A recent video of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's Supreme Leader, went viral. He was seen sobbing during a speech at the annual military parade. Kim apologized for not being able to fulfill promises to revive the economy as typhoons, floods, food shortages and Coronavirus pandemic further made the situation worse for the country. Kim, for the first time, was seen as a human figure rather than a ruthless dictator.

However, the image Kim built up over the week has been shattered by Human Rights Watch (HRW) after the organization published a dark side of North Korea's pretrial detention system. North Korea treats pretrial detainees "less than an animal". Torture, physical and sexual abuse are systemic and arbitrary that lacks any due process, the human rights advocacy group said in its 88-page report titled "'Worth Less Than an Animal': Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea."

Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, in a release said, "North Korea's pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, 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."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a grand military parade celebrating the 70th founding anniversary
In Kim Jong Un's North Korea, human rights violations are frequent and systemic Reuters

Systemic Abuse

The citizens of the Asian country are subjected to inhuman treatment. Getting caught by police for little to no crime is routine and the detainment is no less than hell. They are kept in overcrowded unhygienic cells without proper food and clothes unless they can bribe the guards to have their families send food. They are also forced to work without any payment. Some women detainees also reported sexual abuse and rape in the facilities.

For the report, HRW interviewed 22 North Koreans — 15 women and seven men — kept in detention facilities known as kuryujang since 2011. All of them fled the country later. They told HRW that once they were arrested there was no way of knowing what would happen next as they were denied access to an independent lawyer.

While in the detention center, they had to sleep on the cramped floors without a blanket. They were not given the opportunity to bathe while female detainees didn't have access to menstrual hygiene supplies. Some also reported that detainees were covered with lice, bedbugs and fleas. They were also not able to appeal to the authorities about the torture.

Accounts of Former Detainees

One of the former detainees, a lumberjack escaped North Korea in 2014. He was detained twice in 2010 and 2014 for smuggling and not going to the government-sanctioned workplace, respectively. He said he was beaten every day.

"Every single day was horrible, so painful and unbearable. Many times, if I or others moved in the cell, the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots or hit our hands with their leather belts. Even then we weren't allowed to move. If we responded and they didn't like us, they'd beat us up," he said.

Only connection with party workers could spare them from being tortured to some extent. One detainee, a former trader, was arrested twice for smuggling banned products in 2010 and getting into a fight with a party worker with a better connection. The women at the facilities had to do away with socks as menstrual pads.

"We women shared our things. The first time I was detained, family members could send menstrual pads. One detainee who had no relatives had to wash a sock and use it as a pad," she said, adding that the next time she was detained the situation was better. One police officer bought sanitary pads for the female detainees without taking any money.

Prison
North Korean detainees are given no access to lawyers and are beaten mercilessly as police tries to get a quick confession (representational image) Pixabay

Judged on Confessions Secured

If that was the condition for detainees, police officers were under immense pressure to get a confession from them by any means necessary. A former police officer, Heo Jong Hae, told CNN that their performance was judged based on the number of confessions they could secure. Hence, as soon as the detainees are brought to facilities, the police would beat them to get a quick confession and add to their numbers.

"As soon as they arrive at the police station they start with beating. They are thinking, Let's add to my numbers. If they solve the crime it helps with promotion and rising through the ranks," Heo said.

North Korea has been sanctioned multiple times by western governments and the United Nations for human rights violations. However, nothing has changed. However, Pyongyang says that it promotes and protects "genuine human rights". It denies any reports, citing smear campaign by western countries to undermine its "sacred socialist system".