(Bangkok) – The North Korean government regularly arrests, abuses, tortures, and imprisons citizens for a variety of economic “crimes”. The harsh punishment of these “crimes,” which are often no more than attempts to engage in private economic activity to support livelihood and basic rights to food, clothing and shelter, should be investigated by the recently established Commission of Inquiry created by the UN Human Rights Council to examine human rights violations in North Korea.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 90 North Koreans who have fled the country within the past two years. They told of facing harsh punishments, including imprisonment, physical abuse while in detention, and forced labor, for engaging in unauthorized economic activities. These “crimes” include violating travel permits, engaging in private trading activities, using mobile phones to call overseas, and possessing DVDs and CDs containing music and drama shows from China and South Korea.
“The collapse of North Korea’s public distribution system of food and other necessities fuelled a survival response resulting in increased private economic activities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “North Koreans also have greater access to information through technology, so they know how the rest of the world is living and how bad the situation is at home. The response by North Korean police and security officials has been to crack down on efforts to survive by trading goods and services, showing the determination of the government to maintain control over people’s everyday lives.”
Beginning in 1998, the government greatly reduced public distribution of food rations, forcing North Korean families to increasingly rely on their ability to farm, conduct small businesses, and trade in a highly uncertain political and regulatory environment.
The 2004 criminal code contains a chapter on “Offenses against the Management of the Economy” that criminalizes a wide swath of economic activities, including engaging in “illegal commercial activities, therefore gaining large profits” (articles 110 and 111) and “illegally giving money or goods in exchange for labor” (article 119).
These restrictions, when combined with other parts of the law that criminalize violations of trade and impose foreign exchange controls, allow the North Korean government to prosecute people for conducting almost any economic activity. Initial hopes in the international community that the ascension in January 2011 of Kim Jong-Un, the young, foreign-educated son of Kim Jong-Il, to power in Pyongyang might lead to economic and political changes have been dashed.
“Facing abject poverty and hunger because of North Korea’s chronic food shortages, increasing numbers of North Koreans have to risk violating the government’s controls on internal movement,” Robertson said. “Leaders in Pyongyang who never lack food for themselves should end this heartless policy and allow the North Korean people to move freely within the country and exercise their right to a livelihood without fear of punishment or retaliation.”
North Korea’s restrictions on movement and economic activities, when combined with the failure of government services, violate article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that sets out that all persons have the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Moreover, the government is violating article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified by North Korea in 1981) that “recognize[s] the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
Human Rights Watch has collected testimony about the specific crimes currently being prosecuted in North Korea. They include:
• Selling – or even watching – CDs or DVDs of unauthorized content such as South Korean entertainment shows;
• Movement or travel inside or outside North Korea without official permission;
• Using a mobile phone, with severe punishments for calling outside of the country; and
• Any contact, either economic or personal, with South Korea.
“In a world of fast-flowing information, even North Korea is susceptible to new communication technologies,” Robertson said. “Imprisoning those with CDs and DVDs is not going to stop the inevitable flow of information through new technology. Kim Jong-un should immediately order an end to arresting and imprisoning people simply for possessing TV programs and music from other countries.”
North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and should fully comply with article 19 of that instrument, which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
A former military officer who had served as a senior official in the North Korean State Security Department told Human Rights Watch that on the border where he was stationed “every captured defector was sent to me.” One of his primary tasks was to assess the person’s intent, especially if they were seeking to go to South Korea or be involved with South Korean groups on the Chinese side of the border. He said, “To catch a defector who intended to go to South Korea would be the best accomplishment for people like me,” and added that, “Defectors related to South Korea ended up being sent to the State Security Department.… Once the State Security Department is involved, defectors are sent to political prison camp.”
Another North Korean defector’s account given to Human Rights Watch supports this contention. “Staying in China was considered as a misdemeanor, but as far as being accused [of something] relating to South Korea, people got punished severely.”
“Crossing into China to buy and sell is widespread but still risky,” Robertson said. “However, suspicion of using a mobile phone to call South Korea or trying to flee through China to travel to South Korea crosses a line that the North Korean authorities do not tolerate.”
While private economic activities are carried out openly in many parts of the country, farmers and traders risk arbitrary arrests and crackdowns, opening them to abuse, extortion, and imprisonment. As one long-time trader who succinctly described it to Human Rights Watch, “Doing a business is considered as a crime, regardless of the kind of business.”
“The government’s predatory behavior towards those involved in trading activities is underpinned by a willingness to arbitrarily arrest and abuse traders taken into custody, and then squeeze them for bribes in order to be released,” Robertson said. “Economic desperation will continue to fuel movement and trading, leaving local officials in the driver’s seat of North Korea’s unofficial market economy.”
Background and selected testimonies from North Korean refugees
People Punished for Selling or Watching DVDs
North Koreans interviewed by Human Rights Watch frequently spoke of punishments for accessing entertainment or information from outside the country. Among the most popular goods being traded in North Korea are music and films from outside North Korea. Entertainment shows from South Korea are particularly popular and have served to undermine the North Korean government’s negative portrayals of South Korea. Foreign CDs and DVDs are increasingly common, yet remain hidden because anyone selling them faces arrest, abuse in detention, and being sent to prisons where they are tortured and forced to labor.
A trader told Human Rights Watch that she had to flee North Korea when another trader to whom she had just sold 300 DVDs was arrested by the police. “I didn’t want to go against the law, but without doing that it is hard to earn money.… I know it is illegal to sell those things.… If someone is arrested, the rich can be released by paying money, but the poor will have to serve many years of a [prison] sentence.”
A female North Korean trader said that since most of the CDs and DVDs contain South Korean shows, “punishment is also harsh” for those who sell or watch them. She added that “Many people were arrested because of these CDs and DVDs, and even a person who was at the bottom of the case [i.e., the lowest level of distribution] is arrested.”
A woman who fled from North Korea explained that she and her daughter were caught watching DVDs by a group of informers, arrested, and held for a month by local authorities who beat them to force them to confess. She said they were then sent to the state security office, which ordered them to do forced labor in a prison. When asked why this happened, she replied, “The North Korean government will never let its people see the outside world so it can keep its own system.”
One female trader told Human Rights Watch that, “If you are caught while you are watching the [South Korean] drama, you will go to the prison (kyo-hwa-so, or re-education center) immediately.” Another North Korean woman told Human Rights Watch that “watching South Korean TV shows … means you can be taken. One of my neighbors watched the TV programs at night with the door firmly closed but the lady living next door was an informer … the next day, she was taken by the bowibu (State Security Department). Her TV and DVD player were taken, she needed to pay a penalty, and she was sent to the ro-dong dan-ryeon dae (labor training center) for non-political criminals.”
Another defector from North Korea whose father was a high-ranking police official also viewed DVDs of South Korea programs surreptitiously. He said many people viewed them, and they “were watching them not confidently, but secretly, it was very sensitive so we couldn’t talk about them [to others] unless were close to them … we watched them with all the curtains drawn.” One North Korean woman told Human Rights Watch that, “My happiest moments when I was in North Korea were watching [South] Korean TV shows. I felt like I was living in that same world [as those actors on the show].… Watching Korean shows was really common in North Korea.”
Traders smuggle or buy goods that are smuggled into North Korea, such as cigarettes, electronic appliances, TVs, and other goods. North Korean defectors who have left the country within the past two years told Human Rights Watch that harassment and arrests for economic activities hit women particularly hard, because they traditionally have the responsibility for family affairs, including ensuring there is sufficient food and goods in the home to sustain the family. As one North Korean woman explained, “The reason why women mostly have the responsibility for earning is it has been traditionally established that ‘men at work, women in home.’ Women take charge of family affairs, so if her family lives in poverty, then the woman should go out to make a living.”
Punished for Moving Inside the Country Without Permission
Movement within the country without appropriate government-issued permits is also a criminal offense. Permits are required to leave one’s home area and move internally within North Korea or to leave the country. This violates international law. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by North Korea in 1981, states that “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement.”
However, travel permits can be obtained with bribes to authorities. A young North Korean woman told how her mother used cigarettes to circumvent formal procedures for granting travel permits, thereby obtaining written approval from security officers and workplace supervisors. A North Korean man explained that he offered bribes of cigarettes or rice to get a travel permit and that without it, he would likely get arrested, “thrown into a police cell and then would still have to offer bribes” to get released.
Unauthorized movement across the border with China also leads to harsh punishments. North Koreans regularly risk death to cross the border to sell North Korean products in the border areas of China and return with goods to sell in North Korea. As North Koreans have earned more money from such trade, many are now able to pay bribes to move more freely. But this does not always protect traders. For example, after the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, the new government led by Kim Jong-Un announced that during the 100-day mourning period for his father, anyone trying to cross the border illegally would be shot on sight.
One North Korean woman explained in detail what happened to her after she was arrested with several others by North Korean border guards trying to cross the Tumen River into China.
“I was tied up, stripped and searched, and taken to a military camp … the soldiers cursed and swore at us, and beat and kicked us with their hands and feet. They also used a wooden club to beat us … They yanked my hair and slammed my head into the brick wall. For ten days, I was unable to open my eyes because of the injuries.” She was finally sent to be interrogated by the bowibu (State Security Department) and then sent to perform forced labor at a ro-dong dan-ryeon dae (labor training center) before bribing her way out.
Bribes to North Korean police and security officials to look the other way are increasingly common, but traders must plausibly explain that the activity only involved temporarily traveling for trading in China and is not connected to South Korea.
Punished for Using a Mobile Phone
Many North Koreans told Human Rights Watch that things have changed enormously in recent years with the availability of inexpensive Chinese mobile phones, which has for the first time allowed communications between North Koreans in border provinces, and from the border provinces to China and South Korea. However, using a mobile phone remains risky, as information that someone was seen using a mobile phone can be enough to spark an investigation, arrest, and abuse in detention.
One North Korean defector told Human Rights Watch she was arrested for making a phone call to her aunt in South Korea and was held six months while pregnant, only provided 20 corn kernels per meal, and regularly beaten. According to her mother, the family strenuously asserted to the authorities that her daughter was only calling to China. Her mother continued that, “to make a phone call to South Korea from North Korea, we need a Chinese [person] who can connect us to Korea … we need a Chinese cell phone to make that call … we strongly insisted that it was to China that my daughter made the call.” She added that, “Once a person commits a crime, she cannot be treated as a human being in North Korea.” Ultimately, the family arranged for other members of the village to testify that she was calling only to China, and she was released. Ten days after her release, she fled North Korea.
A North Korean woman who used a mobile phone and value-added cards from China to assist North Koreans to call to South Korea said the authorities used surveillance equipment in Musan country, North Hamgyong province, to monitor phone calls. She said, “If you talked and used your name or address, they [the authorities] would come and get you. They would take you to the State Security Department [in Korean, Bowibu] and put you in prison.”