North Korea's 'Violent' Pretrial Detention System Under Scrutiny

The regime led by Kim Jong Un has an arbitrary criminal justice system that tortures and abuses detainees, according to Human Rights Watch.
October 19, 2020, 12:10pm
North Korea
People bow before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu hill as the country marks the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, 2020. PHOTO: KIM Won Jin / AFP

North Koreans were beaten, sexually assaulted and forced to perform manual labor in the country's 'violent' pretrial detention system, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

In a new report based on interviews with 22 former North Korean detainees who later fled to the South, HRW described the inner workings of an opaque justice system in the isolated country, where bribes and connections are often the only way to avoid inhumane treatment.


Interviewees said they had no access to independent lawyers, were forced to sit in overcrowded facilities with no space to sleep in, and recalled seeing others covered in lice because of limited bathing opportunities.

Some female detainees said they experienced harassment, sexual assault, and rape. One woman who had no relatives to bring her supplies had to wash a sock and use it as a menstrual pad.

The guards regularly beat up detainees for no apparent reason, the report alleges. One person said they were asked to sit still and not move or they would be kicked hard.

“Beatings were the worst in the detention and interrogation facilities. While waiting to be investigated, we had to sit still. Our hands had to be folded on top of our legs, which had to be crossed. Every hour or every three hours, we could stand for 10 to 30 minutes depending on the mood of the guard in charge,” a former detainee said.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the system violent, cruel and degrading.

"North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections."

Human Rights Watch urged North Korea to seek international assistance in creating a professional police force and investigative systems that rely on evidence.

With its sprawling network of camps and detention centers, the hermit kingdom has long been infamous for some of the most horrific detention facilities in the world.

A United Nations inquiry in 2014 found that under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un authorities committed gross violations of human rights that constitute crimes against humanity.