North Korea’s pre-trial detainees are subjected to systemic torture, humiliation and sexual assault, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, which says those held in jails in the hermit kingdom are treated “worse than animals”.
The organisation gathered accounts from eight former government officials who fled the country and 22 North Koreans – 15 women and 7 men – held in detention and interrogation facilities, shedding light on the treatment they received. The detainees described repeated torture, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and unpaid forced labour.
Among those quoted in the report is a former soldier who fled North Korea in 2017.
He said detainees were made to sit still on the floor for days on end, and beaten and kicked if they moved. Guards would tell them to stick their palms out and beat them with sticks, one by one.
“If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars,” the soldier said.
Detainees described living in inhumane conditions, with prison cells which were always overcrowded and had no basic facilities. People had little to no food, couldn’t bathe or clean and were not provided basic menstrual hygiene facilities, while the majority of jail inmates didn’t have a blanket or enough space to sleep on the floor.
Corruption is also rampant, according to the report, and some prisoners would bribe officials for more food and better facilities, leading to an unequal distribution of limited resources.
Some female detainees reported sexual harassment and assault, including rape.
“Interviewees said that agents from the police, secret police, and the prosecutor’s office, most in charge of their personal interrogation, touched their faces and their bodies, including their breasts and hips, either through their clothes or by putting their hands inside their clothes,” the report states. “They said they were powerless to resist because their fate was in the hands of these men.”
"North Korea's pre-trial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading," HRW Asia director Brad Adams said.
“North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections,” he added.
Former detainees told HRW that after they were arrested, they had no guarantees that they would get a fair trial or independent legal representation. Detainees had no means to complain or appeal against the torture and mistreatment they received, and there was an assumption that once someone faces an allegation, there is little chance that they won’t receive at least a short prison sentence.
Explaining the hatred that the authorities in the North Korean regime have towards detainees, four former government officials said that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers them to be inferior human beings, and therefore unworthy of direct eye contact with law enforcement officers.
While the HRW report specifically highlights pre-trial abuse of detainees, North Korea’s gross human rights violations across the board are well documented. In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said that the systematic human rights violations committed by the North Korean government constituted crimes against humanity.