Amnesty International Report 2017/18: North Korea


Although the government took some positive steps to engage with international human rights mechanisms, the situation on the ground failed to show real progress. Up to 120,000 people continued to be arbitrarily detained in political prison camps, where conditions fell far short of international standards. Restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of movement remained severe. Workers sent abroad suffered harsh working conditions.


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) conducted a nuclear test on 3 September, the sixth in its history, and carried out numerous medium- and long-range missile tests throughout the year. The military provocations resulted in the UN issuing unprecedentedly stringent sanctions on the country. Exchange of military and political threats between authorities of North Korea and the USA further escalated tensions. Concerns over the safety risks of nuclear tests increased after media reports of landslides near a nuclear test site, and people who had previously lived near sites showing signs of possible radiation exposure. The killing of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of leader Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia on 13 February by two women allegedly using chemical agents raised questions about the possible involvement of North Korean state agents.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations continued as up to 120,000 people remained in detention in the four known political prison camps, and were subjected to forced labour as well as torture and other ill-treatment. Some of the violations amounted to crimes against humanity; no action to ensure accountability was known to have been taken during the year. Many of those living in the camps had not been convicted of any internationally recognized criminal offence; they were detained arbitrarily for being related to individuals deemed threatening to the state, or for “guilt-by-association”.

Foreign nationals continued to be arrested and detained for extended periods. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, both US nationals and academics at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, were arrested on 22 April and 6 May respectively for “hostile acts against the country”. A US diplomat was allowed to meet them in June. North Korean authorities said that they were investigating their alleged crimes, and verdicts and sentences were pending in the courts. The two men remained in detention at the end of the year.

US national Otto Warmbier, imprisoned in 2016 for stealing a propaganda poster, died on 19 June, six days after he was returned to the USA in a coma. North Korean authorities failed to adequately explain the cause of his poor state of health. A coroner’s report released on 27 September in his home state of Ohio noted no evidence of torture or other ill-treatment, but also did not rule out its possibility.

Lim Hyeon-soo, a Canadian pastor who was sentenced in 2015 to life imprisonment with hard labour, was released on 9 August for “humanitarian reasons”, after more than two years of detention during which adequate medical treatment was not provided.1

Workers’ rights – migrant workers

The authorities continued to dispatch workers to other countries, including China and Russia. The number of workers deployed was hard to estimate and believed to be in decline, as some countries, such as China, Kuwait, Poland, Qatar and Sri Lanka, stopped renewing or issuing additional work visas to North Koreans in order to comply with the new UN sanctions on North Korea’s economic activities abroad. North Korea derived part of its state revenue from these workers, who did not receive their wages directly from their employers, but from their government after significant deductions. The North Korean authorities maintained tight control on the workers’ communications and movement, and deprived them of information about workers’ rights in the host countries.

Workers remaining in their host countries continued to be subjected to excessive working hours and were vulnerable in terms of occupational health and safety. The media reported cases of North Koreans dying while working in Russia, which hosted at least 20,000 North Koreans. In May, two construction workers died in the Russian capital Moscow after complaining of breathing problems; they were believed to have suffered acute heart failure. A subcontractor of a World Cup stadium project in St Petersburg, where a worker died from heart failure in November 2016, said in a media interview that many workers suffered from severe fatigue due to working long hours continuously for months without rest days.

Freedom of movement

During the year, 1,127 North Koreans left the country and resettled in South Korea (the Republic of Korea), the lowest number since 2002. Tightened security on both sides of the Chinese-North Korean border could be a possible reason for the change. Some North Korean women were able to leave the country through deals with human traffickers, only to find themselves subjected to physical and sexual abuse or exploitative work conditions once on the Chinese side of the border.

The year saw larger numbers of North Koreans being detained in China or forcibly returned to North Korea, where they were at risk of forced labour or torture and other ill-treatment.2 Media also reported that the North Korean government was actively requesting that China repatriate individuals suspected of leaving North Korea without prior approval.

A number of sources, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, reported cases of North Koreans who had left the country, but returned or expressed a wish to return after arriving in South Korea. Some individuals who returned appeared in state media testifying about the hardships they faced outside North Korea. As the procedures for these people to re-enter North Korea remained unclear, their appearance led to speculations about whether they had returned voluntarily or were abducted back to the country, and whether they had been persuaded by the North Korean authorities to give fabricated testimonies.

Freedom of expression

The government continued to exercise severe restrictions over information exchange between North Koreans and the rest of the world. All telecommunications, postal and broadcasting services remained state-owned, and there were no independent newspapers, other media or civil society organizations. Apart from a select few in the ruling elite, the population had no access to the internet and international mobile phone services.

Despite the risk of arrest and detention, people close to the Chinese border continued to contact individuals abroad by connecting with the Chinese mobile network using smuggled mobile phones. Media reports said the authorities further strengthened efforts to trace mobile phone activity on Chinese networks and jam the signals through the installation of new radar detectors in the border areas.

International scrutiny

Following the state’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2016, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities conducted an official visit to North Korea between 3 and 8 May. This was the first visit to North Korea by an independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council.

The CEDAW Committee and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reviewed North Korea’s human rights record in 2017. North Korea submitted state party’s reports to the Committees, after an interval of 14 and nine years respectively, and responded to questions at the sessions. In its review, the Committee on the Rights of the Child noted the inability of North Korean children to regularly communicate with their parents and family members who live in a different country.3 They also noted the exclusion of children aged 16 and 17 under the current domestic Act for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, and the requirement for some children to perform extensive amounts of strenuous labour.

  1. North Korea: Pastor Lim Hyeon-soo released after more than two years of imprisonment (ASA 24/6921/2017)
  2. China: Eight North Koreans at risk of forcible return (ASA 17/6652/2017)
  3. North Korea: Amnesty International’s submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (ASA 24/6500/2017)



Source: Amnesty International. AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORT 2017/18: THE STATE OF THE WORLD’S HUMAN RIGHTS © Amnesty International 2018.