The International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
(ICNK), consisting over 40 prominent human rights organizations and activists,
today submitted a petition to the special procedures of the United Nation Human
Rights Council calling for the UN to help shut down North Korea’s vast gulag
North Korea holds as many as 200,000 people in its gulag system, known as the
kwan-li-so. In these prison-camps, both real and imagined dissenters are
imprisoned alongside their relatives—including the elderly and children—under a guilt-by-association system that was instituted by Kim Il-sung and which is now overseen by Kim Jong-un.
“The environment in the gulag is horrific, making the suffering of the prisoners
one of the most serious human-rights and humanitarian disasters in the world
today” said Jared Genser, Managing Director of Perseus Strategies and pro bono
counsel to the ICNK. Prisoners, including children, must undergo backbreaking
labor, such as mining, logging, and farming, seven days a week for twelve or
more hours a day. The labor is usually dangerous and a large percentage of the
prison population, approximately 20-25, dies each year due to the horrendous
labor conditions. It is estimated that over the past few decades more than
400,000 of the camp prisoners have perished.
“The labor conditions are only part of the misery the prisoners face,” said Ha
Tae-keung of Open North Korea. “They also endure starvation-level food
rations.” One defector reported the daily ration as approximately twenty grains of
corn per inmate, an amount so meager that prisoners have to dig through cow
dung to search for undigested grain in order to stave off death. Even though
illnesses such as pneumonia and tuberculosis run rampant in the camps, there is no medical treatment available for prisoners. They are forced to work while sick, and for those who are no longer physically able to work, they are sent to sanatoriums to await their death. Alongside the hard labor and starvation, prisoners must also face the routine occurrence of torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing.
“Kim Jong-un now has a choice to make,” said Kanae Doi, Japan Director of
Human Rights Watch. “He can do nothing and continue operating the gulag
system, thus making him responsible for the ongoing crimes against humanity his
government is committing. Or, he can shut down the gulag and put this terrible
chapter in the history of his country to an end.”
The petition submitted today urges the UN to carry out an investigation and
reporting on the gulag. ICNK hopes to maximize the use of the UN system for
the benefit of the victims in North Korea.
The UN used a similar procedure to investigate the situation of U.S. detainees at
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In that case, the UN issued a single report that shined
a bright light on the abuses at Guantánamo and put forth recommendations that
have helped reduce the number of prisoners detained in the system.
The time is ripe for this approach because for too long North Korea has not only
denied any wrongdoing, it has also continued to ignore and repeatedly reject
recommendations by the international community to take action.
David Knaute, Asia Director for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said, “The Koreans imprisoned in this system need the help of the UN. The international community owes them nothing less.”
In its petition, ICNK calls on the UN to:
- Initiate an investigation and demand access to the gulag;
- Outline the size and scope of the gulag system;
- Render a conclusion the gulag’s operations constitute crimes against
- Work with the North Korean government to initiate a process that holds
- perpetrators accountable and provides appropriate reparations to victims
- and their families; and
- Take additional action with the full range of UN organs to engage with
- North Korea about the gulag system.
In addition to this submission, Perseus Strategies has submitted an independent
petition on behalf of gulag survivors Kang Chol-hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk to the
UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of their family members who
remain in the gulag system. The petition urges the Working Group to find their
respective detentions in violation of international law and demand their