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(New York) – North Korean authorities arbitrarily arrest, unfairly prosecute, and severely mistreat people for conducting private business activity, with punishments varying with bribes and connections, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should amend its criminal code to abolish “economic crimes” of engaging in commerce and order the authorities to stop arresting people for such activity.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 North Koreans extensively involved in private commerce who had fled to South Korea since 2013. They said that when authorities confronted them about engaging in business activities, their fate often depended on their capacity to pay bribes or mobilize personal connections, or the government’s need for forced labor. Those accused without money or connections could face lengthy sentences at prison camps, especially when the need for forced labor was high.

A woman carries goods from a local market at North Korean Special Economic Zone of Rason city, located northeast of Pyongyang on September 2, 2011. © 2011 Reuters

“While many North Koreans engage in petty business to survive, government officials prey on them with arbitrary arrests, extortion, and detention,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Those who can’t bribe their way out of prison camp can face months or years of forced labor, deprivation, and abuse.”

Economic Crimes
After the collapse of North Korea’s public distribution system for food between 1993 and 1995, a severe famine provoked massive starvation and compelled North Koreans to engage in private commercial activities, known as jangsa, or dealings with the marketplace, for the first time. The growth of these activities has created an unofficial, parallel gray economy with a highly uncertain and risky political and regulatory environment. Authorities treat the same economic crime differently depending on the person or groups facing charges.

Among the economic crimes for which people face punishment are attempts to engage in market economic activities without government permission and the trading of forbidden goods, such as mushrooms, spices, medicinal herbs, or seafood. Enforcement of laws prohibiting these activities takes place alongside the enforcement of other criminal laws against violating the terms of government-issued travel permits, not having a state-sanctioned job, having contacts in China, and crossing over or smuggling goods to or from China. Failing to report to a government-assigned workplace is also punishable by law. All men and unmarried women who have finished their studies are required to report to their assigned state-approved company, but may be able to pay the company a fee if they do not go to work.

A former manager at a state-owned company who left North Korea in January 2014 told Human Rights Watch that his wife bought clothes in bulk from cities with more active market activity such as Rason, a port city in the northeastern tip of the country. She sold these clothes at the market in Chongjin, in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong. Because of his connections, they were doing well and may have avoided being arrested for their economic activities. He regularly visited his bosses at the company where he was formally listed as being employed as well as members of the State Security Department (bowibu) and the Ministry of Public Security (the police), providing them with gifts including money, meat, squid, and liquor.

“To be protected, you have to remember special holidays and react to the moment, to the new directives, or to crackdowns where they confiscate your products,” he said. “Otherwise you can lose everything you have, or end up in prison or forced to do hard labor.”

Fear of being caught makes traders prepare for extortion attempts by carrying extra money and packs of cigarettes to pay off authorities if necessary. “We are always scared and never know what may happen to us,” a trader told Human Rights Watch. She explained that she engaged in bulk trading from one province to another and left North Korea during the winter of 2014. “Once a friend of mine did not hear a member of a patrol team calling her,” she said. “So then he beat her up and, because she had no money to pay him, he sent her to a labor training center.”

North Korea’s restrictions on economic activities that infringe on basic economic and social rights violate the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which North Korea ratified in 1981. Under the ICESCR, individuals have the right to work, “which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts.” Governments are obligated to “take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” The government must also “achiev[e] progressively” the right 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.” 

The actions taken by North Korean authorities against perceived perpetrators of economic crimes violate international legal protections under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These include the rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of movement, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and a fair trial.

Forced Labor
Labor training centers (rodong danryeongdae), where detainees are forced to work for short periods, are operated by government bodies at regional, local, or sub-district levels. The authorities often send people to them if they are suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes involving noncontroversial goods, or are unemployed. Detainees are forced to do hard labor, receive little food, and are beaten regularly to ensure good performance. Working hours are extended when production goals are not met.

A smuggler from a town near the China border who left North Korea in September 2014 told Human Rights Watch that he was caught in early 2014 for being unemployed and was sent to a labor training center for three months. The center guards forced him to do hard labor and regularly beat and hit him with sticks if he did not perform properly. “My mother had leave to China and I did not have anybody who could go and pay for my release,” he said.

In 2014, Choe Myong-nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of United Nations affairs and human rights, said that North Korea’s reform-through-labor detention centers used labor to improve people “through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” But people interviewed said punishments were also dictated by detention facilities’ need for forced labor or orders from those above them.

A former prisoner told Human Rights Watch that “the number of prisoners was allocated in all prisons in the country according to the number of days of labor per person needed for production.” He explained that he had been a prisoner in the Chongori prison camp (kyohwaso) and was in charge of the camp’s production planning between 2001 and 2007. The kyohwaso (place to improve through reeducation) are detention facilities for political and criminal offenders operated by the police for detainees who face lengthy sentences of reform through labor. They perform forced labor in farming, construction, mining, and logging activities. These camps are characterized by critical shortages of food and medicine and by regular mistreatment from the guards. “Because conducting almost any type of economic activity can be prosecuted, officials and patrol teams can always find people to send to the different holding facilities for forced labor,” he said.

The earnings from forced labor in the prison camps go to the controlling government body; those from re-education camps go to the police; and benefits from labor training camps are directed to cities or local people’s committees, the former prisoner said.

A smuggler who operated across the Chinese border said that in May 2012 she was sent for one year to a labor detention facility run by the police. She said the authorities in charge preferred to allocate significant numbers of prisoners to projects that could earn hard currency. “When the camp would get a contract with a company to produce goods for export to China, every healthy person had to work,” she told Human Rights Watch. She said she had been forced to manufacture hooks for necklaces and fake eyelashes. “Theoretically we were supposed to work for eight hours but really we could not leave until we finished our daily quota, and it did not matter how late that was.”

Labor shortages also lead to the use of forced labor. For example, a couple of months before April 15, the birthday of North Korea’s first president, Kim Il-sung, or ahead of the deadline for finishing a large construction project, a person who committed a crime that is not usually punished by being sent to a labor detention center could be sent to a re-education camp.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found in its February 2014 report that the vast majority of inmates at detention camps using forced labor “are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that grossly fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.” The commission also found that:

The ordinary prison camps also operate mines, factories, farms and logging camps by extracting forced labor from their inmates. The profits of these ventures do not seem to be reinvested in the prisons. Prisoners produce more food in quantity and variety than is provided to them. While international law does not outlaw all forms of involuntary prison labor for purposes of reforming duly convicted criminals, the type of labor that ordinary prison camp inmates are forced to do amounts in almost all cases to a form of illegal forced labor as defined by international standards.

The commission recommended that North Korea reform its criminal code and code of criminal procedure “to fully enshrine the right to a fair trial and due process guarantees articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [and] [r]eform the ordinary prison system so as to ensure humane conditions of detention for all inmates deprived of liberty.”

“North Korea is operating a predatory system to extract bribes from people conducting small-time business activities to survive,” Sifton said. “Those who can’t pay or don’t have connections end up doing free forced labor for the benefit of local officials and the government. The lives of many North Korean people are already marked by serious deprivation, yet officials are using abusive laws to make life even worse.”

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