Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Following a rare public backlash, authorities apologized for the failed currency reform implemented in late 2009 and reopened the markets in early 2010. In March, North Korea was accused of sinking the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, causing tensions on the peninsula to soar. North Korea made several leadership changes throughout the year, promoting key members of the Kim family to top positions, presumably to facilitate an eventual power succession. In September, Kim Jong-un was promoted to the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee and formally introduced to the public. While inter-Korean relations had calmed by the fall, tensions flared again in November, when North Korea attacked South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in response to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
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 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 “Great Leader.” Marxism was replaced by the “Juche” (translated as “self-reliance”) ideology, which combines 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, 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. Decades of severe economic mismanagement were exacerbated by harsh floods in 1995 and 1996, resulting in a famine that killed at least a million people. As many as 300,000 North Koreans fled to China in search of food, despite a legal ban on leaving the country. In 1995, North Korea allowed the United Nations and private humanitarian aid organizations 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 emergence of black markets helped to deal with extreme shortages, and illicit traders smuggled in goods of all kinds from China. The regime instituted halting economic reforms in 2002, easing price controls, raising wages, devaluing the currency, and giving factory managers more autonomy. China and South Korea also continued to provide aid, fearing that 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 withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and proceeded to test 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, 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 Six-Party Talks then broke down in December over the issue of verification.
In April 2009, the DPRK tested a long-range missile and announced its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks. A second nuclear weapons test was conducted 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.
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 a limited amount of old currency for new notes, wiping out individuals’ cash savings. Following public anger and confusion, as well as reported protests, the authorities eased the limitations somewhat. Individuals could deposit larger amounts of old currency in state banks, but risked being investigated for illegal trading. With the crippled black market unable to meet demand, prices rose sharply. The economy was disrupted further in early 2010 when the government banned the use of foreign currency.
In February 2010, the government backtracked on the currency revaluation, issuing a formal apology and allowing markets to reopen. Reports later emerged that Pak Nam-gi, the Korean Workers’ Party finance and planning director, was tried and executed over the failed reforms, although this was never confirmed.
In March, a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, was sunk in the West Sea, killing 46 crew members. While North Korea was widely believed to have perpetrated the attack, it never claimed responsibility. In May, an international group of experts concluded that the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. However, the investigative team did not include members from North Korea, China, or Russia, all of whom cited the evidence as inconclusive.
The findings triggered a series of escalatory provocations between the two Koreas. South Korea vowed retaliation and countermeasures and demanded that Pyongyang apologize and prosecute the perpetrators. In response, Pyongyang proclaimed it would not engage in a dialogue with South Korea until after President Lee Myung-bak was out of office. In June, North Korea petitioned the UN Security Councilfor a new probe into the sinking of the Cheonan, warning of serious consequences if punishment against Pyongyang was discussed. The UN Security Council condemned the attack in a presidential statement, but no further sanctions were imposed.
Inter-Korean relations had begun to thaw only a few months after the Cheonan incident. North Korea agreed to return to Six-Party Talks and resumed bilateral talks with South Korea, and the North Korean government even invited Western media to Pyongyang to attend the 65th Anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 15. However, in response to joint US-South Korean live fire military exercises in the West Sea, North Korea conducted a surprise attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on November 23. South Korea launched a counterattack, and the exchange lasted an hour; the shelling resulted in a number of South Korean casualties. The year ended with tensions on the Korean peninsula at their highest levels since the Korean War, with the South Korean public calling for military retaliation.
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, 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.
A delegates meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party was convened in September for the first time since 1966, which included the promotion of several members of Kim Jong-il’s family. His sister, Kim Kyong-hui, was elected as a member of the Political Bureau. Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir apparent, was elected as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and was subsequently appointed to the party’s Central Committee.Kim Jong-un’s promotion marked his first formal appearance in North Korean media. Observers considered the appointments and other reshuffling throughout the year as preparations for the political power succession.
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.
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. 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. In January 2010, two Americans, Robert Park and Aijalon Gomes, were detained for illegally entering North Korea. While Park was released in February, Gomes was tried and sentenced to eight years of hard labor and a fine of $700,000. In August, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang to secure Gomes’ release.
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 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. Development 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. The growth of the black market has provided many North Koreans with a field of activity that is largely free from government control.
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.