimes against humanity targeting religious believers and others considered
to introduce subversive influences 1087-1097 333
E. Crimes against humanity targeting persons who try to flee the country 1098-1114 335
F. Starvation 1115-1137 339
G. Crimes against humanity targeting persons from other countries,
in particular through international abductions 1138-1154 345
H. A case of political genocide? 1155-1159 350
I. Principal findings of the commission 1160-1165 351
VI. Ensuring accountability, in particular for crimes against humanity 1166-1210 352
A. Institutional accountability 1167-1194 352
B. Individual criminal accountability 1195-1203 359
C. Responsibility of the international community 1204-1210 363
VII. Conclusions and recommendations 1211-1224 365
ACF Action contre la Faim (Action against Hunger)
CEDAW Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
CESCR Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
CRC Convention on the Rights of the Child
DPRK Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
HRNK Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
HRW Human Rights Watch
ICCPR International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
ICNK International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
ICESCR International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross
KBA Korean Bar Association
KCNA Korean Central News Agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
KINU Korea Institute for National Unification
KPA Korean People’s Army
KWAFU Korean War Abductees’ Family Union
KWARI Korean War Abductees’ Research Institute
LFNKR Life Funds for North Korean Refugees
MPS Ministry of People’s Security
MSF Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
NGO Non-governmental organization
NHRCK National Human Rights Commission of Korea
NKDB Database Center for North Korean Human Rights
NKHR Citizens’ Alliance for North Korea Human Rights
PDS Public Distribution System
POW Prisoner of War
ROK Republic of Korea
SSD State Security Department
UNHCR Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
USA United States of America
WFP World Food Programme
WHO World Health Organization
WGEID Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances
On 21 March 2013, at its 22nd session, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Human Rights Council Resolution 22/13 mandated the body 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.1
Among the violations to be investigated were those pertaining to the right to food, those associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, freedom of expression, the right to life, freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states.
On 7 May 2013, the President of the Human Rights Council announced the appointment of Michael Kirby of Australia and Sonja Biserko of Serbia, who joined Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to serve as the members of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. Mr Kirby was designated to serve as Chair. The Commissioners, who served in a non-remunerated, independent, expert capacity, took up their work the following month. The Commission of Inquiry was supported by a Secretariat of nine experienced human rights officials provided by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Once appointed, however, the Secretariat worked independently of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This report builds upon the oral updates which the Commission of Inquiry provided in accordance with Resolution 22/13 to the Human Rights Council in September 2013 and to the United Nations General Assembly in October 2013.
The Commission implemented the mandate entrusted by the Member States of the Human Rights Council bearing in mind the Council’s decision to transmit the reports of the Commission to all relevant bodies of the United Nations and to the United Nations Secretary-General for appropriate action.
II. Mandate and methodology of the commission of inquiry
A. Origins of the mandate
The adoption of Resolution 22/13 marked the first time that the Human Rights Council had established a commission of inquiry without a vote. It follows resolutions adopted in 2012 without a vote by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council that expressed deep concern about the persisting deterioration in the human rights situation in the DPRK.2
Leading up to the adoption of Resolution 22/13, United Nations human rights entities, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a number of Member States, and several civil society organizations, including human rights groups set up by persons who had fled the DPRK, had called for the establishment of an inquiry mechanism. The report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK to the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council, in particular, identified the need for an international independent and impartial inquiry mechanism with adequate resources to investigate and more fully document the grave, systematic and widespread violations of human rights in the DPRK.
In January 2013, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for a fully-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes that, she said, had been taking place in the DPRK for decades, and stressed that the concern about the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons should not overshadow the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea.
The establishment of the Commission of Inquiry must also be seen in light of the DPRK’s limited cooperation with the existing human rights mechanisms. The DPRK is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Since 2009, the DPRK has not submitted any state reports on the foregoing treaties, although in 2004, the DPRK did take the positive step of inviting a delegation of the Committee on the Rights of the Child to visit the country.
The DPRK underwent its first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2009 and will be subject to the second cycle in 2014. While stating some generic commitments to human rights obligations, the DPRK failed to accept any of the 167 recommendations made by the UPR Working Group in 2009.3
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not had access to the country since the inception of the mandate in 2004. The DPRK has rejected the mandate, deeming it as a hostile act, and refuses to cooperate with it. Since the mission of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences in 1995,4 not a single mandate holder of the Human Rights Council has been invited, or permitted, to visit the DPRK.
On the basis of resolutions by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have also issued periodic reports detailing human rights violations and related impunity in the DPRK. The DPRK has not provided substantive input to these reports since it has rejected the underlying resolutions of the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. Since 2003, the DPRK Government has also rejected all offers of technical assistance from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
B. Interpretation of the mandate
The mandate of the Commission of Inquiry is essentially found in paragraph 5 of Resolution 22/13 that makes specific reference to paragraph 31 of the 2013 report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.5 Reading the two paragraphs together, the Commission determined that it had been mandated to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK including, in particular, the following nine specific substantive areas:
violations of the right to food,
the full range of violations associated with prison camps,
torture and inhuman treatment,
arbitrary arrest and detention,
discrimination, in particular in the systemic denial and violation of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms,
violations of the freedom of expression,
violations of the right to life,
violations of the freedom of individual movement, and
enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states.
These nine areas, which are interlinking and overlap, therefore define the focus of the Commission’s inquiry. However, this list of nine is not exhaustive, and, where appropriate, the Commission has also investigated violations that are intrinsically linked to one of the nine areas.
The mandate further indicates that the inquiry should pursue three inter-linked objectives: (1) further investigating and documenting human rights violations, (2) collecting and documenting victim and perpetrator accounts, and (3) ensuring accountability.
(a) Further investigation and documentation of human rights violations: Resolution 22/13 asks the Commission to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK. Likewise, paragraph 31 of the Special Rapporteur’s report mentioned above repeatedly refers to more detailed documentation of such violations. The request for more detailed investigation, with a view to ensuring accountability, suggested a stronger focus on investigating how, and by whom, any violations have been found to be planned, ordered and organized.
(b) Documentation of the accounts of victims and perpetrators: The mandate, as elaborated by paragraph 31 of the Special Rapporteur’s report, asks the Commission for “the collection and documentation of victims’ testimonies and the accounts of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators”. The Commission implemented this aspect of the mandate primarily by conducting public hearings of victims and other witnesses and making their testimonies available on its webpage. Additionally, accounts provided by victims and witnesses who could not speak publicly for protection reasons are safeguarded in a secure and confidential database.
(c) Ensuring full institutional and personal accountability: The mandate makes it clear that the investigation should be carried out “with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity”. Paragraph 31 of the Special Rapporteur’s report adds that the “inquiry should examine the issues of institutional and personal accountability for [grave, systematic and widespread violations], in particular where they amount to crimes against humanity”.
Considering the extent, systematic nature and gravity of the reported violations, the Commission also considered the responsibility of the international community. It has directed recommendations towards the international community as requested by paragraph 5 of Resolution 22/13, read in conjunction with Paragraph 31 of the Special Rapporteur’s report.
In accordance with paragraph 17 of Human Rights Council Resolution 23/256 and in line with best practices on the integration of gender in the exercise of mandates, the Commission has devoted specific attention to gendered issues and impacts of violations during the course of its investigations, paying particular attention to violence against women and children. Taking into account Human Rights Council Resolution 23/25, the Commission therefore paid specific attention to violence against women and girls and included the gender dimension of other violations in its report. Violence against women, in particular sexual violence, proved to be difficult to document owing to the stigma and shame that still attaches to the victims. The Commission takes the view that its inquiry may have only partially captured the extent of relevant violations.
Compared to the mandates given to other commissions of inquiry,7 paragraph 5 of Resolution 22/13 does not limit the temporal scope for the Commission’s inquiry. The Commission has focused on documenting violations that are reflective of the human rights situation as it persists at present. Within the limits of time, resources and available information at its disposal, the Commission has also inquired into patterns of human rights violations that may have commenced in the more distant past, but are continuing and/or have serious repercussions to this day. Historical events that predate the establishment of the DPRK are described where they are crucial to understanding the human rights violations in the DPRK and their underlying political, cultural and economic causes.
As to its geographic scope, the Commission has interpreted its mandate to include alleged violations perpetrated by the DPRK against its nationals both within and outside the DPRK as well as those violations that involve extraterritorial action originating from the DPRK, such as the abductions of non-DPRK nationals.
The Commission is of the view that violations committed outside the DPRK that causally enable or facilitate subsequent human rights violations in the DPRK, or are the immediate consequence of human rights violations that take place in the DPRK, are also within its mandate. In this respect, the Commission also made findings regarding the extent to which other states carry relevant responsibility.8
C. Non-cooperation by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Resolution 22/13 urges the Government of the DPRK to cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigation, to permit the Commission’s members unrestricted access to visit the country and to provide them with all information necessary to enable them to fulfil their mandate. Immediately after its adoption, the DPRK publicly stated that it would “totally reject and disregard” the resolution, which it considered to be a “product of political confrontation and conspiracy”.9 In a letter dated 10 May 2013, the DPRK directly conveyed to the President of the Human Rights Council that it “totally and categorically rejects the Commission of Inquiry”. Regrettably, this stance has remained unchanged, despite numerous efforts by the Commission to engage the DPRK.
In a letter addressed to the Permanent Mission of the DPRK in Geneva dated 18 June 2013, the Commission requested a meeting. This was followed by another letter sent on 5 July 2013, in which the Commission solicited the DPRK to extend cooperation and support by facilitating access to the country. The Permanent Mission of the DPRK in Geneva acknowledged the receipt of the two letters to the Commission’s Secretariat, but explicitly repeated the rejection of the mandate of the Commission.
The Commission reiterated its request to have access to the territory of the DPRK in a letter sent on 16 July 2013 to Mr Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This letter was unanswered.
The Commission also invited the authorities of the DPRK to send a representative or representatives to scrutinize the evidence and to make submissions during public hearings held by the Commission in Seoul, London and Washington D.C. There was no response to these invitations. The Commission is unaware of whether the DPRK made arrangements for the public hearings to be attended by a representative.
On 17 September 2013, during the interactive dialogue at the Human Rights Council, the Chair of the Commission reaffirmed that the Commission reached out in friendship to the DPRK and remained available to visit and engage in a dialogue on any terms that the authorities would consider appropriate. During the interactive dialogue at the Third Committee of the General Assembly on 29 October 2013, in the presence of the representatives of the DPRK to the United Nations in New York, the Chair again offered the opportunity of dialogue and interaction without any preconditions. These offers have not been followed up by the DPRK.
As late as 7 January 2014, the Commission provided written assurances to the authorities of the DPRK of its resolve to seek the advancement of the enjoyment of human rights by all people in the DPRK through the discharge of its mandate in an independent, impartial and transparent manner. The Commission reiterated its continued commitment to ensuring that its work be fully informed by the perspectives of the Government of the DPRK. It also emphasized that getting access to the concerned country and hearing the position of the authorities of the DPRK would contribute to a better understanding of the human rights situation inside the country. On this occasion, the Commission also offered to the Permanent Mission in Geneva to discuss the progress in the preparation of the report. All the above approaches to the DPRK have been ignored.
Before publication, the Commission shared the findings of this report, in their entirety, with the Government of the DPRK and invited comments and factual corrections. A summary of the most serious concerns, in particular those indicating the commission of crimes against humanity, was also included in a letter addressed to the Supreme Leader of the DPRK, Mr Kim Jong-un.10 To the date of writing of this report, there has been no response.
D. Methods of work
During its first meeting in the first week of July 2013, the Commission determined its methodology and programme of work. The Commission decided to pursue the investigation with a maximum of transparency and with due process guarantees to the DPRK, while also ensuring the protection of victims and witnesses.
In carrying out its work, and in assessing the testimony placed before it, the Commission was guided by the principles of independence, impartiality, objectivity, transparency, integrity and the principle of “do no harm”, including in relation to guarantees of confidentiality and the protection of victims and witnesses. Best practices were applied with regard to witness protection, outreach, rules of procedure, report writing, international investigation standards, and archiving.11
1. Public hearings
In the absence of access to witnesses and sites inside the DPRK, the Commission decided to obtain first-hand testimony through public hearings that observed transparency, due process and the protection of victims and witnesses. Victims and witnesses who had departed the DPRK, as well as experts, testified in a transparent procedure that was open to the media, other observers and members of the general public. More than 80 witnesses and experts testified publicly and provided information of great specificity, detail and relevance, sometimes in ways that required a significant degree of courage.
Public hearings were conducted in Seoul (20-24 August 2013), Tokyo (29-30 August 2013), London (23 October 2013) and Washington, D.C. (30-31 October 2013). The authorities of the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America provided operational and substantive support for the conduct of the public hearings, including by facilitating the identification and hiring of a venue, assisting in the provision of the services of professional interpreters and providing video-recording and transcripts of the proceedings. They also ensured the security of the hearings and facilitated contact with the national and international press corps and relevant civil society organizations and individuals.
The public hearings covered all areas of the mandate. Witnesses were required to affirm that they were testifying truthfully. The Commissioners ensured that witnesses limited their testimony to issues relevant to the human rights situation in the DPRK and avoided unrelated political or derogatory statements. They also spoke about abuses that they had suffered or witnessed in other countries, to the extent that there was a direct causal link between such abuses and the human rights situation in the DPRK.
The Commission invited the authorities of the DPRK to attend and, by leave, to ask questions and make representations at the public hearings in Seoul, London and Washington D.C., but received no reply. Instead, the official news agency of DPRK publicly accused the Commission of slander and claimed that witness testimony was fabricated.12 The Commission repeatedly invited the DPRK to adduce proof of its claims, but received no reply. It also put these claims to witnesses so that they could respond in their own words. Video recordings and transcripts from all public hearings are available on the Commission’s website.13The Commission has encouraged members of the public to study the recordings and transcripts in order to form their own opinions of the reliability and consistency of the witness testimony.
2. Confidential interviews
Many victims and witnesses who fled the DPRK were prepared to share relevant information, but would not do so publicly as they feared reprisals against family members who still remain in the DPRK. Persons who previously served in an official capacity in the DPRK were often particularly reluctant to be seen to cooperate publicly with the Commission. Some experts on the situation in the DPRK also preferred to be interviewed confidentially in order to preserve space for their direct engagement with the DPRK.
The Commission and its Secretariat conducted over 240 confidential interviews with individual witnesses. These interviews were conducted during visits to Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, London, and Washington, D.C. and through videoconferences and telephone calls.
Excerpts from these interviews are included in the report. In many instances, information on the exact place and time of violations and other details that might identify the witness has been withheld due to protection concerns.
3. Call for submissions and review of other written materials
In July 2013, the Commission addressed a call for written submissions to all United Nations Member States and relevant stakeholders. All interested states, persons or organizations were invited to share relevant information and documentation, which could be of assistance to the Commission in the discharge of its mandate. As of 3 November 2013, the deadline for sharing information and material with the Commission, 80 such submissions were recorded. Exceptionally, a small number of submissions received after the deadline were admitted. Additionally, a very large volume of correspondence was received by the Commission and the Commission’s members.
The Commission obtained and reviewed a wealth of other reports and written materials prepared by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, governments, research institutes and academics. While the findings in this report rely primarily on first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, the written record has provided invaluable context and a source of corroboration. Many reports and documents were tendered by witnesses at the public hearings. They were all recorded as exhibits and are part of the record of those hearings.
4. Engagement with other states
The Commission visited the Republic of Korea from 19 to 27 August 2013. In addition to the public hearing held in Seoul, the Commission met the Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, government officials from various ministries, local and international non-governmental and civil society organizations, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Korea Institute for National Unification.
The Commission visited Japan from 27 August to 1 September 2013. In addition to the public hearing held in Tokyo, the Commission met the Prime Minister of Japan, government officials from various ministries, and local and international non-governmental and civil society organizations.
The Commission visited Thailand from 18 to 20 September 2013. During this visit, the Commission met officials of the Royal Thai Government including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, representatives of international agencies, and local and international non-governmental and civil society organizations. The Commissioners conducted a confidential interview with the family of a suspected case of international abduction by the DPRK.
The Commission visited the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 23 to 25 October 2013. In addition to public hearing held in London, the Commission met the Minister of State responsible for the Far East and South East Asia of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, various government officials, non-governmental and civil society organizations.
The Commission visited the United States of America from 28 October to 1 November 2013. In addition to the public hearing held in Washington D.C., the Commission met officials of the United States Department of State, the chairperson and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, various government officials, experts, and non-governmental and civil society organizations.
Visits of the Commission to the respective countries were preceded by the deployment of the members of the Commission’s Secretariat to make preparations for the public hearings, meet with relevant partners and conduct confidential interviews in different locations in the country in the course of the Commission’s work. The Secretariat staff made an additional visit to Seoul at the end of October 2013 for three weeks to conduct additional confidential interviews and to carry out other follow-up action to the public hearings held in August 2013.
From its first working meeting in July 2013, the Commission sought access to the territory of the People’s Republic of China to conduct relevant inquiries and to consult with the authorities about the implementation of its mandate. Specifically, the Commission asked for access to the areas of the country bordering the DPRK, in order to obtain first-hand information about the situation of persons who fled the DPRK. Additionally, the Commission asked to meet Chinese experts on the DPRK to inform its investigations. After a series of informal meetings with diplomats of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office in Geneva, the Commission transmitted a formal request to the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China on 7 November 2013 for an invitation to visit China. In the letter, the Commission requested agreement to a visit to Beijing in order to meet relevant officials and experts and to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in order to interview DPRK nationals in holding centres and other places of detention as well as representatives of churches and other organizations who are involved in caring for DPRK nationals in China. The letter highlighted the alleged trafficking of women from the DPRK to China and the status of children of North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers as issues of prime concern for the Commission in China. On 20 November 2013, the Permanent Mission informed the Secretariat that, given China’s position on country-specific mandates, especially on the Korean peninsula, it would not be possible to extend an invitation to the Commission. In a follow-up letter, the Commission requested the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China in Geneva to provide information on the status of DPRK citizens and their children in China, forced repatriations to and related cooperation with the DPRK, human trafficking, and other issues of concern to the mandate of the Commission. On 30 December 2013, the Commission received a reply to its letter. An additional letter was received on 26 January 2013. The correspondence is annexed to the report of the Commission.14
Sections of the report that touch on the responsibility of other states, responsibility for their nationals and/or matters directly related to other states have been shared with the Governments concerned to permit factual corrections. Information received in response, within the stipulated deadlines, has been carefully reviewed by the Commission and integrated to the extent appropriate, in particular where facts were inaccurately expressed.
5. Cooperation of United Nations entities and other organizations
Resolution 22/13 encourages the United Nations, including its specialized agencies, regional intergovernmental organizations, mandate holders, interested institutions and independent experts and non-governmental organizations, to develop regular dialogue and cooperation with the Commission in the fulfilment of its mandate.
The Commission has engaged with a number of United Nations entities and humanitarian actors outside the United Nations system to obtain relevant information. A small number of United Nations entities were wary of cooperating openly with the Commission for fear of negative repercussions on their operations in the DPRK. Some provided relevant information, while others did not. This report only attributes information to specific organizations where such information is reflected in their public reports. The citation of a public report is not necessarily an indication that an organization has cooperated with the Commission.
The Commission extends its gratitude to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Apart from its dedicated Secretariat, the Commission also received advice and support from OHCHR’s standing function to support commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions and other human rights investigative missions. Such support and assistance was afforded with proper respect to the independence and integrity of the Commission, its members and its Secretariat. The Commission also interacted with, and received relevant information from, a number of mandate holders under the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council and human rights Treaty Bodies.
The Commission benefitted from the invaluable support of a number of non-governmental organizations that thoroughly document human rights violations in the DPRK. These organizations sometimes suffer from inadequate financial resources. Nevertheless, they went to great lengths to ensure that the Commission could gain the trust of victims and witnesses who had departed the DPRK.
6. Protection of witnesses and other investigative challenges
The Commission paid particular attention to the protection of victims and witnesses. The initial protection assessment carried out by the Commission indicated that the authorities of the DPRK routinely subject persons who speak out about the human rights situation in the DPRK to summary executions, enforced disappearances and other acts of violence. Grave reprisals have also been extended to the family members of such persons. The Commission took into account the policy of the People’s Republic of China to forcibly repatriate persons who depart the DPRK as well as known cases in which such persons were abducted by DPRK authorities and forced to return to the DPRK.
Bearing this context in mind, the Commission sought to exercise judgement, caution and sensitivity in all interactions with victims and witnesses. Constant assessments were made about the need to establish contact with persons who may be placed at risk as a result of that contact. Contacts were not attempted if the Commission determined that it would not be able to ensure the safety of a cooperating person, if the risk of harm was assessed to be too high or if the Commission did not have sufficient information to make an informed determination on the level of risk. In particular, the Commission did not pursue offers to have direct contact through mobile telephones with witnesses still residing in the DPRK.
In relation to the public hearings, protection concerns were carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant circumstances. In principle, the Commission only heard publicly from victims and witnesses who had no close family left in the DPRK or were judged not to be at risk in the People’s Republic of China. Informed consent of the witness to testify was a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement to allow for the testimony to be heard. In some cases, the Commission refused the offer of courageous witnesses who offered to testify in public, since reprisals against family were judged a real possibility. In other cases, victims and witnesses whose names and experiences were already subject to extensive media coverage were allowed to testify, unless there were reasonable grounds to believe that additional public testimony might result in further reprisals. The Commission also took care to ensure that witnesses’ testimony and questioning would not refer to the personal details of persons who had not expressed their consent to be identified in public and who could face protection concerns.
The identity of all witnesses was established by the Commission prior to the hearings. Most witnesses were also prepared to reveal their identity during the public hearings. For protection reasons, however, some witnesses were permitted only to identify themselves with a pseudonym (Ms X, Mr Timothy etc.) and to take measures to conceal their faces or adopt other identifiers. A small number of witnesses wore hats, sunglasses or other clothing that covered parts of their faces, measures to prevent the discovery of their identity.
Even these extensive protection measures may not prevent reprisals. The Commission requests that any information indicating that persons who cooperated with the Commission or their family members faced reprisals be brought to the immediate attention of the Secretary-General, through the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commission recalls that primary responsibility for protecting victims, witnesses and other persons cooperating with the Commission rests with their states of residence and nationality and urges Member States to provide additional protection measures where necessary.
The lack of physical access to witnesses and sites in the DPRK, coupled with the stated protection concerns, created a number of particular challenges for an effective investigation.
The pool of potential first-hand witnesses is limited to no more than 30,000 citizens who have left the DPRK, the vast majority of whom reside today in the Republic of Korea. Most of these witnesses are from provinces bordering China, which means that the situation in those provinces is relatively better documented than the situation in other provinces of the DPRK. In most cases, a person who fled the DPRK requires considerable time to reach a place of safety and to develop the courage necessary to speak about his or her experience. Given that the Commission applied a rigorous standard of proof based on first-hand testimony, it was therefore not able to confirm many of the most recent instances of human rights violations alleged by non-governmental organizations and media reports.
The most significant challenge faced by the Commission resulted from a fear of reprisals. The majority of potential witnesses were afraid to speak out even on a confidential basis because they feared for the safety of their families and assumed that their conduct was still being clandestinely monitored by the DPRK authorities. The Commission is therefore particularly grateful to those individuals who found the courage to break the wall of silence by testifying publicly or confidentially to the Commission.
Fear of reprisals for their work and operations has also limited the willingness of many aid workers, journalists, diplomats and other foreign visitors to the DPRK to share knowledge and information with the Commission. Nevertheless, foreigners usually have limited first-hand knowledge about the human rights situation, since they are denied freedom of movement in the country and their contact with DPRK citizens is closely managed and monitored.
The Commission found encouraging the amount of information that is seeping out of the DPRK with the advent and wider availability of technology. The Commission was able to rely on commercially available satellite images to confirm the existence of four political prison camps described in this report. Almost certainly, higher resolution satellite imagery produced by more technologically advanced states would have provided further information. Unfortunately, despite requests, these images were not made available to the Commission.
The Commission also obtained clandestinely-recorded videos and photographs showing relevant sites, documents and correspondence that elucidated alleged violations of human rights in the DPRK. The Commission relied on such material to the extent that it could confirm its authenticity.
The Commission is conscious of the fact that most victims and witnesses cooperating with the Commission had an overall unfavourable opinion of the DPRK’s authorities, though usually not of the country itself or its people. Through its refusal to cooperate with the Commission, the DPRK deprived itself of the opportunity to offer its own perspectives on the human rights situation and to provide information on any advances made in regard to the human rights of its population. The Commission has sought to account for these challenges by carefully reviewing information provided by the DPRK in publicly available documents. In particular, the Commission has reviewed the DPRK’s state reports to the Universal Periodic Review and the Treaty Bodies as well as the publicly available summaries of its responses to letters of allegations transmitted by the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Figures and other relevant claims of fact stated in these documents are reflected in this report, even if the Commission could not confirm their basis or validity.
E. Legal framework and standard of proof for reported violations
In assessing the human rights situation in the DPRK, the Commission relied chiefly on the binding legal obligations that the DPRK voluntarily assumed as a State Party to the human rights treaties mentioned above. Other obligations expressed in customary international law also bind the DPRK.
In relation to issues within its mandate that harken back to the period of the Korean War (1950-53), the Commission also took into account those residual obligations of international humanitarian law that continue to be applicable in the relations between the DPRK and other parties to that conflict.
The possible commission of crimes against humanity are assessed on the basis of definitions set out by customary international criminal law, which to a large extent overlap with those later expressed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Where appropriate, the Commission has also considered relevant obligations of other states, including the prohibition of refoulement under international refugee law and international human rights law as well as the rights and duties of states in extending diplomatic protection to their nationals and permanent residents.
Consistent with the practice of other United Nations fact-finding bodies, the Commission employed a “reasonable grounds” standard of proof in making factual determinations on individual cases, incidents and patterns of state conduct. These factual determinations provided the basis for the legal qualification of incidents and patterns of conduct as human rights violations and, where appropriate, crimes against humanity.
There are “reasonable grounds” establishing that an incident or pattern of conduct has occurred when the Commission is satisfied that it has obtained a reliable body of information, consistent with other material, based on which a reasonable and ordinarily prudent person has reason to believe that such incident or pattern of conduct has occurred. This standard of proof is lower than the standard required in criminal proceedings to sustain an indictment, but is sufficiently high to call for further investigations into the incident or pattern of conduct and, where available, initiation of the consideration of a possible prosecution. The findings of the Commission appearing in this report must be understood as being based on the “reasonable grounds” standard of proof, even when the full expression (“reasonable grounds establishing”) is not necessarily expressed throughout the text of this report.
In line with the methodology of the Commission, particular emphasis was given to information gathered during public hearings, given that the general public and experts can directly scrutinize the Commission’s assessment of the reliability and credibility of the witness and the validity of the information provided.
Individual cases and incidents reflected in this report are generally based on at least one credible source of first-hand information, which was independently corroborated by at least one other credible source of information. To the extent that protection considerations permit, sources are identified. Where the report describes patterns of conduct, these are based on several credible sources of first-hand information, which are consistent with, and corroborated by, the overall body of credible information collected. In the few instances where this rigorous standard of proof could not be met, but the Commission still considered it appropriate to reflect the incident or pattern, the underlying sources are identified.
The Commission considered the following to be sources of first-hand information:
(a) testimony provided in public hearings and confidential interviews by victims, eyewitnesses, victims’ close family members, perpetrators or former DPRK officials with direct knowledge of the issues, incidents and trends brought before the Commission, where it was assessed that the source was credible and reliable and the information valid;
(b) satellite imagery from reliable sources, authenticated video and photo material, autobiographies, and other documents containing first-hand information from a reliable source. This category also includes a number of exhibits received during the public hearings;
(c) publicly available admissions of relevant facts by the DPRK;
(d) laws, policies and directives of the DPRK as well as internal DPRK documents, provided that they were received from a credible and reliable source and their authenticity could be confirmed; and
(e) statistics, surveys and other quantitative information generated by the DPRK or the United Nations, to the extent that the data is based on an apparently sound methodology and the inputs underlying the data are considered valid and originating from a credible and reliable source.
The Commission relied on the following types of information for the purposes of corroborating information based on first-hand sources and providing the overall context to violations:
(a) testimony provided in public hearings or confidential interviews by witnesses who received the information directly from a person known to them (and not as a rumour), provided that the Commission assessed the source to be credible and reliable and the information to be valid;
(b) summaries of witness testimony contained in publications or in submissions by the United Nations, research institutes and human rights organizations, where the Commission assessed the source to be credible and reliable and the information to be valid; and
(c) summary descriptions of patterns of conduct contained in expert testimony, public reports, submissions, books, documentaries and similar materials, where the Commission assessed the source to be credible and reliable and the information to be valid.
The reliability and credibility of each source was carefully assessed by the Commission. The Commission considered whether the source was trustworthy and whether the person was telling what he or she believed to be true. This assessment took into account, amongst other considerations, the following:
(a) the witness’s political and personal interests, potential biases and past record of reliability (if known);
(b) the witness’s apparent capacity to correctly recall events, considering his or her age, trauma, how far back the events occurred, etc.;
(c) the position of the witness in relation to the subject of the information;
(d) where and how the witness obtained the information; and
(e) the reasons for which the witness provided the information.
The Commission additionally considered that any piece of information had to be assessed for its validity by considering, amongst other factors, the information’s relevance to the inquiry, its internal consistency and coherence, its logicality and its consistency with and corroboration by other information.
Assessments of the reliability and credibility of the source were separated from assessments of the validity of the information. The Commission did not assume that a witness, judged to be a credible and reliable source, would necessarily provide accurate and valid information.
Where information was assessed to meet the “reasonable grounds” standard, the Commission could reach its conclusions and draw inferences more comfortably because it had repeatedly offered to the authorities of the DPRK the opportunity to attend the public hearings, to obtain leave to ask questions to the relevant witnesses, and to address the Commission on such information. In addition, the Commission shared its findings with the DPRK and invited comments and factual corrections. The authorities of the DPRK have failed to avail themselves of such facilities by their own decisions.
Where the Commission refers in this report to a testimony of a witness, the testimony as assessed and described is accepted by the Commission as truthful and relevant (except to any degree expressly identified).
Direct reference to specific testimony in the report does not indicate that such testimony is the sole basis of judgement by the Commission in relation to the issues under analysis. Where these direct references and citations are found in the report, it is to be understood that the Commission has decided to introduce them for the purpose of providing an example or an illustration of broader human rights issues and/or patterns of conduct.
F. Archiving and record-keeping of testimony
With the assistance of relevant OHCHR sections, a confidential electronic database was specially created from an OHCHR standard model to enable the Commission to securely record and store information pertaining to its mandate. Specifically, the use of the database enabled the Commission to:
safely manage, follow-up and archive information;
keep information secure, including through encryption;
retrieve and analyse information; and
adhere to a sound human rights monitoring and reporting methodology.
The database contains the summary records of all interviews conducted with witnesses as well as electronic copies of relevant materials gathered during the course of the inquiry. As a fully searchable tool, the database facilitated the logical organization and retrieval of information for analysis, establishing trends and patterns which assisted in the writing of this report.
The free, informed and specific consent of interviewees to use and/or share information gathered was recorded in the database, as was any additional assessment of the Commission about possible protection risks of using and/or sharing the information received even when interviewees freely consented to its use.
The Commission of Inquiry has requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to safeguard the confidential database. The Commission has also informed the High Commissioner of its wish that the database remain a living instrument that will continue to be updated and expanded. The database should therefore be made accessible in full to OHCHR, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and any future United Nations mechanisms tasked to protect human rights in the DPRK.
Furthermore, the Commission has authorized the High Commissioner, acting as the residual Secretariat of the Commission, to provide access to the existing materials contained in the database to competent authorities that carry out credible investigations for the purposes of ensuring accountability for crimes and other violations committed, establishing the truth about violations committed or implementing United Nations-mandated targeted sanctions against particular individuals or institutions. Access should only be granted to the extent that witnesses or other sources of information concerned have given their informed consent and that any protection and operational concerns are duly addressed. To ensure that the information gathered by the Commission is preserved in its integrity once the Commission has fulfilled its mandate, the physical records of the Commission will also be archived in accordance with United Nations archiving practices.15
At this stage of the history of the Korean people, the creation and maintenance of an archive of the testimony of individual witnesses on human rights abuses in the DPRK and the writings of experts is an important contribution to human rights awareness and eventual accountability. Among the greatest affronts to the achievement and maintenance of universal human rights for all peoples is the risk that grave violations take place unknown, in secret, and are not recorded and analysed so that future generations can learn from, and resolve to avoid, shocking departures from the universal values recognized in international law. This report describes many such shocking departures.
III. Historical and political context to human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The current human rights situation in the DPRK has been shaped by the historical experiences of the Korean people. Confucian social structures and the oppression suffered during the Japanese colonial occupation have informed the political structures and attitudes prevailing in the DPRK today. The imposed division of the Korean peninsula, the massive destruction that occurred during the Korean War and the impact of the Cold War have engendered an isolationist mind-set and a deep aversion to outside powers. The particular nature and the overall scale of human rights violations in the DPRK can be better understood through an appreciation of the development of the system of government in the DPRK. The DPRK is a single-party state dominated by a family dynasty which controls the party, the state and the military. Rigid ideological tenets loosely based on socialist Marxist-Leninist theory and an extensive security apparatus sustain this regime.
Any description of history and political structures inevitably reflects the sources and viewpoints of those who record it. The Commission endeavoured at different stages to engage with the DPRK in order to receive directly its perspective, including on historical events. In the absence of any such engagement, the Commission has nonetheless sought to effect a balanced approach and to use the most reliable sources at its disposal to inform its understanding of the historical and political context to the human rights violations in the DPRK.
A. Pre-colonial history
The DPRK is often referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom” suggesting that the insularity of the North has been characteristic since its beginnings. The largely self-imposed relative isolation of the DPRK today is not, however, an extension of the earlier experiences of pre-modern Korea. It is believed that humans inhabited the Korean peninsula since Neolithic times, with the eventual emergence of settled communities based on agricultural production that led to enough surplus for horses, weapons and armies to sustain centuries of legends of epic battles among various indigenous kingdoms and against outside forces from modern-day China, Japan and Mongolia.
Over the course of pre-modern history, Korea established a class-based system whereby a small aristocratic elite, combining elements of a landed gentry and scholar-officials, eventually to be known as the yangban, ruled over peasants and lower classes that included merchants and labourers. Slavery and indentured servitude were also practised. This class-based system is sometimes characterized as feudal and perhaps more accurately as agrarian-bureaucratic. In theory, this system conferred elite status on men who had passed a rigorous civil service exam and were awarded high-level bureaucratic positions, somewhat analogous to the mandarin system in China. Over time, the yangban became, in practice, a hereditary institution through the family registry system that passed on elite status through the generations, with its self-perpetuating privileges including the right to participate in local councils.
The yangban class system speaks to the deep-rooted Confucian underpinnings of Korean society. Confucianism is essentially an ethical and philosophical system that regards adherence to strict hierarchies as important to social harmony and personal fulfilment. Five key relationships set out these hierarchies: sovereign and subject, husband and wife, parent and child, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. The most important of those is the parent and child relationship. In fact, respect for elders and social hierarchy based on age remain key features of Korean culture both in the North and South today. Likewise, the position of women remains adversely affected by traditional attitudes of inequality.16
B. Japanese colonial occupation (1910 to 1945)
The Japanese colonial occupation of Korea was preceded by centuries of encounters between Korea and the outside world, through invasions by, and relationships with, the Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Manchus, and, in later years, the Russians, French and Americans. In 1876, Korea signed an unfavourable treaty with Japan, although foreign influence inside Korea was not restricted to the Japanese. Factions allied with Chinese, Russian and United States interests, as well as native Korean reformers, jockeyed for position in the court of King Kojong. Korea was contested by each of the powers seeking to expand their spheres of influence in Asia. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) resulted in Japan ending Korea’s tributary relationship with China by formally declaring Korea to be independent, a status which allowed Japan to increase its influence on the peninsula. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) saw the Japanese defeat the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (in Dalian, China). This led to a peace treaty brokered by United States President Theodore Roosevelt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that recognized Korea as a protectorate of Japan. In 1910, Japan formally declared Korea to be a colony, ending its monarchy and requiring the allegiance of the Korean people to the Emperor of Japan.
Japan imposed various modernizing reforms, including in matters of social, administrative and economic organization. Nevertheless, Koreans have overwhelmingly viewed the colonial experience as negative and brutal. Koreans were subject to racial discrimination laws in their own country. They were prohibited from speaking the Korean language and made to adopt Japanese names. Japan sent around 700,000 nationals to fill roles in government service as all top administrative positions were filled by Japanese.17 Transportation, communications, industry and even agriculture were expanded for the benefit of the colonial power rather than the Korean people. The results of Japan’s modernization drive on the peninsula were characterized by patterns of development and underdevelopment. The question of whether Japan ultimately assisted Korea in its development remains highly contested both politically and in academia.18
The March First Independence Movement of 1919 prompted protests by students and other Koreans against Japanese rule in several Korean cities, including Seoul and Pyongyang. These non-violent demonstrations spread over the ensuing days to numerous cities and towns. Japanese authorities arrested thousands of Koreans, many of whom died as a result of torture and inhumane conditions of detention.19
Japan instigated major industrialization on the Korean peninsula as part of its massive war effort. Steel mills, factories and hydroelectric plants were built, mainly in the North. Much of the Korean population was uprooted from its agrarian base. Koreans, including women and children, were sent to labour in factories in the northern part of the peninsula and in Manchuria and to mines and other enterprises in Japan. Many of the labourers worked under terrible conditions, and a large number of men and women were conscripted as forced labour.20 By 1945, it is estimated that Koreans made up a large percentage of the entire labour force in Japan.21
It is estimated that by 1945, 20 per cent of all Koreans had been displaced from their places of origin, with 11 per cent displaced outside Korea.22 At the end of World War II, there were approximately 2.4 million Koreans in Japan, 2 million in China and about 200,000 in the Soviet Union.23 After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the colonial administration collapsed. Millions of displaced Koreans sought to return home while others stayed behind in Japan, China and the Soviet Union. The legacy of this forced displacement includes substantial minority populations of Koreans, particularly in Japan and northern China.24
C. Division of the peninsula, the Korean War and its legacy
As the end of World War II approached, the matter of the disposition of colonies around the world became subject to negotiation by the soon-to-be victorious powers. The United States of America suggested a multi-lateral trusteeship for Korea in its general preference for the establishment of gradual independence processes. In 1943, in anticipation of Japan’s defeat, the Allied Powers at the Cairo Conference set out an agreement for the independence of Korea “in due course”. In 1945, the United States decided on the 38th parallel to divide the Korean peninsula into two zones of control, one under an American sphere of influence and the other under a Soviet one. The United States sent 25,000 troops to South Korea in fulfilment of these arrangements. They were often met with resentment and resistance. In August 1945, the Soviet Union sent its 25th Army to North Korea where it set up the Soviet Civil Administration.
The Japanese departure from the Korean peninsula was abrupt. Self-governance groups, or people’s committees, appeared throughout the peninsula to fill the vacuum. The United States actively suppressed these groups while the Soviet Union developed them into core institutions of governance. When the Soviets arrived in Pyongyang, the leader of the Korean nationalists, Cho Man-sik, the most popular politician in North Korea, had established the South Pyongan Committee for the Preparation for Independence. Among the Soviet troops who were dispatched to North Korea were “Soviet Koreans”, ethnic Koreans who had been either been part of the substantial Korean minority population following immigration into the Russian Far East in the late 1860s or those more recent arrivals who had fled from Manchuria under intensified Japanese pressure against guerrilla fighters there. These Soviet Koreans included the 33 year-old Korean guerrilla hero Kim Il-sung who was a military officer with the rank of captain in the Soviet Army.
When the Soviet Union decided against retaining Cho Man-sik as the local leader, Kim Il-sung was selected as an alternate candidate. On 14 October 1945, Kim Il-sung spoke publicly for the first time to a mass rally in honour of the Soviet Army. He was introduced by Soviet General Lebedev as a “national hero” and an “outstanding guerrilla leader”. Nevertheless, Kim Il-sung was only one of three North Koreans who spoke at the event. He was not the most senior of them as Cho Man-sik remained the head of the Administrative Committee of the Five Provinces, the first proto-government established by the Soviets. In December 1945, however, the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, the United States and United Kingdom met in Moscow where they agreed to a joint trusteeship of Korea for five years. Nationalists in Seoul staged rallies against the decision. Cho Man-sik, likewise, refused to sign the declaration of support of trusteeship in January 1946. He was subsequently imprisoned and died in October 1950.
By 1946, the Soviet Civil Administration devolved authority to the local administration. Kim Il-sung was made head of the Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea. There was less resistance to the Soviet Union’s influence in the North than there was to the United States in the South. In March 1946, the Provisional People’s Committee issued a Land Reform Law which was signed by Kim Il-sung. Land belonging to Japanese entities and individuals as well as large landowners was confiscated and redistributed to former peasant tenants.25 The land reform in the North was generally successful and helped to strengthen the position of the new regime. In August 1946, the Provisional People’s Committee nationalized industry. Technically, only Japanese owners and Korean collaborators were subject to confiscation, but this effectively included all large and most medium sized industries. Efforts to promote national culture and education were also popular with the people. In 1947, the DPRK launched its first economic plan.
At the top, this early period was marked by intense factional jockeying for power that continued for over a decade. Kim Il-sung began to consolidate his power by placing his supporters, the young guerrillas who had fought with him against Japan in Manchuria—the Guerrilla Faction, into positions of power and purging those who posed a threat to his assumption of authority. In 1946, former Soviet police officer Pang Hak-se was appointed to head the Section on Political Defence of the state within the Security Department, which was the first organization for the political police and counter-intelligence. Pang Hak-se is credited as the founder of the North Korean political police. Despite coming from the Soviet Korean Faction, and not from Kim Il-sung’s own Guerrilla Faction, he maintained lifelong loyalty to him.
Although Kim Il-sung was by most accounts an accomplished guerrilla fighter, he quickly began to bolster his standing through enhancement of his personal record and engendering a cult of personality that has come to characterize the governance of the DPRK and the state’s approach towards freedom of information, opinion and expression. Former Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly Hwang Jang-yop explained:
The reason why Kim was chosen from among the Koreans in the 88th Infantry Brigade was apparently because he was young and had a good outlook. His experiences were no match for the Chinese [Korean] leaders of the day, though. Exaggerated propaganda was necessary in order to elevate a Russian army captain to the status of legendary North Korean hero, but at that time Korea had just experienced painful oppression under Japanese rule. This presented a good opportunity for exaggerated propaganda.26 In 1946, there was a consolidation of all political groups into the North Korean Workers’ Party. The North Korean armed forces were also organized and reinforced. They were trained and equipped by the Soviet military although initially they were disguised as police and railway defence units. By the time the DPRK was established in September 1948, Kim Il-sung was firmly in position as the head of the Cabinet of Ministers (or Premier). Soviet forces then withdrew in large numbers from the DPRK. In 1949, the DPRK instituted compulsory military service, bringing the total number of troops to between 150,000 and 200,000, organized into ten infantry divisions, one tank division and one air force division. This large military force was equipped with Soviet weapons, including T-34 tanks and Yak fighter planes. These forces were further bolstered by the return of 45,000 war-hardened Korean soldiers from China following the end of the civil war there.
Between 1945 and 1948, the 38th parallel turned into a heavily guarded border, while both sides of the divided peninsula contemplated the use of military force to achieve reunification. Tensions and military provocations increased after the respective departures of Soviet and United States forces in 1948. On 25 June 1950, Kim Il-sung, after finally securing support from both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong,27 initiated the Korean War by sending up to 90,000 Korean People’s Army troops over the 38th parallel in a multi-pronged attack that surprised both the ROK authorities and their United States advisors.28 Kim Il-sung was staking his claim to the leadership of the entire peninsula based on the perceived illegitimacy of the ROK leadership and expectations of insurgency in the South. Initially, the Korean People’s Army easily overwhelmed the forces of the ROK, which numbered fewer than 100,000 men. The capital Seoul fell in three days.
United States President Harry S. Truman interpreted the attack by the DPRK on the ROK as the first major test of the Cold War. He quickly ordered the deployment of United States troops while seeking endorsement of his actions from the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council had initially adopted a United States-led resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of North Korean forces to beyond the 38th parallel with a vote of 9 to 0 with three abstentions.29 The Soviet Union was not present to exercise its veto as a Permanent Member of the Security Council. The Soviet Union had been refusing to participate in the Security Council since January 1950 over the issue of the accreditation of China. China’s seat in the United Nations was still held by the representative of the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, despite the defeat of Nationalist forces on the mainland.30 On 27 June 1950, President Truman ordered United States air and naval forces to support the ROK. Security Council Resolution 83, adopted on the same day, determined that “the armed attack upon the Republic of Korea by forces from North Korea constitutes a breach of the peace”. It recommended that United Nations members “furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area”. On 7 July 1950, the Security Council further recommended that all members providing military forces and other assistance do so under the unified command of the United States and authorized “the unified command at its discretion to use the United Nations flag in the course of operations against North Korean forces concurrently with the flags of the various nations participating.”31 Fifteen states, in addition to the United States, contributed combat units to fight in the “international field force” under the United Nations Command. In August 1950, the Soviet Union returned to the Security Council and vetoed all further resolutions concerning the Korean War. The debate on Korea then shifted to the United Nations General Assembly.32
The ensuing months yielded a string of successes for the forces of the DPRK. By the end of August 1950, the DPRK’s military controlled 90 per cent of the Korean peninsula. However, an amphibious landing of United States troops under General Douglas MacArthur in Incheon in September 1950 turned the tide. With the support of the United Nations now behind them, the ROK forces marched northward and recaptured Seoul. General MacArthur pushed UN-backed forces up to the Chinese border despite warnings from the Chinese. By November 1950, the ROK supported by the United Nations Command controlled 90 per cent of the peninsula. The People’s Republic of China then sent hundreds of thousands of troops to bolster the Korean People’s Army. They succeeded in pushing United Nations and ROK forces back beyond the 38th parallel. The DPRK in its subsequent accounts of the war has minimized the decisive role played by the Chinese “volunteers”.33 Nevertheless, Chinese forces carried the main military burden for the rest of the war.34 The DPRK has consistently downplayed the extent of outside assistance that it received not only during the war but in rebuilding after the war and then sustaining its post-war economy. The counter-offensive by United Nations forces reduced the gains made by the Korean People’s Army and caused massive destruction in the North. Thereafter, two years of bitter stalemate ensued. During this time, more bombs were dropped on the DPRK than had been deployed in the entire Pacific theatre during World War II.35 The devastation caused to all parts of the Korean peninsula was enormous.36
The Korean War ended in 1953 in a ceasefire. On 27 July 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed by Lieutenant General of the United States Army William K. Harrison, Jr., for the United Nations Command, and General of the Korean People’s Army Nam Il for the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers. Over 2 million Koreans had been killed. Around 600,000 Chinese and over 36,000 United States combatants died.37 Other nationalities’ fatalities include over 1,000 from the United Kingdom, and hundreds from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey. Grave breaches of international humanitarian law were reportedly committed on both sides.38 United States military historian S.L.A. Marshall called the Korean War the “century’s nastiest little war”. It has also been referred to as the Forgotten War in the United States.39 The conflict, however, is far from forgotten in the DPRK where the war sacrifices were used to bolster the narrative of Kim Il-sung’s “forging of the nation”. In the DPRK, the authorized history remains that the Fatherland Liberation War was started by the United States, and that Kim Il-sung not only defended the nation but wrought devastation on the American military. This rhetoric continued for decades. For example, food aid from the United States provided during the mass starvation in the 1990s was reportedly explained to the population as war reparations.40
The legacy of the Korean War remains unresolved. The Armistice Agreement recommended a political conference within three months of the ceasefire. The 1954 Geneva Conference was attended by the Republic of Korea, the DPRK, China, the Soviet Union, and 16 of the 17 states that had contributed forces under the United Nations Command. After two months, these talks collapsed and have not resumed. There has not been a comprehensive peace treaty. On both sides of the border, there remains fear of invasion and infiltration. In the DPRK, this fear has been instrumental in maintaining a state of emergency invoked to justify harsh governmental rule and its accompanying human rights violations. In this context, perceived political dissidents have been branded as spies in the service of foreign powers. Shortages in food and other essential means of survival have been blamed on a hostile outside world. The ROK likewise experiences the insecurities of the unresolved war, which the country addresses through general conscription and other security measures. These security measures include restrictions that appear to infringe on the human rights of its citizens in particular respects such as the freedom of expression.41
The United States by 1954 was disassociating its forces from the United Nations Command and continued its engagement in the ROK through the United States-ROK Mutual Defence Treaty. At the same time, the other states that had committed troops to the United Nations Command withdrew most or all of their forces. The United States maintains a military presence in the ROK of about 28,500 people.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there were daily exchanges of fire along the demilitarized zone killing some 900 soldiers and civilians. In 1967, the DPRK sought to destabilize the ROK by utilizing its secret services. In 1968, 31 men from Unit 124 of the DPRK’s special forces attempted to enter the Blue House in Seoul in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. Nevertheless, in 1972, following secret negotiations between Kim Il-sung’s brother Kim Yong-ju and the ROK’s chief intelligence officer Yi Hu-rak, the ROK and DPRK released a joint statement on achieving reunification peacefully without the use of military force or external forces. Despite these developments, the DPRK sponsored a number of terrorist acts against civilian targets of the ROK. These included: the 1983 attempted assassination of the ROK President Chun Doo-hwan in Yangon through a bombing that killed 21 people including four Myanmar nationals; the 1986 Gimpo Airport bombing that killed five people; and the 1987 Korean Airlines bombing that killed 115 people. These actions contributed to the increasing international isolation of the DPRK.
The wounds inflicted by the Korean War were deep and are still felt. The Commission acknowledges the suffering that has occurred on both sides of the border.
D. Imposition of the Supreme Leader (suryong) system
While Confucian principles have remained enmeshed in Korean culture, in the North they were in many ways instrumentalized by Kim Il-sung in the effort to consolidate his authority and that of the Workers’ Party of Korea under his control. The relationship between sovereign and subject that is enunciated as a mutually binding one under traditional Confucian precepts has been stretched to one of absolute obedience to the leader as articulated in the suryong, or Supreme Leader, system42 established by Kim Il-sung and carried on under Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The “Mandate of Heaven”, a Confucian principle, is the right to rule granted to ancient Korean rulers by the gods. This mandate conveyed obligations on rulers to rule justly and fairly and for the benefit of all the people. The Suryong system positioned Kim Il-sung (and his heir apparent) as unchallenged rulers due to their proclaimed wisdom and benevolence under which the general population would live in a prosperous and righteous society. In this way, the suryong system has facilitated the unchecked violation of human rights in the DPRK.
In 1949, Kim Il-sung secured his designation as Suryong, Supreme Leader. In order to eliminate any opposition to his rule, he established a system of governance built on an elaborate guiding ideology, a single mass party led by a single person, a centrally-planned economy, a monopoly on the means of communication, and a system of security that employed violence and a political police. As a matter of priority, the DPRK built up its state security apparatus. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, modelled on the Soviet security system, with 4,000 to 5,000 headquarters staff, was comprised of 12,000 regular police, 3,000 political police, and 45,000 employees within the Security Guard units, Border Constabulary and Railroad Brigade. The Political Security Bureau within the Ministry was responsible for ensuring loyalty to the regime by uncovering and stopping resistance to authority and subversive activities. The Political Security Bureau also provided operational guidance to the Political Defence Bureau within the Ministry of Defence, which carried out the same functions within the military. The security system also employed an informant network of 400,000 people, an estimated 5 per cent of the population at that time.43
Having already commenced in the early stages of Kim Il-sung’s rule, the persecution of political and ideological opponents intensified during the Korean War.44 A large number of Koreans—estimates range from 685,000 to millions—moved to the South during the war.45 Before 1945, Protestant Christians were a politically active and substantial population but many departed North Korea. The remaining population was often subject to suspicion. Many were arrested, imprisoned or executed. In 1951, Kim Il-sung reorganized the Ministry of Internal Affairs and transformed the Political Security Bureau into its own new ministry, the Ministry of Public Security, to suppress political opposition more effectively.
After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung turned his focus to further consolidating his power through a series of purges targeting rival factions. The factional struggle within the leadership was comprised of four groups. The Domestic Faction, numbering about 500, was Koreans who had worked through the underground Communist movement through the colonial period. Many of them had moved to the North from the South. The Yanan Faction were Koreans who had left for China in the 1920s and 1930s, initially basing themselves in Shanghai then moving with the Communists to their civil war headquarters of Yanan. The Soviet Korean Faction, ethnic Koreans born or raised in the Soviet Union, numbered between 150 and 200. Kim Il-sung was able to play one faction against another while supporting his own Guerrilla Faction, those Koreans who fought against Japanese forces in Manchuria with him. In December 1952, Kim Il-sung denounced factions in a long speech to the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Party. In 1953, rumours of an aborted coup attempt by the Domestic Faction led to the arrest of their leaders. Twelve members of this group, leaders of the South Korean Workers’ Party responsible for organizing guerrilla activities in the South, were charged with planning a coup and spying for the United States. On the basis of trials that were highly orchestrated and heavily publicized, ten were convicted and sentenced to death while two were given long prison sentences.46
Kim Il-sung continued to face pressure within the leadership over his increasingly autocratic rule and emerging cult of personality as well as the direction of his economic policies. After 1953, the Soviet Union was itself undergoing a campaign of “de-Stalinization” that did not comport with Kim Il-sung’s efforts to consolidate his own rule. Instead, the Soviet Union was promoting collective leadership, peaceful co-existence and an end to the excesses of the Stalin era.
In August 1956, the members of the Yanan Faction openly criticized Kim Il-sung during the Party’s Central Committee Plenum. According to a Soviet account, one official “attacked Kim Il-Sung for concentrating entire state and Party power in his hands”.47The leaders of the Yanan faction who had tried to orchestrate the “August Conspiracy” were out-maneuvered by Kim Il-sung who isolated them before purging the rank and file of the faction members.48
In response to the criticism within the Party against his rule, Kim Il-sung expanded the Ministry of Internal Affairs to undertake what became one of the DPRK’s first large scale purges. On 30 May 1957, the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea adopted the resolution “On the Transformation of the Struggle with Counter-Revolutionary Elements into an All-people All-Party movement” (May 30th Resolution) to evaluate the political background of every adult in the DPRK. These developments were to become a turning point for the DPRK. Earlier purges had differed in that they had targeted specific groups of people, such as landlords, Christians and high-ranking Party members who were potential rivals to Kim Il-sung.49 This purge, lasting until 1960, resulted in thousands of executions, often in public. Pang Hak-se, the Minister of Public Security, told a Soviet diplomat that 100,000 people were exposed as “hostile and reactionary elements” between 1958 and 1959.50In 1959, the Ambassador of the German Democratic Republic to the DPRK also reported to his capital that, “In recent times, the persecution of comrades who express a different opinion has been increased. They are being sent to rural areas, mines, hydropower dams and also into prison camps.”51In order to sustain the large-scale purges of the late 1950s, a system of secret political prison camps was set up, which was later expanded.52
The May 30th Resolution effectively launched the Songbun system. Songbun translates literally as “ingredient” but effectively means background. It is a system through which the state categorizes citizens of the DPRK into classes based on their perceived political allegiance to the regime, ascertained by reference to family background and particular actions taken by family members. Based on this assessment, citizens fall into three broad classes: core, wavering and hostile.53Decisions about residency, occupation, access to food, health care, education and other services are contingent on songbun. While the official songbun structure was quite elaborate and changed over time, its main feature has been the unchallengeable nature of the designation which is inherited mainly through the paternal line.54 Following the May 30th Resolution, the Cabinet issued Decree No. 149 prohibiting members of the hostile class from residing near the Demilitarized Zone or coastal areas, within 50 km of Pyongyang or Kaesong, or within 20 km of any other large city. In effect, a large number of people were forcibly transferred to the rough mountainous regions in the northern part of the country where special settlements were created for these exiles.55
After the Korean War ended in 1953, the DPRK government collectivized agriculture and established a centrally-planned economy based largely on heavy industry. Those people who remained on farms were allowed to keep a small proportion of their production while the rest was taken by the state. The government assigned people to compulsory employment.56In 1957, the DPRK instituted the Public Distribution System to provide food and to ration other goods. As the DPRK was highly urbanized, an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of the population relied on the state for these food distributions. The Public Distribution System suppressed private production and monopolized distribution of food and household necessities. The entire economic framework of the country, and in particular the Public Distribution System, became an important means of social, economic and political control.57
By the early 1960s, Kim Il-sung successfully suppressed public dissent. Any critical remark about the political or economic situation could, and not infrequently did, lead to imprisonment and worse. According to Russian observers who were in the DPRK at the time, arrests and even executions were imposed for an attitude deemed to be excessively warm towards the Soviet Union, as well as any positive remarks about the scientific, technical, or cultural achievements of other countries.58
While the threat of these extreme human rights violations constituted a form of terror deployed against the general population, Kim Il-sung continued periodically to instigate purges within the leadership of the party and military.59 For example, in 1964, after the resolution “On Further Strengthening the Work with Various Groups and Strata of the Population” was adopted by the 8th Plenum of the Party’s Central Committee, a new campaign was launched to further refine the Songbun system. Between 1964 and 1969, this work was conducted by specially created groups. This exercise led to more people being exiled, arrested and executed as enemies of the regime.60
From the early days of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung and the Workers’ Party of Korea had employed the law and the justice system for purposes of maintaining the Party’s supremacy and suppressing political dissent. In his March 1958 speech “For the Elaboration of the Judicial Policy of our Party”, Kim Il-sung explained that the dictatorial functions of the judicial, procuratorial and public security organs should be enhanced. He said that “the DPRK’s laws should serve as a weapon to champion socialism” and emphasized that “all the workers of the judicial organs should be true to the Party’s leadership and intensify the struggle against counter revolutionaries by firmly relying on the judicial policy of the Party”.61 According to official DPRK sources, Kim Jong-il carried on with the approach of making the justice system, and judges in particular, subject to the instructions of the Workers’ Party of Korea. According to official DPRK sources, Kim Jong-il “saw [to it] that Party committees at all levels were strengthened and their functions and roles were improved in order to intensify Party guidance over … public security work, and judicial and procuratorial work.”62
The political function of the law and the justice system has also been entrenched in the DPRK’s criminal legislation, starting with the 1950 Criminal Code, which borrowed language from the Criminal Act of the Soviet Union that was in force under Joseph Stalin. Many of the overt references to the function of criminal law as a tool of political control were removed in subsequent revisions. However, the present criminal law of the DPRK still requires the state to carefully identify friends and enemies of the state in its struggle against “anti-state and anti-people crimes”, and to subdue the small minority of enemies.63 Furthermore, the state is tasked to rely on the power and wisdom of the masses in its handling of criminal cases,64 rather than to impartially apply the law. Moreover, the Criminal Code currently in use defines “Crimes against the state or the people” (called anti-revolutionary crimes in the past) in such broad and vague terms that the exercise of any number of human rights can be prosecuted as a crime.65
To the extent that the law and the justice system serve to legitimize violations, there is a rule by law in the DPRK, but no rule of law, upheld by an independent and impartial judiciary. Even where relevant checks have been incorporated into statutes, these can be disregarded with impunity. Decisions of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Supreme Leader are generally considered to override formal laws. This principle is reflected in article 11 of the Constitution according to which the DPRK conducts all activities under the leadership of the Party.66 The Constitution also establishes that orders of the Supreme Leader supersede laws or other directives.67 The political function of the judiciary is inscribed in article 162 of the Constitution, which, among other tasks, requires the courts to protect through judicial procedure state power and the socialist system and to staunchly combat class enemies. The superiority of executive orders and the political function assigned to the courts severely curtails the independence and impartiality of the judges.
Formally, judges in the DPRK are appointed by and accountable to the Supreme People’s Assembly and provincial people’s assemblies. One former official, however, directly acquainted with the process, indicated that judges are in practice selected by and subject to the orders of the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party of Korea.68 As a matter of law, the courts are reportedly also subject to the detailed oversight of the Office of the Prosecutor, which is legally required to consider each case to determine whether a hearing has been conducted at the right time and in the correct manner as required by law.69
In the 1960s, after Kim Il-sung had eliminated his potential rivals who were largely affiliated with the Chinese and Soviet factions, he actively distanced himself from the Soviet Union and China. China by 1966 was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution which caused great human suffering and disruptions that threatened to spill over into the DPRK.70 As Kim Il-sung also reduced contact with the Soviet Union and East European socialist states, economic assistance from these countries, which had been substantial, likewise began to dwindle.71 At the same time, he expanded his cult of personality and set out a policy of self-reliance and extreme nationalism known as Juche.72 Kim Il-sung promoted the Juche ideology in conjunction with a policy to focus on military readiness under the Four Military Lines doctrine.
Juche has been variously called a philosophy, an idea and an ideology. First espoused in a speech in December 1955 entitled “On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing Juche in Ideological Work”, Kim Il-sung called for a Korea-centred revolution rather than one designed to benefit another country or the international fraternal movement. According to Juche ideology, citizens should develop the potential of the nation through its own resources and human creativity as guided by the Supreme Leader. Wherever the leader conveys his wisdom through instructions, it was the duty of the people to learn from him. As Confucianism placed high value on enlightenment achieved by mastering of the classics and applying these lessons, the DPRK imposed rigorous and constant study sessions of Kim Il-sung’s works, particularly those dealing with Juche, on all citizens young and old.73