North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship that regularly engages in grave human rights abuses. 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.
- Authorities released several thousand prisoners to mark the late Kim Jong-il’s 80th birthday in February, after their sentences were reduced. Many were released in poor physical condition; no dissidents were freed.
- The regime reported two outbreaks of COVID-19 during the year. Authorities implemented a lockdown after cases were reported in May but declared “victory” over the virus in August. Cases were reported near the Chinese border in August, however, prompting local restrictions.
- The regime continued to test missiles; 95 were launched by year’s end, the most ever. In September, Pyongyang codified a nuclear weapons strategy, which allows their automatic use in certain circumstances while favoring deterrence in others.
|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 his father’s death in 1994. 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 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. 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, preselects all candidates, who then run unopposed. Voting is compulsory for citizens who are at least 17 years old, and turnout commonly approaches 100 percent. Preselected candidates won every seat in the 2019 SPA elections.
|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 and monitoring elections, the system’s structure denies voters any choice and precludes 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. The small number of minor groups that legally exist are 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|
Political dissent and opposition are prohibited and harshly punished. The country has been ruled by the KWP, which the Kim family has always controlled, since its founding. Kim Jong-un was promoted from KWP chairman to secretary general in 2021. His late father, Kim Jong-il, was dubbed the KWP’s “eternal general secretary” 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 Kim Jong-un’s personal authority. 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 occupy 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 policy, 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 loyalty 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. No independent or impartial anticorruption mechanisms exist.
Small-scale local markets have become prime targets of corrupt police officers, who solicit bribes from 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 state-assigned roles.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0.000 4.004|
The government operates opaquely and without accountability. Information about the functioning of state institutions is tightly controlled for both domestic and external audiences.
Authorities restrict COVID-19-related information, disclosing only fragmentary public-health data. However, in May 2022, the regime reported the detection of COVID-19 cases as early as April and declared a national emergency. However, authorities reported no new cases after July. “Victory” over the outbreak was declared in August, with 4.8 million people having had “fever” and 74 dying according to official figures that outside experts called unreliable. Also in August, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, disclosed that the country’s leader had suffered a “fever” during the outbreak. Later that month, the regime said it detected several cases near the Chinese border. Little information about vaccination rollouts was provided.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
The state runs all domestic media outlets. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels. All publications and broadcasts are strictly supervised and censored. The regime rarely allows a small number of foreign books, films, and television programs to be distributed and aired in the country.
Several foreign news agencies have established bureau offices in Pyongyang. However their access is tightly controlled, and media crews have been expelled in retaliation for their work. Select foreign media services are often invited to cover key political events and holidays, although authorities strictly manage their visits.
Several US and South Korean outlets broadcast shortwave and medium-wave Korean-language radio programming into North Korea, though the regime works to jam their stations.
Campaigns to send information into the country via external storage devices and leaflets are common, and North Koreans often modify their radios to receive foreign broadcasts. South Korea banned the transmission of leaflets and other information across the border without government permission under a law that took effect in 2021, though activists have since sent leaflets north. The consumption of foreign radio broadcasts and possession of contraband devices in North Korea are illegal, as are the facilitation and nonreporting of such activity; all are subject to severe punishment under an “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 constitutionally guaranteed, 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—including foreigners—are arrested and subjected to harsh punishments, including imprisonment in labor camps. In 2021, nongovernmental organization Open Doors US reported that 50,000 to 70,000 Christians were held in prison camps.
|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, they 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, available since 2008, may serve at least 6.5 million subscribers. Ordinary mobile users can connect to a state-run intranet but not the global internet. Mobile phones operating on this network function as state surveillance tools, which can review individuals’ application usage and browsing history and take screenshots of activity. Newer mobile phones include measures to prevent the consumption of contraband media, with some resorting to hacking to circumvent them.
Only a few elites have internet access, reaching it through their own service. Domestic and international mobile services are kept strictly separate. Individuals using Chinese-origin phones have faced crackdowns, while officials sent to China must install surveillance software on their devices.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is not recognized. Participants in unauthorized gatherings are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment.
|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 imprisonment.
|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 100,000 people may be held in prison camps according to the US State Department. Foreign visitors are also at risk of arbitrary detention. At least four South Korean citizens accused of crimes such as espionage and kidnapping remain in custody as of 2022.
The regime sometimes grants amnesty to or otherwise releases prisoners. In February 2022, thousands were released to celebrate the late Kim Jong-il’s birthday via sentence reductions, though many were in poor physical condition. No dissidents were released.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||0.000 4.004|
Documented human rights violations include widespread torture, public executions, forced labor by detainees, and death sentences for political offenses. A 2021 UN report noted that forced labor and torture are rampant in the prison system, and that citizens often pay bribes to avoid arrest, mitigate treatment in detention, and secure family visits.
Defectors who seek safety in third countries are sometimes returned to North Korea, where they face torture and disproportionate punishment. China’s government considers North Korean escapees to be irregular economic migrants and regularly turns them back, violating international law.
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 2022. North Korea launched at least 95 missiles during the year, the most ever. The country notably fired an advanced intercontinental ballistic missile, which landed in waters west of Japan, in November. In September, Pyongyang codified its nuclear weapons strategy, allowing for their automatic use in certain circumstances but favoring deterrence in others.
|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 country’s ethnic Chinese population has limited educational and employment opportunities, but somewhat more freedom of travel and trade.
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 in markets, which can expose them to arbitrary state interference.
The law does not explicitly prohibit same-sex relations, but the regime 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.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||0.000 4.004|
Citizens 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, who have also been impeded by regional coronavirus-related travel restrictions. The South Korean Unification Ministry reported that over 1,000 defectors entered the country in 2019 but only 67 did so in 2022.
The regime implemented strict pandemic-containment measures and border controls in 2020. Authorities imposed new virus-related lockdowns in May 2022 and imposed local restrictions near the Chinese border in August. Internal movement was proscribed in September to limit the spread of “seasonal flu.” In November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that North Korea had tightened security along the Chinese border since the global pandemic began in 2020. Some rail traffic with China and Russia was observed during the year, however.
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 is strictly controlled by the regime. 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 and pay official employers bribes to cover 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, centrally planned economy is 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 and increasing dependence on domestic food production and distribution.
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 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