North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offenses are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labor, starvation, and other atrocities take place. While some social and economic changes have been observed in recent years, including a growth in small-scale private business activity, human rights violations are still widespread, grave, and systematic.
- The United States and North Korea held talks on limiting the advance of the country’s nuclear weapons program, with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un meeting US president Donald Trump in February and June. Despite these efforts, talks between the two countries failed to produce any significant accord, and North Korea held ballistic missile tests throughout the year. In December, the country launched a satellite designed to enhance its nuclear deterrence ability.
- North Korea secured the return of two fishermen who requested resettlement in South Korea in November. The South Korean government declined to consider their claims after they were accused of killing 16 of their fellow crew members before traveling south, despite fears that the fishermen would be tortured if they were returned to North Korea. The two were the first defectors to be returned since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0 4|
Kim Jong-un became the country’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. The elder Kim had led North Korea since the 1994 death of his own father, Kim Il-sung, to whom the office of president was permanently dedicated in a 1998 constitutional revision. In 2016, the State Affairs Commission (SAC) was established as the country’s top ruling organ, and Kim Jong-un was named its chairman. Kim also holds a variety of other titles, including first chairman of the National Defense Commission—previously the highest state body—and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
In March 2019, Kim was reelected chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s legislature, and given a new title of “supreme representative of all the Korean people and the supreme leader of the Republic.” In April, Choe Ryong-hae, a highly placed aide to Kim, became the president of the SPA’s 15-member Presidium, a standing committee that manages the legislature’s day-to-day affairs when the full body is not in session.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0 4|
Members of the 687-seat SPA, North Korea’s unicameral legislature, are elected to five-year terms. All candidates are preselected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (DFRF), a coalition dominated by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) alongside a handful of subordinate parties and organizations. Each candidate then runs unopposed. Voting is compulsory for citizens who are at least 17 years old, and turnout commonly approaches 100 percent in legislative contests.
The last election for the SPA was held in March 2019, with electors voting for preselected candidates in all 687 seats. Turnout stood at 99.99 percent. This was the first election where Kim Jong-un was not listed as a candidate in the SPA elections, due to an amendment to the constitution. Local elections were held in late July 2019 for 27,876 posts, with voter turnout at 99.98 percent.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||0 4|
Although there is a clear framework for conducting elections, including official election monitors, the system’s structure denies voters any choice and rules out any opposition to the incumbent leadership. The government uses the mandatory elections as an unofficial census, keeping track of whether and how people voted, and interprets any rejection of the preselected candidates as treason.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||0 4|
North Korea is effectively a one-party state. Although a small number of minor parties and organizations legally exist, all are members of the DFRF.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0 4|
Any political dissent or opposition is prohibited and harshly punished. The country has been ruled by the KWP since its founding, and the party itself has always been controlled by the Kim family; Kim Jong-un has held the chair of the KWP since 2016. His late father, Kim Jong-il, was dubbed the “eternal general secretary” of the party after his death.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0 / 4
The general public has no opportunity for political participation, and even KWP elites operate under the threat of extreme penalties for perceived dissent or disloyalty. The party is subject to regular purges aimed at reinforcing the leader’s personal authority, and the regime has executed senior officials who have fallen out of favor with Supreme Leader Kim.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||0 4|
North Korea is ethnically homogeneous, with only a small Chinese population and a few non-Chinese foreign residents. Foreigners are not allowed to join the KWP or serve in the military or government. Religious groups are harshly suppressed and unable to organize politically. Women hold few leadership positions in the ruling party and hold only 112 of the SPA’s 687 seats; the system does not allow these representatives to independently address the interests of women. The government typically denies the existence of LGBT+ people in North Korea.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0 4|
North Korea has no freely elected officials. Kim Jong-un and his inner circle determine the policies of the government, and the SPA gathers for brief sessions once or twice a year to unanimously approve all decisions.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0 4|
Corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy, and government officials commonly engage in bribery. There are no independent or impartial anticorruption mechanisms.
Small-scale local markets have become a prime target of corrupt police officers, who solicit bribes from the operators and detain those who cannot pay. Market participants also pay bribes to supervisors at their official workplaces, to avoid discipline or imprisonment for abandoning their state-assigned roles. A 2019 UN report on the country’s prison system noted that North Koreans often paid bribes to avoid arrest, mitigate their treatment while in detention, and secure family visits.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0 4|
The government is neither transparent in its operations nor accountable to the public. Information about the functioning of state institutions is tightly controlled for both domestic and external audiences.
|Are there free and independent media?||0 4|
All domestic media outlets are run by the state. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels, and all publications and broadcasts are subject to strict supervision and censorship. The government occasionally allows a small number of foreign books, films, and television programs to be distributed and aired in the country, but this remains rare.
In recent years, several foreign news agencies have established bureau offices in Pyongyang. North Korea allowed the Associated Press (AP) to open the country’s first foreign in 2012, though it is no longer active. The AP was followed by Japanese agency Kyodo News, Chinese agency Xinhua, and Agence France Presse (AFP), which still maintain a physical presence in the country. Access is still tightly controlled for these organizations, and the government has been known to expel media crews in retaliation for their work. Select foreign media are often invited into the country to cover key political events and holidays, although authorities strictly manage their visits.
Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and several South Korean outlets broadcast shortwave and medium-wave Korean-language radio programming into North Korea, though the government works to jam these stations; the BBC reported that its shortwave station was jammed on its first day in operation in late 2017.
Campaigns to send information into the country via USB thumb drives and SD cards are common, and North Koreans have constructed homemade radios to receive foreign broadcasts. However, the consumption of foreign radio broadcasts and possession of contraband devices are subject to severe punishment if detected by authorities, including the death penalty.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||0 4|
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it does not exist in practice. State-sanctioned churches maintain a token presence in Pyongyang, but some North Koreans are known to practice their faith furtively. Intense state indoctrination and repression preclude free and open exercise of religion. Crackdowns are common and North Koreans caught practicing a religious faith are arrested and face harsh punishment, including imprisonment in labor camps. Foreigners caught proselytizing also risk arrest and detention.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||0 4|
There is no academic freedom. The state must approve all curriculums, including those of educational programs led by foreigners. Although some North Koreans are permitted to study abroad at both universities and short-term educational training programs, those granted such opportunities are subject to monitoring and reprisals for perceived disloyalty.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||0 4|
Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informants. Domestic 3G service has been available since 2008, with around five million users nationally. Mobile phones operating on this network are used as surveillance tools against their users, recording their application usage and intranet browsing history, and randomly taking screenshots of their activity. Newer mobile phones have also been designed to circumvent users’ efforts to consume contraband media.
Smartphone users do not have access to the global internet, and connect to a state-run intranet. However, a small number of elites have internet access, connecting to it through their own service. Domestic and international mobile services are kept strictly separate, and crackdowns on users of Chinese-origin phones have been reported.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0 4|
Freedom of assembly is not recognized, and participants in any unauthorized gatherings are subject to severe punishment, including prison sentences.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||0 4|
There are no legal associations or organizations other than those created by the state and ruling party.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||0 4|
Strikes, collective bargaining, and other organized labor activities are illegal and can draw severe punishment for participants, including prison sentences.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||0 4|
North Korea’s judiciary is subordinate to the political leadership in law and in practice. According to the constitution, the Central Court, the country’s highest court, is accountable to the SPA, and its duties include protecting “state power and the socialist system.”
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||0 4|
The right to due process is not respected in practice. The UN estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners were held in internment camps in a 2014 report that documented consistent violations of due process.
High-ranking government officials are also at risk of arbitrary detention if they fall out of favor with Supreme Leader Kim. North Korea’s special envoy to the United States, Kim Hyok Chol, was placed in government custody in June 2019, after efforts to secure a new summit between Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump failed that February. Supreme Leader Kim’s translator, Sin Hye Yong, was reportedly placed under investigation that month. South Korea’s intelligence agency reported that the envoy was still alive in July, despite speculation that he was executed for his negotiating failure.
Foreign visitors are at risk of detention for allegedly breaking North Korean law. In late June 2019, Alek Sigley, an Australian student studying at Kim Il-sung University, was detained by the authorities and accused of espionage. The student regularly wrote and tweeted about daily life in Pyongyang for the website NK News before his detention. Sigley was released with the assistance of the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, and deported as an action of “humanitarian leniency” after he was convicted of incitement against the government in July 2019.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0 4|
Documented North Korean human rights violations include widespread torture, public executions, forced labor by detainees, and death sentences for political offenses.
Defectors who seek safe haven in third countries are sometimes returned, and are subject to torture and disproportionate punishment if their bids to escape are unsuccessful. North Korean escapees who travel to China are considered economic migrants and are turned back, where they are subject to torture, harsh imprisonment, or execution. North Korean authorities have also employed stricter domestic controls in an effort to arrest the flow of defectors. While over 2,700 defectors arrived in South Korea in 2011, only 771 reached the country between January and September 2019, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In November 2019, the South Korean government returned two North Korean fishermen who were suspected of murdering 16 fellow crewmen, claiming they did not receive protection under South Korean law because of their alleged acts of murder. HRW criticized the move, warning that South Korea’s decision to surrender the fishermen violated international law because they would likely be tortured in North Korea. Defectors living in South Korea subsequently claimed that the fishermen received death sentences that December.
North Korea’s nuclear program threatens the security of the entire Korean peninsula, though the US and North Korea have held several talks to limit the program’s development in 2019. An inconclusive summit between Supreme Leader Kim and President Trump took place in February, followed by an impromptu meeting in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas in June, and a meeting between officials in Stockholm in October. Despite these efforts, talks have stalled, and North Korea continued testing ballistic missiles throughout the year. In December, North Korea launched a satellite to enhance its nuclear deterrence system.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0 4|
The most prevalent form of discrimination is based on perceived political and ideological nonconformity rather than ethnicity. All citizens are classified according to their family’s level of loyalty and proximity to the leadership under a semihereditary caste-like system known as songbun. Those who are classified as “wavering” or “hostile” under the system, as opposed to “loyal,” face official discrimination in employment, live in poorer housing, receive limited access to education, though this system is also vulnerable to corruption.
Women have legal equality, but they face rigid discrimination in practice and are poorly represented in public employment and the military. Male students are likelier to be groomed for leadership roles in the education system, while only 28 percent of girls are enrolled in tertiary education at all.
North Korea has historically denied the rights of people living with disabilities. Defectors reported that disabled people have been quarantined, exiled, forcibly sterilized, experimented on, and sometimes executed. The UN’s special rapporteur for disability rights, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, visited North Korea in 2017 at the behest of the UN Human Rights Council, in what was portrayed as a slight concession from the government. Devandas-Aguilar was escorted by government minders, prohibited from reviewing internal data on the disabled, and denied access to a mental health institution during her trip.
The law does not explicitly prohibit same-sex relations, but the government maintains that the practice does not exist in North Korea.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||0 4|
Residents have no freedom of movement, and forced internal resettlement is routine. Emigration is illegal. A person’s songbun classification affects his or her place of residence as well as employment and educational opportunities, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores. All foreign travel—whether for work, trade, or educational opportunities—is strictly controlled by the government. Freedom of movement for foreigners in North Korea is also limited and subject to arbitrary constraints.
Most North Korean workers are unable to freely choose their employment, with the government assigning men and unmarried women to their positions and often denying monetary compensation. Workers, especially women, seek informal employment in order to earn an income, and pay bribes to their official employers in order to cover their absences.
North Korea also operates paramilitary labor groups, which are assigned to complete infrastructure projects; members are drafted into these work groups. Forced labor is also pervasive in the country’s sprawling prison system.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1 4|
The formal economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged. Business activity is also hobbled by a lack of infrastructure, a scarcity of energy and raw materials, an inability to borrow on world markets or from multilateral banks because of sanctions, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolationism.
However, expanding informal and government-approved private markets and service industries have provided many North Koreans, especially women, with a growing field of activity that is somewhat free from government control. The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government agency, reported that women earned over 70 percent of household income in North Korea as recently as 2018, attributing this to their participation in local markets.
Local officials have had some authority in the management of special economic zones and over small-scale experiments with market-oriented economic policies.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||1 4|
Men and women have formal equality in personal status matters such as marriage and divorce. However, sexual and physical violence against women—in the home, in prisons and labor camps, and in other situations—is common, and victims have little legal recourse. There are no specific legal penalties for domestic violence. UN bodies have noted the use of forced abortions and infanticide against pregnant women who are forcibly repatriated from China.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1 4|
Human trafficking networks, sometimes operating with the assistance of government officials, target North Korean women; those ensnared by this activity are subject to sex slavery and forced marriages, often in neighboring China.
Some women in North Korea have also turned to prostitution to survive in recent years, and are exploited by their employers and by police officers. In July 2019, a raid in a South Pyongan Province residential complex led to the arrest of several women who were engaged in the practice. While these sex workers were charged with ideological crimes, the male customers caught in the raid bribed the police to secure their release. The residents in the complex were also accepting bribes from the sex workers, allowing the use of their apartments in exchange.
Economic opportunity has been affected by escalating international sanctions in response to North Korea’s weapons tests and threats of military aggression. Since 2016, sanctions have targeted civilian industries including textiles and seafood. North Korea has also been cut off from the international banking system. While this has not deterred North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it has created growing difficulties for markets and quasi-private businesses. Agricultural reforms have allowed larger percentages of crop yields to be kept by households.
On North Korea
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Global Freedom Score3 100 not free