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.
- Authorities closed North Korea’s borders beginning in January in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the country. The government also sharply restricted internal movement and enforced lockdowns and quarantines for high-risk areas and people. Those who violated the rules near the border risked summary execution. North Korea did not officially report any domestic cases of COVID-19 during the year, despite numerous reports of suspected cases.
- There were no formal diplomatic negotiations with either the United States or South Korea in 2020, and relations remain strained. In June, North Korean authorities destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong and threatened broader military measures, but these did not ultimately materialize.
- In September, a South Korean fisheries official crossed into North Korean waters in a possible attempt to defect to the North. Soldiers who found the official shot him and then burned his body, apparently following disease-control protocols. While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent an apology to the South Korean president for the incident, South Korean and international authorities called for further investigation.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
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 has held 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 as SAC chairman by the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s legislature, and given the new title of “supreme representative of all the Korean people and the supreme leader of the Republic.” Choe Ryong-hae, a highly placed aide to Kim who also holds multiple titles, became vice-chairman of the SAC and head 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.
In August 2020, reports suggested that Kim Jong-un had delegated more power to senior officials, including his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is now understood to be in charge of relations with the United States and South Korea.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
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.
Elections for the SPA were held in March 2019, with voters endorsing preselected candidates for all 687 seats. Turnout was reported at 99.99 percent. Local elections were held in late July 2019, filling 27,876 posts; voter turnout was reported at 99.98 percent.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
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 became chairman of the KWP in 2016. His late father, Kim Jong-il, was dubbed the “eternal general secretary” of the party after his death.
|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?||0.000 4.004|
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 Kim Jong-un.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||0.000 4.004|
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 121 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?||0.000 4.004|
North Korea has no freely elected officials. Kim Jong-un and his inner circle determine the policies of the government, and the SPA gathers periodically to unanimously approve all decisions. In 2020, the SPA held sessions in April and November.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0.000 4.004|
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 2020 Human Rights Watch 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?||0.000 4.004|
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.
The authorities heavily restricted information about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020. Officials disclosed only fragmentary data regarding key aspects of its response, such as quarantines and testing. The government eventually reported thousands of “suspected” cases, but claimed that no infections were confirmed and attributed no deaths to the virus.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
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 bureau in 2012, though it is no longer active. The AP was followed by Japanese agency Kyodo News, China’s Xinhua, and Agence France-Presse (AFP), which still maintain a physical presence in the country. Access for these organizations is tightly controlled, and the government has been known to expel media crews in retaliation for their work. Select foreign media services are often invited to 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.
Campaigns to send information into the country via USB thumb drives, SD cards, and leaflets have been common, and North Koreans have constructed homemade radios to receive foreign broadcasts. However, in December 2020, the South Korean authorities banned the act of sending leaflets and other information across the border without government permission. The consumption of foreign radio broadcasts and possession of contraband devices are subject to severe punishment, potentially including the death penalty, if detected by North Korean authorities.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||0.000 4.004|
Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it does not exist in practice. State-sanctioned churches maintain a token presence in Pyongyang, and some North Koreans are known to practice their faith furtively. However, 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 subjected to harsh punishments, 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?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informants. Domestic third-generation (3G) mobile service has been available since 2008, with an estimated five or six million users nationally. Mobile phones operating on this network are used as surveillance tools by the state, which can review individuals’ application usage and intranet browsing history and take screenshots of their activity. Newer mobile phones have been designed to block users’ efforts to consume contraband media.
Ordinary mobile users do not have access to the global internet, but can connect to a state-run intranet. Only a small number of elites have internet access, reaching it through their own service. Domestic and international mobile services are kept strictly separate, and crackdowns on users with Chinese-origin phones have been reported.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
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?||0.000 4.004|
Fundamental due process rights, including freedom from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial, are systematically denied. As many as 120,000 political prisoners are thought to be held in internment camps in the country. Foreign visitors are also at risk of arbitrary detention. At least four South Korean citizens, the first of whom was seized in 2013, remained in custody as of 2020; they were accused of a range of crimes, including espionage and kidnapping.
In April 2020, unofficial reports claimed that the government had granted a mass amnesty to inmates who had displayed model behavior during their sentences. In August, the SPA Presidium was reported to have decreed an amnesty for those who had been convicted of “crimes against the country and the people,” set to take effect in September. It remained unclear how many prisoners were affected by the two reported amnesties.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0.000 4.004|
Documented North Korean human rights violations include widespread torture, public executions, forced labor by detainees, and death sentences for political offenses. Defectors who seek safety in third countries are sometimes returned to North Korea, where they are subject to torture and disproportionate punishment. China’s government considers North Korean escapees to be irregular economic migrants and regularly turns them back, in violation of international law.
In September 2020, North Korean soldiers reportedly shot and burned the body of a missing South Korean fisheries official who may have been attempting to defect across the maritime border. According to media reports, the North Korean regime had recently ordered security personnel to open fire in the event of unauthorized entries into restricted border zones, ostensibly as part of its effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Kim Jong-un offered an apology for the incident; South Korean and international authorities called for an investigation.
The unresolved conflict with South Korea remains a threat to physical security, as does North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in particular. Negotiations with Seoul and the United States remained stalled in 2020. North Korean forces test-launched a series of short-range missiles and projectiles in March and April. In June, the regime cut off all communication with the South after human rights groups sent leaflets over the border. It then destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office located near the border town of Kaesong.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0.000 4.004|
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, and receive limited access to education, though the rules can be manipulated through bribery. Family members of suspected political and ideological dissidents are also subject to punishment in what amounts to guilt by association.
Members of the ethnic Chinese population in North Korea have limited options for education and employment, though they have somewhat more freedom to travel across the border and engage in trade. In January 2020, there were reports that Chinese residents were required to participate in North Korean political events and related monetary contributions, from which they were historically exempted.
Women have legal equality, but they face rigid discrimination in practice and are poorly represented in public employment and the military. Although they have fewer opportunities in the formal sector, women are economically active outside the socialist system, which can expose them to arbitrary state interference.
The law does not explicitly prohibit same-sex relations, but the government maintains that the practice does not exist in the country.
North Korea has historically denied the rights of people living with disabilities. Defectors report that disabled people have been quarantined, exiled, forcibly sterilized, experimented on, and sometimes executed. The UN special rapporteur for disability rights visited North Korea in 2017 but was escorted by government minders, prohibited from reviewing internal data, and denied access to a mental health institution during her trip.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||0.000 4.004|
Residents have no freedom of movement, and forced internal resettlement is routine. Emigration is illegal. In recent years, North Korean authorities have employed stricter domestic controls in an effort to arrest the flow of defectors. While more than 2,700 defectors arrived in South Korea in 2011, the annual number had plunged to just over 1,000 by 2019, and only 229 were reported in 2020 amid tighter pandemic-related travel restrictions across the region.
The regime imposed severe new limits on movement in response to COVID-19 during the year, including the reported “shoot on sight” orders for security forces patrolling restricted border zones. In November, South Korean officials said the North had executed a citizen for violating quarantine measures by bringing goods through customs in the border city of Sinuiju. In addition to promptly closing borders in January, the government initially closed schools, postponed major events, and required the use of protective clothing while on public transportation. Tens of thousands of people were held in quarantine during the year; state authorities said they had released more than 32,000 people from quarantine as of October, but the total number of people quarantined was not disclosed.
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 to earn an income, and pay bribes to their official employers to cover their absences.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1.001 4.004|
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 discretion 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?||1.001 4.004|
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 women who are pregnant when forcibly repatriated from China.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
Forced labor is common in prison camps, mass mobilization programs, and state-run contracting arrangements in which North Korean workers are sent abroad. Criminal 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 August 2020, six people were allegedly executed by firing squad for their involvement in a prostitution ring consisting of officials and female performing-arts university students. More than 50 students were reportedly sent to a labor camp, and others were punished with reeducation sessions.
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 those dependent on markets and quasi-private businesses. Agricultural reforms in previous years have allowed larger percentages of crop yields to be kept by households, but productivity suffers from lack of access to supplies and modern equipment.
On North Korea
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Global Freedom Score3 100 not free