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North Korea is a single-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. 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. A UN commission of inquiry into the human rights situation in North Korea in 2014 found violations to be widespread, grave, and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity.
- In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests, a satellite launch, and more than 20 ballistic missile tests, drawing condemnation and harsher sanctions from the international community.
- In May, the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) held its first congress in 36 years, which reinforced the state’s ideological roots, announced a new Five-Year Plan, and created the post of KWP chairman for incumbent leader Kim Jong-un.
- At the June session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the State Affairs Commission was established as the government’s new top power organ, with Kim Jong-un serving as chairman.
North Korea began 2016 by conducting a nuclear weapons test in January and a satellite launch in February, both prohibited under existing UN resolutions. In response, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2270, which imposed tougher sanctions on the country, including restrictions on mineral exports. Nevertheless, the regime subsequently proceeded with more than 20 ballistic missile tests, as well as its fifth nuclear test in September. The Security Council followed up with additional sanctions in November.
In May, the ruling KWP held its first party congress since 1980 and its seventh overall. The party introduced a new Five-Year Plan at the gathering, and adopted revisions to its charter, including the institutionalization of the so-called byungjin policy of dual nuclear and economic development and the creation of the post of party chairman for Kim Jong-un. In June, the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted constitutional changes that established the State Affairs Commission, replacing the National Defense Commission as the highest ruling organ.
In August, flooding caused by Typhoon Lionrock devastated parts of North Hamgyong Province, killing hundreds of people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and leaving at least 140,000 people in urgent need of assistance. The scale of the disaster led North Korea to move domestic resources to this area and seek international humanitarian assistance. However, international responses were limited due to the regime’s provocative behavior throughout the year.
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. In June 2016, the Supreme People’s Assembly established the State Affairs Commission as the country’s top ruling organ and elected Kim Jong-un as chairman. Kim already held a variety of other titles, including first chairman of the National Defense Commission—previously the highest state body—and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.
The 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly is 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.
Elections were held in July 2015 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.
North Korea is effectively a one-party state. 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. The late Kim Jong-il was dubbed the “eternal general secretary” of the party after his death.
In May 2016, the KWP held its seventh party congress, the first since 1980. In a tightly controlled process, delegates reiterated the ideological underpinnings of the party, reviewed its performance, and introduced a new Five-Year Plan, also the first since 1980. Key changes to the KWP charter that were adopted at the gathering institutionalized the byungjin policy of dual nuclear and economic development and established the new leadership positions of chairman and vice chairman. Kim Jong-un, previously the party’s “first secretary,” was elected chairman, and other elections for key committees were held, including the Central Committee.
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. Executions of dismissed cabinet officials continued to be reported in 2016.
North Korea is ethnically homogeneous, with only small Chinese populations and few foreign residents. Foreigners are not allowed to join the KWP or serve in the military or government.
North Korea’s dictatorial 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.
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, several 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 September 2016, Agence France-Presse officially opened its Pyongyang bureau, though it will largely be limited to filing photos and video. A British Broadcasting Corporation crew was detained and expelled in May for coverage that the authorities found objectionable.
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. Alternative information sources, including mobile telephones, pirated recordings of South Korean dramas, and radios capable of receiving foreign programs are increasingly available. 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.
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 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 in 2014 found these violations to be widespread, grave, and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity. Since then, there have been ongoing efforts to convince the UN Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court.
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.
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.
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.
Citizens have 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. Foreign residents tend to have somewhat more freedom of movement, being able to travel abroad and participate in trade.
The formal economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged. Business activity 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, expanding informal and government-approved private markets and 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 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.