Numbers slumped to just 229 last year, far below the 1,047 in 2019, as Pyongyang shut down its border in the face COVID.
A new report by the United Nations human rights office has said torture and forced labour are rife in North Korea’s prisons, amounting to possible crimes against humanity.
Tuesday’s publication, issued seven years after a landmark UN investigation found that crimes against humanity were being committed, also said that political prison camps run by security forces still persisted, although information is more scarce.
Citing interviews with former detainees, the report said it continued to receive “consistent and credible accounts of the systematic infliction of severe physical and mental pain or suffering upon detainees, through the infliction of beatings, stress positions and starvation in places of detention”.
This reconfirmed the 2014 findings of the UN inquiry, led by former Australian judge Michael Kirby, and “indicates that the crime against humanity of torture continues to take place in the ordinary prison system”, it said.
🇰🇵 #NorthKorea: New report finds reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity continue. @MBachelet urges the international community to take immediate steps to pursue accountability & prevent further serious #HumanRights violations 👉 https://t.co/hPIwflNlOy pic.twitter.com/Za0vy5xA6S
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) February 2, 2021
The agency said nearly all of the people interviewed for the report who were detained described “having been beaten during interrogations and as punishment for minor infractions”.
“One interviewee saw a woman kicked across a room and severely beaten by officers for hiding ‘a few peppers’ because the prison food tasted bad.”
Forced labour, “which may amount to the crime against humanity of enslavement” also persists in prisons, the report noted.
It called for the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for prosecutions or establish an ad hoc tribunal.
“Not only does impunity prevail, but human rights violations that may amount to crimes against humanity continue to be committed,” Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.
“I urge the international community to prioritise justice and to take immediate steps to prevent further infliction of serious human rights violations against the people of the DPRK,” she added, using the initials for North Korea’s official name.
The release of the report comes as the recently inaugurated Biden administration in the United States weighs fresh sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on NBC News on Monday, said additional sanctions could be used against North Korea in coordination with US allies as a way towards denuclearisation of the divided peninsula.
Other tools include unspecified diplomatic incentives, he said.
North Korea denies the existence of political prison camps and last July denounced the United Kingdom for announcing sanctions against two organisations that the British government has said are involved in forced labour, torture and murder in the camps.