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Torture, forced labor, political prison: Grim fate of repatriated North Korean defectors

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North Korean defectors residing in China and other countries face torture, sexual assault, and forced labor, if forcibly repatriated. Those attempting to defect to South Korea endure even harsher punishments, including being sent to political prison camps.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification released the 2024 North Korean Human Rights Report on June 27, which includes new testimonies from 141 defectors surveyed in 2023.

This report builds on data from 508 defectors compiled in a previous report published last year. The report reveals the grim reality of human rights abuses faced by defectors upon forced repatriation.


Screen capture from the Ministry of Unification’s 2024 North Korean Human Rights video report [Ministry of Unification]

“Repatriated defectors face torture, forced labor, public trial, discrimination, and surveillance,” the government said in its report. A female defector forcibly repatriated in 2017 testified about being repeatedly punched for using the restroom without permission at a detention center.

Testimonies indicate that sexual assault is rampant across various institutions. “I was raped by an officer at the Security Department and he sexually assaulted other detainees multiple times,” said a female defector, who was forcibly repatriated in 2013 and detained by the Sinuiju Security Department.

Female defectors who became pregnant by Chinese men faced forced abortions, according to the report. “A security officer handling my case told the doctor I had to get an abortion,” one defector said. “I received an injection below my belly button and was told to return to the hospital after 24 hours. I delivered a stillborn child and was forced to sign a statement saying the abortion was my decision.”

The report also noted a lack of post-abortion care and other medical treatments for these women.

Torture to extract confessions of “anti-regime activities,” such as attempting to go to South Korea, contacting Christians, or consuming South Korean media, was even more severe. Another female defector, forcibly repatriated in 2009, was beaten during a ten-day interrogation at the security department for speaking Chinese out of confusion. “They beat me when I said I didn’t watch South Korean TV programs while in China, accusing me of lying,” she added.

The report includes a testimony from a female defector who witnessed a family being sent to a political prison camp for attempting to go to South Korea at the Sinuiju Security Department. Experts note that sending repatriated defectors to prison camps is the harshest punishment, subjecting inmates to forced labor and public or secret executions.

“Repatriated defectors typically face labor punishments. However, attempts to go to South Korea are deemed anti-regime activities, resulting in imprisonment in political camps without release,” said Kyung Seop Oh, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “This is considered the harshest punishment.”

The Ministry of Unification’s Human Rights Record Center confirmed the existence of ten political prison camps, including closed ones. Currently, four camps are operational, and six have been closed. Last year’s report identified the “Jagang-do Nongchul-ri Center,” which has now been confirmed not to be a political prison camp.

The report also exposed the harsh realities faced by North Korean laborers dispatched overseas, labeled as “slave labor.” Most workers, enticed by the promise of significant earnings, end up working long hours under close surveillance without receiving proper wages.

“I worked from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day, totaling 16 to 17 hours a day,” said a laborer dispatched to Russia in 2019. “I received two days off a year and half-day breaks every two months.

Most of their earnings were handed over to the state, with less than 10% reaching the workers.

The report also detailed poor living conditions for these laborers, including a testimony from a defector who lived with about 40 others in a container at a construction site without bathing facilities, unable to wash for six months.

The report highlighted the harsh living conditions of North Korean overseas laborers as the government tried to minimize housing and food expenses. “About 40 people dispatched in 2019 lived together in a container at the construction site,” said a defector who was sent to Russia. “There were no shower facilities, so I couldn’t take a shower for six month. I only had a chance to clean my face once a month.”

The report also revealed extensive control measures over overseas laborers, including passport confiscation, restrictions on going out, prohibiting contact with outside information, and limiting or banning the use of smartphones.

North Korean authorities tightly controlled laborers’ access to external information, repatriating those caught using smartphones to watch South Korean dramas, movies, or YouTube channels. “I saw my colleague being forcibly repatriated after watching South Korean-made programs,” a defector dispatched to Russia in 2018 testified.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Unification has made this year’s human rights report available in various formats, including a comprehensive report, a summary leaflet, and a video report. These are accessible on the ministry’s website for public viewing.

BY YEONGGYO CHUNG, YOUNGNAM KIM [kim.youngnam@koreadaily.com]