North Korea: Family tortured and ill-treated, now facing labour camp

The three North Koreans - Chang Gyung-chul, his brother Chang Gyung-soo and their cousin Chang Mi-hwa, were arrested by Chinese Security Police in Shanghai in August 2003. They were taken to Sinuiju City, North Korea, for interrogation, before being transferred to the National Security Agency detention centre in North Hamgyung Province.

In September 2004 Chang Gyung-chul and Chang Gyung-soo were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. They are thought to remain in detention in North Hamgyung Province. Chang Mi-hwa, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, is thought to be under house arrest. All three are believed to have been tortured while in detention, and to be in poor health.

The three family members face imminent transfer to political penal labour camps, which are said to be severely overcrowded with poor hygiene, grossly inadequate healthcare and crippling food shortages. Reports of beatings are common, and a combination of torture, disease and malnutrition leads to the deaths of many people.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'All that these people have done is leave their country in search of a better life. Yet they have faced detention, torture and now the dangerously harsh conditions of North Korea’s labour camps.

'The plight of the Chang family is sadly typical of human rights abuses in North Korea, where the state continues to brutally repress millions of people.'

The severe sentences imposed on the three family members are thought to be related to their unauthorised exit from North Korea, an offence under the North Korean penal code.

The mother of the two men, Shin Jong-ai, had travelled without authorisation to China in 1999 to meet her sister, a Japanese national of Korean origin, and was sentenced to one years’ imprisonment in Yodok political penal labour camp in April 2000.

Background Acute food shortages in North Korea have forced tens of thousands of people to cross the border 'illegally' into China's north-eastern provinces. Many remain in border areas. Thousands have been forcibly repatriated by the Chinese authorities who in October 2004 stated that they had adopted 'zero tolerance' approach against North Koreans in China, after arresting at least 62 North Koreans in Beijing

North Koreans residing 'illegally' in China live in appalling conditions and are vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual exploitation, while North Koreans who 'illegally' cross or help others in crossing the North Korean border face heavy penalties such as torture, ill-treatment during long hours of interrogation.

The sentence under North Korean law for a person who illegally crosses 'a frontier of the Republic' is up to three years in a kwalliso (a political penal labour colony). This law is in clear breach of the fundamental right to leave one’s own country, as outlined by Article 12 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which North Korea is a state party ('(e)veryone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.').

View latest press releases