Official Name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Population: 24 million
Government: Dictatorship under “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, the Korean Workers’ Party, and the Korean People’s Army
THE NORTH KOREAN PEOPLE FACE
North Korea is widely recognized as the most repressive country in the world. UN reports have described the human rights situation in the country as sui generis – in a category of its own, and “harrowing and horrific.” The North Korean regime attempts to deny its people almost every basic human right you can imagine. North Korea’s human rights abuses are so bad, in part, because the regime has had to rely on extreme repression to stay in power. Regime stability is the ultimate objective for the ruling elite, and the brutally efficient system of political oppression, including the prison camps, public executions and collective punishment, are the tools they have used to maintain their system.
Learn more about the challenges facing the North Korean people by clicking the headings below.
NO FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Criticism of the government or the leadership in North Korea is enough to get you and your family sent to a political prison camp. It goes without saying that there is no free media inside the country. The only voice permitted inside the country is the regime’s voice.
Organized religion is seen as a potential threat to the regime and therefore nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed. Thousands of Buddhists and Christians have been purged and persecuted throughout the history of North Korea. People caught practicing or spreading religion in secret are punished extremely harshly, including by public execution or being sent to political prison camps.
It is illegal to leave the country without state permission, and the regime attempts to control the North Korean people’s movement even inside their own country. If you wish to travel to another part of the country, you need to have a specific purpose and obtain permission from your work unit. If you do not live in Pyongyang, the showcase capital where most resources are concentrated, you will likely be denied access. The regime has also forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to less favorable parts of the country as a form of mass political persecution.
The North Korean regime has zero tolerance of any opposition or dissidents inside the country. There is no North Korean equivalent of Ai Wei Wei or Aung San Suu Kyi. Anybody who tries to form an opposition or show public dissent against the regime would be executed or sent to a political prison camp, along with three generations of their family.
Five political prison camps hold an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inmates, and some of them are the size of cities. They have existed five times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulags. Many people imprisoned in these camps were not guilty of any crime but were related to someone who supposedly committed a political crime. Often they have no idea what that crime was. There is no due process or rule of law. Even children who are born in the camps are raised as prisoners because their blood is guilty. Forced labor, brutal beatings and death are commonplace. The regime denies the existence of these camps, but multiple survivor testimonies have been corroborated by former guards as well as satellite images of the camps.
In North Korea, if your relative is persecuted for “anti-state” or “anti-socialist” crimes, then you and three generations of your family can be punished for it. The aim is to wipe out the whole family unit to prevent any dissent from emerging in the future, and also to deter martyrs who might sacrifice themselves for a political cause but would not want to sacrifice their whole family.
The North Korean regime regularly publicly executes citizens who have been accused of a variety of crimes, including petty theft. Whole communities, including children, are brought out and forced to watch these executions, designed to instill fear amongst the people of doing anything which could be seen as against the regime’s wishes.
Massive efforts have gone into building personality cults around Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, the three generations of the Kim family that have practiced dictatorial rule over North Korea for over six decades. Propaganda starts in nursery school and a large proportion of the curriculum for all students – even at university – is dedicated to memorizing the ‘history’ of the Kim family. Damaging one of the ubiquitous Kim portraits, even by accident, is a grave offense which can lead to being sent to a political prison camp. State media also provides a constant stream of myths about the Kims and lauds the sacrifices that they supposedly make for the people.
Knowing the threat that outside information poses to their propaganda and ideology, and ultimately its control over the people, the regime has invested massive resources in trying to maintain an information blockade with the outside world and keep its monopoly as the only source of information and ideas to the North Korean people. It is illegal to own a tunable radio in North Korea, there is no access to the internet (except for a few hand-picked and monitored regime officials), and North Korean landlines and mobile phones cannot make international calls. North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world today.
The North Korean regime has invested an incredible amount of time and resources creating the songbun system, a form of political apartheid that ascribes you with a level of perceived political loyalty based on your family background. Your particular songbun level (there are 51 of them) is then used to determine your life opportunities including where you can live, educational opportunities, Party membership, military service, occupation, and treatment by the criminal justice system. Any perceived political infractions by your family will lead to your songbun being demoted.
The collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s brought down the Public Distribution System (PDS: national system for allocating food supply). Suddenly, the system that all North Koreans relied on for food was out of operation. Food supplies to less politically favored regions and sections of society were cut first. The resulting famine killed up to one million people in the mid to late 1990s, making it one of the worst famines of the 20th Century.
North Korea’s failed agricultural policies, susceptibility to adverse climate conditions confounded by environmental mismanagement, and an inability to purchase necessary agricultural inputs or food imports mean that North Korea has had chronic food shortages ever since the famine. Millions of malnourished children and babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers bear the brunt of the shortages today. This has left an entire generation of North Koreans with stunted growth and higher susceptibility to health problems. For an up-to-date source on this issue, check out the WFP’s country page for North Korea.
The regime claims that it provides universal health care to its people. In reality the majority of the public healthcare system collapsed in the 1990s, with only those prioritized hospitals in areas such as Pyongyang kept functioning. Elsewhere health services and medicine are only available to those that can afford it. Ordinary North Koreans are therefore afflicted by easily preventable or curable poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis and cataracts.
Every year thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to flee their country, escaping a combination of political persecution and economic hardship; in North Korea these are inextricably linked. There are currently an estimated 30,000-50,000 North Korean refugees in China, and more than 24,000 have made it to South Korea, where they are automatically given South Korean (ROK) citizenship.
The North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave the country without state permission. If caught trying to escape, or if caught in China and sent back, they are at risk of extremely harsh punishments including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and internment in a political prison camp. Those suspected of having had contact with South Koreans or Christians while in China receive the most severe punishments.
North Korean refugees’ well-founded fear of persecution if repatriated means that they are categorized as refugees sur place. However, the Chinese government prioritizes its political relationship with Pyongyang and does not recognize these people as refugees. Instead they label them as “economic migrants” in an attempt to justify the forcible repatriation of thousands of North Korean refugees every year, in contravention of their obligations under international law.
Since coming to power, the Kim Jong-un leadership has cooperated with the Chinese authorities to tighten border security and reduce unregulated border crossings. Recent defectors have told us of increased physical border security, increased risk associated with bribing border guards, and heightened punishments for people trying to escape. As a result, the number of refugees managing to arrive in South Korea has decreased by almost half.
North Korean refugees in China are in a precarious and often desperate situation. They fear harsh punishment or even death if they are caught and sent back to North Korea, but many do not have the resources or connections to get themselves out of China. Their illegal status forces them to work in invisible industries and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and sex traffickers, as they have no recourse to any authorities. Click here to read more about our work with refugees.
An estimated 70-80% of North Korean women are trafficked in China. China’s lack of marriageable women, especially in the rural areas of its Northeast provinces, creates a demand for North Korean women who become at risk of being forced to work in brothels or online sex chatrooms, or are bought and sold as wives. Some women are sold for as little as $200.
Children born to North Korean refugee mothers and Chinese fathers can face difficulties obtaining hukou (household registration papers) because of their mother’s illegal status. This can leave the children stateless, recognized by neither the Chinese or North Korean governments, and they can therefore be denied basic rights such as access to education and other state services. There are estimated to be around 10,000 children born to North Korean refugee mothers in China.
…BUT THIS IS NOT THE WHOLE STORY.
North Korea remains the most repressive society in the world, but over the past two decades crucial yet little-known forces for change have been growing in North Korean society. Bottom-up change is already being driven through the people’s incredible resilience and strength, despite the adversity and challenges they are faced with.
We believe that the status quo in North Korea is not only unacceptable but that it is also unsustainable. We hope you will join us in standing alongside the North Korean people in their struggle.