North Korea has been detaining an increasing number of women in the past few years for crossing the border into China in search of food and opportunities to work for their families’ survival, according to a human rights report on the country’s gulag-style penal system issued Friday.
Authorities have been forcibly repatriating the women and jailing them in a network of gulags, or kwan-li-so (labor camps) and kyo-hwa-so (political prisoner camps), according to the report issued by the nonprofit Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
Once repatriated, women are subject to extreme privation and repression while in detention, the report said.
“Women in particular are fleeing North Korea in even greater numbers,” said Roberta Cohen, co-chairperson of the Washington-based HRNK, in a printed statement. “When they are apprehended, they are subjected to deliberate starvation, persecution and punishment.”
The report, titled “Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression & Hidden Disappearances,” is the fourth in a series of reports on arbitrary detentions and forced labor in North Korea issued by HRNK since 2003.
It cites the post-2007 expansion of the women’s section at labor camp No. 12 in Jongo-ri, North Hamgyong province, in the northernmost part of the country, to hold a large number of forcibly repatriated women from the province.
Former prisoners who had been incarcerated in the women’s section, and were later released and successfully defected to China and South Korea, said the facility housed more than 1,000 people.
North Korea has between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners detained in political prison camps, or about one of every 200 citizens, according to a report issued in February 2014 by a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, which documented the network of such prisons and the atrocities that occur inside them.
“This report finds that, after their repatriation from China, thousands of North Korean women have been arbitrarily arrested — and detention facilities for women have notably expanded,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, in a printed statement.
Inside labor camp No. 12, young women detainees were forced to work as wig and eyelash makers, while older women performed heavy labor such as agricultural production, animal husbandry, tree felling and log cutting.
Violation of human rights
The imprisonment of women who have left the country and been forcibly repatriated is a violation of article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which says everyone is free to leave his or her country and return, the report said. In addition, many of the interned women had not committed acts recognized as crimes under current international law.
“What was most interesting was the senselessness and the perniciousness of punishing these women for having gone to China in search of food because of the chronic food shortage,” said David Hawk, the report’s author, who interviewed former female prisoners from labor camp 12 earlier this year.
Furthermore, such “labor correction” facilities violate Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which says all people deprived of their liberty should be treated with dignity and humanity, the report noted.
Women who have been forcibly repatriated have been subject to systematic torture and beatings during interrogations, severe food deprivation, and naked strip searches and compulsory exercises to dislodge money or valuables hidden in inside their bodies, the report said.
Those who were pregnant when they were repatriated have been forced to undergo abortions if authorities thought they were carrying babies fathered by Chinese men, it said.
“Their detentions constitute crimes against humanity,” Hawk said. “These are the worse-case violations that shouldn’t be occurring in the 21st century, and the only recourse available is to try to mobilize international public opinion.”
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights in North Korea found that the severe mistreatment of and routine atrocities committed against imprisoned women amounted to criminal inhumanity.
Based on the report’s findings, the U.N. recommended that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The General Assembly approved the recommendation, but it has been held up in the Security Council.
“The reason why it’s important [for HRNK] to do periodic updates is because we’re in the odd situation of only being able to find out about human rights violations in North Korea between two and five years after the violations occurred,” said Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Authorities have released some female prisoners to their families when they appeared to be on the brink of death, in some cases after having lost half their body weight due to malnutrition or illness, the report said.
Others were released after they had completed their sentences or their families bribed guards to let them go, it added.