North Korea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

North Korea

Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 

In October 2015, North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) with a large military parade in Pyongyang and a speech by leader Kim Jong-un. Kim reportedly granted amnesty to thousands of prisoners in the run-up to the event, though political prisoners were apparently excluded. Also in October, state media announced plans to convene a seventh congress of the KWP in May 2016, which would be the first party congress since 1980.

In August, weeks before planned U.S.–South Korean military exercises, two South Korean soldiers were seriously injured by landmines while patrolling near the border. The mines were thought to be newly placed by the North Koreans, not left over from the Korean War. In retaliation, South Korea resumed propaganda broadcasts via loudspeakers along the border, a practice that had been suspended for 11 years. North Korea then resumed its own loudspeaker broadcasts and declared a “semi–state of war.” After a brief exchange of artillery fire between the two sides, negotiations were held to deescalate the situation. The North expressed regret for the landmine incident, the loudspeaker broadcasts were halted, and both sides agreed to resume family reunions and hold more talks on increasing cultural, sports, and other exchanges. In October, North Korea duly hosted a new round of reunions of family members separated by the Korean War at its Mount Kumgang resort.

In March 2015, North Korea lifted travel restrictions it had imposed the previous year to prevent transmission of the Ebola virus. Although some West African countries had suffered major outbreaks, there had been no reported Ebola cases in Asia. The North Korean restrictions barred nonessential travel and imposed a 21-day quarantine on all foreigners entering North Korea, later expanded to include all North Koreans returning from abroad. The rules essentially halted diplomatic exchanges, tourism, business trips, and visits related to humanitarian and development programs.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 0 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12

Kim Jong-un became the country’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011. The elder Kim had led North Korea since the 1994 death of his own father, Kim Il-sung, to whom the office of president was permanently dedicated in a 1998 constitutional revision. Kim Jong-un’s titles as of 2015 included first secretary of the KWP, first chairman of the National Defense Commission (the highest state body), and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.

North Korea’s parliament, the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly, is a rubber-stamp institution elected to five-year terms. All candidates for office, who run unopposed, are preselected by and from the KWP and a handful of subordinate parties and organizations. Kim Jong-un was among those who won seats in the most recent national elections, held in March 2014. The official voter turnout was 99.97 percent.

In July 2015, for the first time since 2011, North Korea held elections for 28,452 provincial, city, and county people’s assembly members. Voter turnout was again reported to be 99.97 percent, with all candidates preselected by the KWP and running unopposed.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 0 / 16

North Korea functions as a single-party state under a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Although a small number of minor parties and organizations exist legally, all are members of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, a KWP-led umbrella group that selects all candidates for elected office. The ruling party has been dominated by the Kim family since its founding. Kim Jong-un serves as first secretary of the KWP, with the late Kim Jong-il dubbed the “eternal general secretary” after his death.

Any political dissent or opposition is harshly punished, and even the KWP is subject to regular purges aimed at reinforcing the leader’s personal authority. Various sources reported a number of high-level dismissals and executions during 2015, though independent confirmation was often unavailable. In April, for example, Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol was reportedly removed from office and put to death.


C. Functioning of Government: 0 / 12

The North Korean 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. Most observers must glean evidence from state media, defector testimony, or secret informants inside the country, and the accuracy and reliability of these sources varies considerably.

Corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy, and bribery is pervasive. North Korea was ranked 167 out of 168 countries and territories assessed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Civil Liberties: 3 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 0 / 16

All domestic 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. In recent years, four foreign news agencies have established bureau offices in Pyongyang: the U.S.-based Associated Press, Russia’s Sputnik International (formerly RIA Novosti), Japan’s Kyodo, and China’s Xinhua. In November 2015, Agence France-Presse (AFP) announced plans to open a bureau office in Pyongyang in the coming months.

Access to the global internet is restricted to a small number of people in the government and academia, and others have access to a national intranet on which foreign websites are blocked. The black market provides alternative information sources, including mobile telephones, pirated recordings of South Korean dramas, and radios capable of receiving foreign programs. Mobile-phone service was launched in 2008, and there were more than 3 million subscriptions as of 2015, though phone calls and text messages are generally recorded and transcribed for monitoring purposes. Foreigners, who operate on a separate network, have been allowed to bring mobile phones into the country and have access to 3G service, enabling live social-media feeds out of North Korea.

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.

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.

Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informants.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 0 / 12

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.


F. Rule of Law: 0 / 16

North Korea does not have an independent judiciary. The UN General Assembly has recognized and condemned the country’s severe human rights violations, including torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, and forced labor by detainees; the absence of due process and the rule of law; and death sentences for political offenses. A UN commission of inquiry into the human rights situation in North Korea found these violations to be widespread, grave, and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity, and in December 2014 the issue was taken up by the UN Security Council for the first time. In June 2015, the UN high commissioner for human rights opened a new office in Seoul, South Korea, intended to support the efforts of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.

It is estimated that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are held in detention camps in the country. Inmates face brutal conditions, and collective or familial punishment for suspected dissent by an individual is common practice. In October 2015, amnesty was granted to several thousand prisoners as part of events marking the 70th anniversary of the KWP; most of those released were reportedly elderly or gravely ill, and political prisoners were apparently excluded. 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. North Korean authorities regularly detain foreign citizens on various charges, obtaining coerced confessions, sometimes imposing harsh prison terms, and typically using the detainees as diplomatic leverage before eventually granting their release.

North Korea is ethnically homogeneous; the most prevalent form of discrimination is based on perceived political and ideological nonconformity rather than ethnicity. 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.

Laws do not prohibit same-sex sexual activity, but the government maintains that the practice does not exist in North Korea.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 3 / 16

There is no freedom of movement, and forced internal resettlement is routine. Emigration is illegal, but many North Koreans have escaped via China. 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. Recently, this disparity has increased, with the capital featuring more luxuries for a growing middle class. A person’s songbun classification affects his or her place of residence as well as employment and educational opportunities, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores.

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 expanding black market and ad hoc service industries have provided many North Koreans with a growing field of activity that is comparatively free from government control, if not from bribery and extortion; some have managed to engage in cross-border trade with China. In addition, a greater emphasis on building special economic zones (SEZs) has led to conditions more conducive to foreign investment. Local officials have had some authority in the management of these zones and over small-scale experiments with economic policies.

Women have formal equality, but they face rigid discrimination in practice and are poorly represented at high levels of government and in public employment. Although they have fewer opportunities in the formal sector, women are economically active outside the socialist system, exposing them to arbitrary state restrictions.

UN bodies have noted the use of forced abortions and infanticide against pregnant women who are forcibly repatriated from China. There have been widespread reports of trafficked women and girls among the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have recently crossed into China. Prostitution is rampant in ordinary residential areas.

Forced labor is common in prison camps, mass mobilization programs, and state-run contracting arrangements in which North Korean workers are sent abroad. 


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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