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 government continues to sharply restrict internal movement and has instituted shoot-to-kill orders at the border. In July, soldiers allegedly killed three Chinese sailors on a fishing boat that landed on a North Korean island to avoid Typhoon In-Fa.
- Authorities rejected offers from the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide the government with COVID-19 vaccines in September. They continue to claim that no infections or deaths attributed to the virus have been confirmed.
- North Korean forces resumed missile testing in March after a year pause, showcasing a range of new missile capabilities. The unresolved conflict with South Korea around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to physical security, and negotiations with Seoul and Washington were stalled throughout the year.
|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 in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who had led North Korea since the 1994 death of his father. In 2016, the State Affairs Commission (SAC) became the country’s top ruling organ, and Kim Jong-un was named its chairman.
In 2019, Kim was reelected as SAC chairman by the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the country’s unicameral legislature, and given the new title of “supreme representative of all the Korean people and the supreme leader of the Republic.”
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
Members of the 687-seat SPA 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.
SPA elections were held in 2019, for all 697 seats filled by preselected candidates. Turnout was reported at 99.99 percent. Local elections were also held that year filling 27,876 posts with similar voter turnout.
|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 opposition to the incumbent leadership. The government uses the mandatory elections as an unofficial census, tracking whether and how people voted, and interpreting 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, which has always been controlled by the Kim family. Kim Jong-un was promoted from chairman to secretary general of the KWP in January 2021. 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|
There is no opportunity for public 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 Kim Jong-un’s personal authority, and the regime has executed senior officials who have fallen out of favor.
|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. With few exceptions, foreigners cannot 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 ruling bodies 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. High-level officials are subject to constant churn based on their performance and their perceived loyalties to Kim Jong-un.
|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 prime targets 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.
|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 presence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country during 2021. Officials disclosed only fragmentary data regarding key aspects of public health measures, such as quarantines and testing. Authorities rejected offers from the WHO to provide the government with COVID-19 vaccines in September 2021; they continue to claim that no infections or deaths attributed to the virus have been confirmed.
|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, however their access 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.
Several US and South Korean media outlets broadcast shortwave and medium-wave Korean-language radio programming into North Korea, though the government works to jam their stations.
Campaigns to send information into the country via USB thumb drives, SD cards, and leaflets are common, and North Koreans often modify their radios to receive foreign broadcasts. However, South Korean authorities have banned the transmission of leaflets and other information across the border without government permission. The consumption of foreign radio broadcasts and possession of contraband devices are illegal, as are the facilitation and nonreporting of such activity; all are subject to severe punishment under North Korea’s “anti-reactionary thought” law, up to and including the death penalty.
|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 those caught are arrested and subjected to harsh punishments, including imprisonment in labor camps. Foreigners caught proselytizing also risk arrest and detention. As of May 2021, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Christian Solidarity Worldwide estimates that approximately 200,000 people are being held in prison camps, many due to their Christian beliefs.
|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 200,000 prisoners are believed to be held in internment camps in the country. Foreign visitors are also at risk of arbitrary detention. At least four South Korean citizens remain in custody as of 2021, having been accused of a range of crimes, including espionage and kidnapping.
In 2020, unofficial reports claimed the government had granted a mass amnesty to inmates who had displayed model behavior during their sentences. In August of that year, the SPA Presidium reportedly decreed an amnesty for those who had been convicted of crimes against the country and its people, set to take effect in September. It remains 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, violating international law.
There are currently strict pandemic containment measures and border controls in place, including shoot-to-kill orders for illegal exit or entry. In July 2021, soldiers allegedly killed three Chinese sailors on a fishing boat that landed on a North Korean island to avoid Typhoon In-Fa.
The unresolved conflict with South Korea around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to physical security, and negotiations with Seoul and Washington remained stalled in 2021. North Korean forces resumed missile testing in March after a year pause, showcasing a range of new missile capabilities.
A 2021 United Nations (UN) report on human rights in North Korea noted that forced labor and torture were still rampant in the prison system, and that citizens often paid bribes to avoid arrest, mitigate their treatment in detention, and secure family visits.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0.000 4.004|
Discrimination is commonly based on perceived political and ideological nonconformity. 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” instead of “loyal” face official discrimination in employment, live in poorer housing, and receive limited educational opportunities, though rules can be manipulated through bribery. Relatives of suspected political and ideological dissidents, including defectors, are also subject to punishment in what amounts to guilt by association.
The ethnic Chinese population in North Korea has limited educational and employment opportunities, but somewhat more freedom of travel and trade. In 2021, the government reportedly began punishing those who slander China or North Korea’s ethnic Chinese residents.
Women have legal equality but face rigid discrimination in practice and are poorly represented in public employment and the military. Despite 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, authorities have employed stricter domestic controls to arrest the flow of defectors. The number of defectors arriving in South Korea dropped to only 63 in 2021 amid tighter pandemic-related travel restrictions across the region.
The regime imposed severe new limits on movement in response to COVID-19 during 2020 for security forces patrolling restricted border zones. In 2021, authorities reportedly enforced quarantines and other strict policies with fines and house searches to test for suspected coronavirus cases.
A person’s songbun classification affects their 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 education—is strictly controlled by the government. Freedom of movement for foreigners is also limited and subject to arbitrary constraints.
Most North Korean workers cannot 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; they pay official employers bribes 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. A lack of infrastructure, scarcity of energy and raw materials, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolation also hobble business activity in the country.
Informal and government-approved private markets and service industries have provided many North Koreans, especially women, a growing field of activity that is somewhat free from government control. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered access to goods to sell in those markets, limiting people’s ability to earn discretionary income. This has also increased dependence on domestic food production and distribution, causing growing concerns about a humanitarian food crisis.
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, prisons and labor camps, and in other contexts—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 on pregnant women when forcibly repatriated from China and infanticide of half-Chinese children.
|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. Human trafficking networks, sometimes operating with the assistance of government officials, target North Korean women; those ensnared are subject to sex slavery and forced marriages, often in China. Some women have also turned to prostitution to survive in recent years and are exploited by their employers and the police.
Economic opportunities are also hampered by international sanctions imposed in response to North Korea’s continued nuclear pursuits. 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.
On North Korea
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Global Freedom Score3 100 not free