Background Briefing

II. International Law Violations in North Korea’s Treatment of Border Crossers

North Korea’s policy of punishing border crossers is a clear violation of the fundamental right to leave one’s own country. Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”31 Article 12(2) of the ICCPR states, “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.”

The beatings, stress positions, and other abusive physical punishment in detention described above violate some of the basic rights guaranteed in the ICCPR. Article 7 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 10 states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

North Korea has been a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) since September 1981. Under the covenant, North Korea has an international legal obligation to provide adequate food to prisoners, who are under the direct control and care of the authorities. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights elaborated on states’ obligations to provide access to adequate food in General Comment 1, “… whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfill (provide) that right directly.”32

The Committee also says in its General Comment 3(10), “in order for a State party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core obligations to a lack of available resources, it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposition in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations.”33

In November 2006 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on North Korea to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, following multiple resolutions by the UN Commission on Human Rights. In North Korea, many basic rights are not guaranteed, including the freedom of thought, association, movement, organized political opposition, labor activism, or religion. Grave violations committed by the state include arbitrary arrests, torture, lack of due process and fair trials, and executions. International human rights organizations are not allowed access to North Korea to investigate violations. For three years, North Korea has refused to engage in dialogue with Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN special rapporteur on North Korea.

31 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A(III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948), art. 13(2).

32 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “Substantive Issues Arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” General Comment No. 12, The right to adequate food (Art. 11), E/C.12/1999/5 (1999), (accessed February 13, 2007).

33 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 3, The nature of States parties obligations (Art. 2, par.1), (1990), (accessed February 13, 2007).