Freedom in the World
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North Korea’s longtime leader, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. The new leader’s relative youth and political inexperience led to speculation about the country’s future stability and direction of its foreign and nuclear policies. At the beginning of 2011, relations with South Korea were near an all-time low, though North Korea made deliberate efforts to improve its relations with China, Russia, and the United States throughout the year.
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 resulted in the deaths of 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 associated subsidies from the Soviet Union and China 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. 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 of food and other goods, and illicit traders smuggled in items 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—China, South Korea, Japan and Russia—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. 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. 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 rare formal apology and allowing markets to reopen.
In March 2010, 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. The findings triggered a series of escalatory provocations between the two Koreas.
While inter-Korean relations had begun to thaw only a few months after the Cheonan incident, North Korea responded to joint U.S.-South Korean live fire military exercises in the West Sea with 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, including the first civilian deaths since the Korean War.
North Korean authorities also revealed to the international community that it had built a modern uranium enrichment facility, heightening fears that it would produce weapons grade uranium. This revelation sparked public debate in South Korea over whether it should pursue a nuclear weapons program of its own.
With inter-Korean tensions high, South Korea denounced North Korean requests for food aid in the beginning of 2011 and the United States followed suit. All inter-Korean cooperative activities were stalled except for the operation of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, the joint North-South Korean economic venture.
In February 2011, a group of five nongovernmental organizations from the United States—Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samartian’s Purse, and World Vision—found insufficient access to food and chronic malnutrition in North Korea; an assessment from the World Food Programme in March confirmed those findings. Both groups also reported the likely potential for food shortages during the lean months, which would put several millions of people at risk. In May, the United States Agency for International Development and U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King led another food assessment team into North Korea to get a better sense of the severity of the food situation. King’s visit marked the first time a designated human rights envoy had been allowed in the country, though he was not there for formal negotiations.
In June, the EU pledged $14.5 million in food aid to North Korea. Later in the year, South Korea approved private sector humanitarian efforts, and although refusing to grant direct aid to the North, approved government provision of food aid through third party organizations. The United States, however, had yet to come to a decision over whether it would provide assistance by the end of the year.
In August, Kim Jong-il travelled to Russia to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev. The two leaders agreed to establish a commission to explore the construction of a gas pipeline from Siberia through North Korea to South Korea. Though all three parties stand to gain from such a pipeline, there is great skepticism as to the North’s credibility as a business partner.
In October, U.S. and North Korean officials met again, this time in Geneva, to move the two countries towards renewing dialogue on nuclear disarmament and improving relations. Prospects for resuming multilateral nuclear negotiations seemed high until December 17, when Kim Jong-il reportedly died of a heart attack at the age of 69. Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent, succeeded his father as the country’s leader without a major power struggle, though it was unclear how much he had consolidated his hold on power. At year’s end, questions remained over the country’s future stability and foreign and nuclear policies under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un, who is in his late twenties and relatively politically inexperienced.
North Korea is not an electoral democracy. Kim Jong-il led the DPRK following the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il-sung, to whom the office of president was permanently dedicated in a 1998 constitutional revision. Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, became the country’s new leader after his father’s death in December 2011. Kim Jong-un, about whom little was known outside of North Korea, had been appointed to a number of senior government positions in 2010 and was being groomed as his father’s heir apparent. 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.
Corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy. North Korea was ranked 182 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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 who live 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.
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. However, the growth of the black market has provided many North Koreans with a field of activity that is largely free from government control. In 2011, the government announced new policies to attract greater foreign investment, and there were growing indications of a rising middle class in Pyongyang, including the opening of new shopping and entertainment venues and a surge in mobile phone subscriptions.
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.