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Joint Letter to South Korean Government Regarding South Korean Policies on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees

Hyun In-Taek            
Unification Minister
37 Sejongno (Doryeom-dong)
Jongno-gu, Seoul
Republic of Korea  

Re: South Korean Policies on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees

Dear Minister Hyun,

We write to urge your government to make human rights a central priority in all dealings with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and to maintain a solid and principled stance on rights issues, irrespective of the state of inter-Korea relations.

Human rights conditions in North Korea remain dire. There is no organized political opposition, independent labor unions, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees and lack of due process in the criminal justice system are serious and endemic violations. Repression of anyone perceived as a potential critic of the existing order is so severe that there is not a single publicly known dissident or activist living in North Korea.

For too long North Korea's nuclear ambitions have overwhelmed all other issues in bilateral dialogues and relations, sidelining the human rights situation in North Korea. One and a half decades later, North Korea's nuclear problem remains unresolved. For a long-term resolution of security issues, one needs to address the repressive system underneath.

With that in mind, we welcome the November 6 suggestion by President Lee Myung-bak's senior advisers that a future inter-Korea summit place both North Korea's nuclear weapons program and human rights in North Korea on the agenda. We also welcome the fact that the South Korean government has co-sponsored and voted in favor of General Assembly resolutions criticizing human rights violations in North Korea in 2008 and 2009. We note President Lee Myung-bak's statement after a summit with US President Barack Obama on November 19, 2009 that the two leaders "agreed to pay attention to North Korea's humanitarian issues and work together to improve them." President Lee also said in an April 2008 summit with former US President George W. Bush that the two leaders "reaffirmed that nuclear nonproliferation and the promotion of democracy and human rights are all a vital component in making our world a better, safer place."

Our organizations have conducted research on human rights conditions inside North Korea for many years, including on the right to food, workers' rights, treatment of repatriated North Koreans, prison conditions, abductees, and the plight of North Korean refugees, among other issues. Two of our organizations also provide assistance to North Koreans in transit or to those who are resettling in Japan or South Korea. We urge your government to take up the following issues:

Strong Multilateral and Bilateral Diplomacy on Human Rights in North Korea

When the leaders of the two Koreas meet to discuss human rights in North Korea, the agenda should include the following key issues, in addition to points on food aid, refugees, abductions, and Kaesong, addressed below:

  • Advocating for an immediate and permanent ban on public executions and taking steps to abolish the death penalty. North Korea routinely executes people for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
  • Urging cooperation with the UN human rights bodies, and opening the country to visits by UN special rapporteurs and technical assistance from the Office ofthe High Commissioner for Human Rights. Of high priority should be facilitating inspection of all types of detention facilities by United Nations or other independent international experts and the implementation of recommendations from such trips.
  • Ending the punishment of North Koreans who return home, either voluntarily or forcibly, after leaving the country without state permission.

Abductees, Prisoners of War and Separated Families

South Koreans abducted by the North Korean government since the 1950-53 Korean War include hundreds of fishermen, eleven crew and passengers of a Korean Air plane hijacked by North Korean agents in December 1969, and a small number of students, teachers, and church ministers. According to the 2009 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, published by the Korea Institute for National Unification, 500 South Korean abductees are believed to be still living in North Korea. Only seven people have escaped and returned to South Korea.

The White Paper also estimates that at least 560 South Korean prisoners of war from the 1950-53 Korean War are believed to be still living in North Korea against their will. The figure is based on the testimonies of dozens of prisoners of war who escaped North Korea to return home between 1994 and 2008. The paper states that the North Korean government forcibly relocated many southern prisoners of war to mines in northeastern North Korea where food is scarce and living conditions are extremely harsh.

In addition, since the Korean War, an estimated one million Koreans have been separated from their families. According to the Ministry of Unification, about 127,600 South Koreans have applied to take part in reunion meetings organized by the two Korean governments since the 1980s. Of them, about 86,400 are still living, but only about 17,000 people have met their families in reunion meetings over the past decade.

In dealing with North Korea, the South Korean government should prioritize the safe return of all its citizens living in North Korea against their will, and assist aging South Koreans to meet their long-separated family members in North Korea. We recommend that the South Korean government: 

  • Press North Korea to grant exit visas to prisoners of war, South Korean abductees and their families who wish to leave North Korea for South Korea or other countries. The International Committee of the Red Cross should independently assess each individual's wishes in private interviews, without the presence of other North Koreans.
  • Press North Korea to agree to regular reunion meetings of long-separated families and allow regular exchanges of letters or phone calls between them on humanitarian grounds. Such meetings should not be held hostage to developments in inter-Korea relations.

Food Aid

Although the country recovered from the 1990s famine that killed millions, North Korea still suffers from widespread hunger. In September 2009, the World Food Programme reported that a third of North Korean women and children are malnourished and the country will need to import, or receive as aid, almost 1.8 million tons of food to feed the most vulnerable population. South Korea has been a generous donor of food aid to North Korea since North Korea suffered a famine in the 1990s and through most of the 2000s.

We believe humanitarian aid should continue and should never be used as a political tool. But we would like to emphasize that it is crucial to monitor the distribution of such aid. Humanitarian aid should reach the most vulnerable, including young children, the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant and nursing women. Donors should make sure that aid is reaching the intended recipients.

The deterioration of the state rationing system as food has become more of a market commodity has made food too expensive for many North Koreans to access in sufficient quantities. Market "trickle down" effects do not ensure that those on the bottom of the economic ladder receive sufficient food. For this reason, we believe that South Korea should:

  • Continue to urge the North Korean government to accept proper monitoring of food aid distribution consistent with international standards of transparency and accountability. These standards include access throughout the country to determine needs and the ability to visit places where food aid is delivered.


Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans crossed the border to China since a famine hit the country in the mid-1990s. Although the number of such people decreased significantly, border crossings to avoid wide-spread hunger, earn income, and escape political repression continue to date. China has an obligation to protect and shelter them as refugees, but periodically arrests and repatriates them instead. Those who are forcibly returned face grave human rights abuses, including detention, inhuman treatment, torture, imprisonment in labor and the so-called political prison camps, and even execution.

South Korea has resettled some 17,000 North Korean refugees, mostly in the past decade, and offered them generous subsidies in the form of housing, education, job training, and living expenses to assist their settlement. Most of those who ultimately end up in South Korea go through long and treacherous journeys, which may include weeks or even months in immigration detention centers in transit countries such as Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Alarmingly, some North Korean refugee women and children become victims of sexual assault and exploitation during their flight at the hands of human traffickers, Chinese men they live with, and other men.

A survey by the Ministry of Unification showed that three fourths of all North Koreans who arrived in South Korea between January and August 2008 showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety, mostly because of the threat to their lives and other severe abuse they suffered during their flight. Hanawon, the South Korean government resettlement center, has medical personnel in charge of mental health, but there is no long-term, systematic treatment program for mental illnesses and conditions for North Koreans after they leave Hanawon.

We recommend that the South Korean government:

  • Approach other governments in the region, particularly China, to ensure that all North Korean refugees who seek refuge at South Korean diplomatic facilities receive prompt assistance to be safely transferred to their desired destination, including South Korea. Offer to accommodate North Korean refugees, or pay for the cost of accommodation, while they await their transfer to South Korea.
  • Send clear instructions to all South Korean diplomatic facilities on the principle of receiving and sheltering North Korean refugees and assisting with their transit.
  • Press North Korea to abolish penalties on North Koreans who leave the country without official permission, halting their punishment in practice, and enabling international monitoring of those who are repatriated or who voluntarily return. The persecution of persons for leaving North Korea creates thousands of refugees sur place every year, and deepens regional instability and tension with North Korea's neighbors.
  • Press China to stop arresting and repatriating North Korean refugees, including women in de facto marriages with Chinese men, and to fulfill its obligations to shelter and protect them under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Press China to allow the United Nations high commissioner for refugees access to North Koreans to determine their status, and assist with their safe and speedy settlement in China or transit to a third country.
  • Create a team of experts trained to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses and conditions to assist North Korean refugees. Such a team should include experts on sexual abuse and exploitation to interview North Korean women and children to assess their condition and implement long-term treatment programs for physical and psychological injuries.

Kaesong Industrial Complex

South Korean businesses employ some 40,000 North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in North Korea. International human rights organizations have never been given access to investigate workers' rights at the complex, which opened in June 2004.

Proponents for the KIC argue that the facilities are clean, modern, and the workers earn more money than most other factory workers in North Korea. The KIC Labor Law also guarantees some important labor protections, including paid vacation days, 150 days of maternity leave, restrictions on firing workers and recognition of the employers' responsibility to protect workers from dangerous work environments.

However, in the KIC Labor Law, many fundamental rights are missing, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the right to strike, prohibition of sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and a ban on harmful child labor. In addition, although the KIC Labor Law stipulates that South Korean companies shall pay the North Korean workers directly in cash, South Korean employers are forced to pay workers' salaries to the North Korean government instead. If the North Korean government can force South Korean employers to break a regulation designed to protect the workers, there is no guarantee that other such regulations are respected.

We recommend that the South Korean government:

  • Press North Korea to join the International Labour Organization, accede to its core treaties, and invite ILO officials to investigate and discuss protection and promotion of workers' rights in North Korea.
  • Press North Korea to amend the KIC Labor Law to meet the standards on workers' rights articulated in the ILO Declaration on Principles and Rights at Work, and that workers are aware and understand these rights.
  • Press North Korea to permit independent, third-party workers' rights monitoring visits by the ILO or an international human rights, workers' rights, or trade union organization. During monitoring visits to worksites, monitors should randomly select workers to interview anonymously and outside the watch of North Korean supervisors, collect and review relevant employer records, and publicly disclose the results of the visits.
  • Ensure that South Korean corporations operating at the KIC respect the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and in turn ensure that workers in their enterprises are fully informed of their rights and how to exercise them. As a member of the OECD, South Korea has pledged to adhere to the guidelines.

We are fully aware that improving human rights conditions in a country such as North Korea is a daunting task. However, South Korea has a chance to help improve human rights conditions for North Koreans by increasing pressure on North Korea and its neighbors to improve their human rights records. We believe it is crucial that the South Korean government take a leadership role in this difficult task.

We would be happy to discuss these matters further with you.


Brad Adams, Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

Benjamin Hyun Yoon, Representative, Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

Kato Hiroshi, Executive Director, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees

Kotaro Miura, Secretary General, The Society to Help Returnees to North Korea

Cc: Yu Myung-hwan, Foreign Minister, Government of South Korea

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