Inmates in North Korean prisons are raped, beaten, and starved, watchdog finds. Some eat roaches and rats just to survive.

  • A new watchdog report details widespread abuse and torture within North Korea's penal system.

  • The report focuses on three specific victims, who endured various forms of brutal mistreatment.

  • Korea Future, an NGO, says the incidents included in the report are breaches of international law.

North Korean prison inmates suffer brutal abuse and mistreatment during their detention, a new watchdog report says. One individual was even forced to eat bugs to supplement his diet because the little food that he was provided was not enough to survive.

Korea Future, an NGO that documents and investigates human rights violations in North Korea, published a report on Friday offering insight into Pyongyang's extensive penal system, where it says detainees endure systematic "torture and ill-treatment."

Detainees of this decades-old penal system — which consists of over 200 facilities across North Korea — are "re-educated through forced labor, ideological instruction, and punitive brutality with the purpose of compelling unquestioning obedience and loyalty" to the country's leader Kim Jong Un during and after detention, the report says.

Violations of international law within the penal system that are cited in the report include rape and sexual violence, forced labor, degrading treatment, torture, and denial of health — among others. Korea Future says the information has been compiled through interviews with victims, perpetrators, and witnesses, as well as review of internal documents.

The report focuses heavily on the specific cases of three victims who were jailed for trying to leave North Korea, or for helping others leave the country. Korea Future wrote that the incidents detailed in the report are clear breaches of international law and should be investigated. North Korea's office at the United Nations did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

Forced abortions, lack of food, and stress positions

One pregnant woman in her 30s who was arrested in China was brought back to North Korea and detained at three separate facilities, one of which was a re-education camp. During the woman's pre-trial detention, she was forced to have an abortion while she was at least seven months pregnant, the report says, noting this was one of 56 such forms of torture within North Korea's penal system.

North Korean soldier keeps watch on the banks of the Yalu River in Sinuiju, North Korea
North Korean soldier keeps watch on the banks of the Yalu River in Sinuiju, North KoreaREUTERS/Aly Song

Other prisoners were denied what the report described as the "right to food," which is when access to "quantitatively and qualitatively adequate food" is cut off.

One man in his 40s who helped North Korean citizens leave the country and also smuggled goods from China was detained at a re-education camp, where he was tortured through the "systematic denial of food," the report says. It added that this was one of 987 such incidents documented across the penal system.

This man was subjected to forced labor, and the amount of food he received was contingent on how much work he did each day, the report says. If he met his quota, he got just over four ounces of corn a day — but if he didn't meet the quota, this amount dropped to under three ounces. According to the report, the man "regularly" caught cockroaches and rodents just to supplement the small amount of food he got, and he suffered "extreme weight loss" because of this.

Beyond instances of forced abortions and lack of food, prisoners have also endured what is referred to as "positional torture" in North Korea's penal system. The report says individuals are forced to stay in fixed positions for an extended period of time, and these positions "can include forced standing or crouching, suspension of the body from a chain, shackling in stress positions, and sitting in deliberately uncomfortable positions for multiple hours or days."

A North Korean soldier stands on the bank of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, April 12, 2013.
A North Korean soldier stands on the bank of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, April 12, 2013.REUTERS/Jacky Chen

A woman in her 50s was forced into positional torture at a North Korean detention facility, the report said, noting that this was one of 570 instances of such abuse recorded across the penal system. She spent 30 straight days in stress positions. She was forced to "sit crossed-legged on the floor, with her hands on her lap and head raised," the report says, and had hold the position for 17 hours each day.

According to the report, she could only move when she ate food. She witnessed detainees being beaten if they moved from their stress positions. She was also forced into other stress positions involving a chair that was made to restrict her movements, causing pain in her knees and joints.

Korea Future's findings are in line with forms of abuse that are cited in a recent UN report detailing the human rights situation in North Korea. In particular, this report says women in the country's detention facilities endure hard labor, harsh living conditions, and lack of hygiene.

"Women are detained in inhumane conditions and deprived of food. They are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, forced labour and gender-based violence, including sexual violence by state officials," the report says.

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