Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
North Korea received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s tightening of control over a burgeoning private market and its repression of citizens’ economic freedom.
The North Korean government carried out its second test of a nuclear weapon in May 2009, triggering new international sanctions. However, it indicated its openness to further disarmament negotiations later in the year, after former U.S. president Bill Clinton visited in August to secure the release of two American journalists. The Clinton trip and other official visits also dispelled speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was near death. In late November, the government announced a major revaluation of its currency and restricted the amount of old notes that individuals could exchange, effectively wiping out many citizens’ cash savings. The move, part of a bid to crack down on private trading and bolster state controls on the economy, reportedly led to small protests and other disturbances by year’s end.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) was established in 1948 after three years of post–World War II Soviet occupation. The Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese resistance fighter, as the new country’s leader. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under communist rule. Drawing in the United States and then China, the ensuing three-year conflict killed at least 2.5 million people and ended with a ceasefire rather than a full peace treaty. Since then, the two Koreas have been on a continuous war footing, and the border remains one of the most heavily militarized places in the world.
Kim Il-sung solidified his control after the war, purging rivals, consigning thousands of political prisoners to labor camps, and fostering an extreme personality cult that promoted him as North Korea’s messianic, superhuman “Great Leader.” Marxism was eventually replaced by the DPRK’s “Juche” (translated as “self-reliance”) ideology, which combined extreme nationalism, xenophobia, and the use of state terror. After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was proclaimed “Eternal President,” but power passed to his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.
The end of the Cold War and its associated Soviet and Chinese subsidies led to the collapse of North Korea’s command economy. Although severe floods in 1995 and 1996 compounded the problem, the famine of the 1990s, which killed at least a million people, was caused by decades of severe economic mismanagement. As many as 300,000 North Koreans fled to China in search of food, despite a legal ban on leaving the DPRK. In 1995, North Korea allowed the United Nations and private humanitarian aid organizations from Europe, North America, and South Korea to undertake one of the world’s largest famine-relief operations. Despite continuing food shortages over the next decade, the DPRK in 2005 instructed the UN World Food Programme to either switch from humanitarian relief to development assistance or leave North Korea. The DPRK continues to force the international community to bear the burden of feeding its citizens while it devotes resources to its military.
The degraded state turned a blind eye as black markets emerged to deal with extreme shortages, and illicit traders smuggled in goods of all kinds from China. The regime instituted halting economic reforms in 2002, which included easing price controls, raising wages, devaluing the currency, and giving factory managers more autonomy. More extensive changes, which could ultimately undermine the dictatorship’s grip on power, were rejected.
Kim Jong-il’s regime was also kept afloat by Chinese and South Korean aid, as both neighbors feared that a state collapse could lead to massive refugee outflows, military disorder, the emergence of criminal gangs and regional warlords, and a loss of state control over nuclear weapons.
The DPRK had withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and it raised alarm in the region by testing ballistic missiles and a nuclear device in 2006. In early 2007, the regime agreed to denuclearize in exchange for fuel aid and other concessions from its four neighbors and the United States, but further negotiations and implementation of the deal proceeded haltingly. In 2008, momentum picked up as Pyongyang handed over its declaration of nuclear assets and disabled its Yongbyon nuclear plant, and the United States removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The so-called Six-Party Talks then broke down in December over the issue of verification of the nuclear assets declaration.
In April 2009, the DPRK tested a long-range missile and announced that it was withdrawing from the Six-Party Talks. The regime then conducted its second nuclear weapons test in May. In response, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1874, which tightened weapons-related financial sanctions and called on all governments to search North Korean shipments for illicit weapons. Observers interpreted the new provocations by North Korea as an attempt to test newly elected U.S. president Barack Obama, force additional concessions from the international community, and rally hard-liners behind Kim Jong-il’s third son and recently designated heir, Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il had reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008, raising questions about the succession.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to North Korea in early August to negotiate the release of two American journalists who had been captured in May for trespassing along the Chinese border. Reports gleaned from the trip helped to dispel speculation that Kim Jong-il was too ill to rule. In addition, the visit and the reporters’ release appeared to signal the DPRK’s shift back toward diplomatic engagement, as confirmed by several meetings and positive gestures toward South Korea and China later in the year.
In late November, the government announced a currency revaluation and other measures designed to curb private trading and reassert state control over the economy. Citizens were allowed to exchange only a nominal amount of old currency for new notes, meaning their cash savings would be wiped out. In the face of public anger and confusion, reportedly including rare protests, the authorities later raised the limit somewhat on the amount of old notes that could be exchanged. Individuals could deposit larger amounts of old currency in state banks, but that carried the risk of being investigated for illegal trading. With the crippled black market unable to meet demand, prices rose sharply. The government caused further economic disruption at year’s end by banning the use of foreign currency.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
North Korea is not an electoral democracy. Kim Jong-il has led the DPRK since the 1994 death of his father, founding leader Kim Il-sung. He has many titles but rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the “highest office of state” since the office of president was permanently dedicated to Kim Il-sung in a 1998 constitutional revision. North Korea’s parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), is a rubber-stamp institution elected to five-year terms. All candidates for office, who run unopposed, are preselected by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party and two subordinate minor parties.
The latest SPA elections were held in March 2009, and in April the new chamber reelected Kim Jong-il as defense commission chairman. Also that month, the SPA revised the constitution to reinforce Kim Jong-il’s status as the undisputed “supreme leader,” and to stipulate for the first time that the country respects and protects human rights. The move was interpreted as a response to international pressure, although protection of human rights remains virtually nonexistent in practice.
While North Korea was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy.
All media outlets are run by the state. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels, and all publications are subject to strict supervision and censorship. Internet access is restricted to a few thousand people, and foreign websites are blocked. Still, the black market provides alternative information sources, including cellular telephones, pirated recordings of South Korean dramas, and radios capable of receiving foreign programs.
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 living near the Chinese border are known to practice their faiths furtively. However, intense state indoctrination and repression preclude free exercise of religion as well as academic freedom. Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informers.
Freedom of assembly is not recognized, and there are no known associations or organizations other than those created by the state. Strikes, collective bargaining, and other organized-labor activities are illegal. Nevertheless, recent state efforts to crack down on the black market have reportedly sparked scattered protests.
North Korea does not have an independent judiciary. The UN General Assembly has recognized and condemned severe DPRK human rights violations, including torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, and forced labor; the absence of due process and the rule of law; and death sentences for political offenses. Recent South Korean reports suggest that up to 154,000 political prisoners are held in six detention camps. Inmates face brutal conditions, and collective or familial punishment for suspected dissent by an individual is a common practice.
The government operates a semihereditary system of social discrimination whereby all citizens are classified into 53 subgroups under overall security ratings—“core,” “wavering,” and “hostile”—based on their family’s perceived loyalty to the regime. This rating determines virtually every facet of a person’s life, including employment and educational opportunities, place of residence, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores.
There is no freedom of movement, and forced internal resettlement is routine. Access to Pyongyang, where the availability of food, housing, and health care is somewhat better than in the rest of the country, is tightly restricted. Emigration is illegal, but many North Koreans, especially women, have escaped to China or engaged in cross-border trade. Ignoring international objections, the Chinese government continues to return refugees and defectors to North Korea, where they are subject to torture, harsh imprisonment, or execution.
The economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged, with the military claiming over a third of the state budget. Development is also hobbled by a lack of infrastructure, a scarcity of energy and raw materials, and an inability to borrow on world markets or from multilateral banks because of sanctions, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolationism. The growth of the black market in recent years gave many North Koreans a field of activity that was largely free from government control, but the currency reforms of late 2009 threatened to squelch such trading and the small measure of wealth it had produced.
There have been widespread reports of trafficked women and girls among the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have recently crossed into China. UN bodies have noted the use of forced abortions and infanticide against pregnant women who are forcibly repatriated from China.