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Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Country Studies - North Korea

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 7 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, was established under the trusteeship of the Soviet Union on September 9, 1948, formalizing the partition of the Korean Peninsula following World War II. In 1950, North Korea launched a war to unify the peninsula that ended in an armistice in 1953 that divided the North and South along the 38th parallel. North Korea, modeled initially on Soviet communism, developed its own Communist state ideology, called Juche, or "self-reliance." Today, North Korea is one of the most repressive, closed, and internationally isolated states in the world and is consistently judged to be among the worst violators of human rights in Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey.

North Korea

With a population of approximately 23 million, North Korea was the 45th most populous country in the world in 2006. Due to the North Korean government's control over information, reliable economic data are lacking. However, the World Bank estimates that North Korea classified as a low-income country in 2006, with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $900 or below. Since the mid-1990s, it is estimated that as many as two million people have died from food shortages brought about by the combination of natural disasters and economic mismanagement by the government. Although North Korea has received significant amounts of food assistance over the previous decade, the government dedicates much of its budget to the military and is continuing an aggressive security policy of developing nuclear weapons. The North's economic and political record contrasts starkly with that of South Korea, which emerged from a period of authoritarian rule to become a stable democracy and in 2006 was the world's 13th-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product (GDP).


Chosun and Lolang

The Korean Peninsula was first inhabited by peoples migrating from the northwestern regions of Asia speaking a branch of the Ural-Altaic language family. Walled city-states emerged around 400 BC with the rise of the first kingdom, Old Chosun, which is considered an illustrious period in Korean history, spanning the bronze to the iron eras. This period was also marked by the beginning of influence from China, whose Han dynasty established commanderies in Korea around the first century BC, including in Lolang, near modern-day Pyongyang. North Korean historiography, based on Juche ideology, denies the existence of this period of Chinese dominance in the North, but historians consider its influence in all areas as indisputable.

The Three Kingdoms and the Period of the Unified Kingdoms

Beginning in the fourth century AD, three Korean states arose: the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms in the north, and the Silla kingdom in the central part of the peninsula. The Three Kingdoms period reflected continuing Chinese influence, in that each kingdom adopted Buddhism as the state religion, Confucian educational practices, and Chinese written characters and mural art. The Three Kingdoms period was also a time of conflict. The Silla kingdom gained in strength by allying with the Tang dynasty in China to defeat the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms, but then drove the weakened Chinese off the peninsula by the late seventh century.

The period of unity in the south marked the start of a long period of Korean self-reliance and isolation. The capital of the Silla kingdom, Kyongju, which is in present-day South Korea, was known as the "city of gold" for its temples and other architecture. The seat of the kingdom was also known for its high culture and for its rich and highly educated aristocracy. The oldest known example of woodblock printing was discovered in Kyongju (dating to 750 AD), well before its development in Europe. Not surprisingly, the southern kingdoms adopted highly stratified social structures, with little social mobility. The practices of slavery and indentured servitude were widespread.

The Koryo Restoration and Dynasty

Following the decline of Silla in the 10th century AD, a new state emerged, called Koryo, whose leader, Wang Kon, assumed the throne in 918. By 930, Koryo defeated rival kingdoms and unified the peninsula. As with the preceding Silla dynasty, the Koryo dynasty (918–1392) maintained a highly rigid aristocratic tradition based on economic privilege. Political offices and land were passed down among generations or obtained through marriage alliances.

The Longest Dynasty (Choson)

The Choson dynasty (1392–1910) was Korea's longest era of political rule. The dynasty's founder, Yi Song-gye, switched the new dynasty's capital to present-day Seoul in order to weaken the old ruling structures. Song-gye instituted a number of reforms aimed to reduce the power of aristocratic clans that were centered around Buddhist temples, including placing farmland under state control and strengthening the practice of Confucianism among elites. He also isolated Korea from its neighboring powers, Japan and China. The highly ritualistic and stratified Choson dynasty, known as "the hermit kingdom," lasted until Korea became a Japanese colony in 1910.

The Japanese Annexation

Although Korean leaders had defeated attempts by European powers and the United States to control trade over several centuries, ultimately they were unable to withstand Japan's growing industrial and military power. Japanese colonial rule, which lasted until August 1945, was harsh. Unlike some European colonial powers that relied on indigenous populations in their colonies to staff their bureaucracies, Japan sent up to 700,000 administrators to implement a legal system of racial discrimination against ethnic Koreans. After a time, Japanese authorities attempted to eliminate Korean civilization and culture. The Korean aristocracy and court bureaucracy were eradicated, Japanese conglomerates dominated the economy, and forced labor and sexual servitude were widespread. Koreans were forced to abandon Buddhism and Confucianism and forced to worship at Shinto shrines, and even the Korean alphabet, language, and books, as well as Korean history, were suppressed. Although Japanese history often stresses the positive developments that occurred in Korea under its rule (such as industrialization and the development of modern transportation and communication structures), the occupation was nonetheless severe.

Resistance to Japanese Rule

There were several attempts at resistance to Japanese rule, the most significant of which occurred on March 1, 1919, when an estimated two million people, inspired by the promises of the Versailles Treaty (which forced Germany to cede territory that it had forcefully acquired throughout Europe), engaged in protests aimed at liberating Korea from occupation. The movement was forcibly repressed, with thousands killed and many more wounded. While the movement failed, it led to the establishment of a provisional government in Shanghai, China, which was recognized by China, the United States, and others as the government of Korea between 1919 and 1948. It is thus considered the legitimate precursor to the Republic of Korea.

North Korean history bases its legitimacy on the guerrilla resistance organized against the Japanese invasion of neighboring Manchuria in 1937. The guerrilla fight against Japan was not significant enough to defeat the Japanese, but it did create difficulties for the occupiers. More important, the guerrilla forces assisted the Soviet army's last-minute entry into the Asian theater of conflict during World War II. For Stalin, the Korean Communist Party guerrillas were an advance guard that was responsible for occupying the northern half of the peninsula. In North Korean history, it was North Korea's first leader, Kim Il-sung, who used his guerrilla skills to eventually defeat the Japanese forces.

Stalin installed Kim Il-sung as head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee to consolidate his control.
Establishment of the Two Koreas

The United States did not enter southern Korea until September 9, 1945, well after the Soviet army had occupied the North. Initially a "free and independent Korea" had been pledged at the Cairo Conference by Allied leaders in 1943, which had included the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek. Yet this promise changed with the Yalta Agreement in 1945, which called for the establishment of a trusteeship in Korea. To avoid further conflict, U.S. leaders proposed an initial division of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel, a natural marker, along with a promise for negotiations to unite the two areas. Although the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, accepted the proposal, he had no intention of negotiating. Stalin installed Kim Il-sung as head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee to consolidate his control. The Soviet Union then boycotted deliberations at the UN to broker elections, which were held only in the South in 1948. Syngman Rhee, who had been a member of the provisional government in the South, was elected president. On August 13, 1948, the Republic of Korea was established. Three weeks later, Kim Il-sung announced the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Kim Il-Sung
Molding a Militarist Totalitarian State

The Korean Peninsula was thus divided between north and south as profoundly as post–World War II Germany was divided between east and west. After the founding of the DPRK, Kim followed a strict Soviet model, adopting a doctrinaire Communist ideology, even though Soviet forces were mostly withdrawn in 1948. Kim Il-Sung nationalized the economy, confiscated property, collectivized land, and built a powerful police and administrative apparatus. The government repressed citizens' political rights and civil liberties and imposed a rigid totalitarian system, including through the use of forced labor camps in which millions of people have been punished.

Drawing upon former Soviet-trained anti-Japanese guerrillas, as well as tens of thousands of Korean volunteers in the Chinese Communist revolution, Kim built a large army and aimed much of his ideology toward the necessity of reunifying the peninsula. With Stalin's approval, he launched a nearly successful preemptive war against the South in 1950. A UN coalition force (made possible by a Soviet walkout from the UN Security Council) was placed under the command of U.S. general Douglas MacArthur. After a three-year standoff, an armistice was signed, which ended the fighting and created a demilitarized zone (DMZ) yet left the rival armies in place. Kim Il-sung never accepted the outcome of the war and continued efforts to undermine South Korea, including the construction of hundreds of miles of tunnels that were designed for another secret preemptive strike, as well as a series of assassination attempts on the country's leaders. To date, a permanent peace agreement has not been signed, although in October 2007, North and South Korean leaders agreed to future talks to formally end the war. Approximately 24,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea.

North Korea's Unique Communism—Juche

Just as Marxism-Leninism governed all Soviet-dominated states, and Maoism governed the People's Republic of China, a distinct ideological variant of communism called Juche has governed all aspects of life in North Korea. Under Juche, the military, not industry or agriculture, is the central element of the North's economy, consuming 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). In this ideology, the military is seen as a source of wealth and stature, not as an economic burden or a drain on resources. Juche has allowed Kim to maneuver between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. During the Sino-Soviet split, North Korea sided with China but eventually restored economic and political relations with the Soviet Union and then later the Russian Federation. It also transformed Kim Il-sung into a mythic figure who was central to the DPRK's birth, life, and future—the "Father of the Nation" (see below).

...a distinct ideological variant of communism called Juche has governed all aspects of life in North Korea.
"The Arduous March"

Following Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-il, was appointed the general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) and in 1998 was declared the chairman of the National Defense Commission, currently the highest political office in the state. By the mid- to late 1990s, however, the country's centrally planned economy had declined to the point of near collapse. Barter became the normal means of exchange. From 1995 to 1998, North Korea experienced widespread famine, which ended only when the government finally accepted offers of food, medical, and other aid from the international community. It is estimated that food shortages killed as many as two million North Korean citizens.

The Drive for Nuclear Weapons

Since 1998, the economy has stabilized due to ongoing international subsidies and the adoption of minor economic reforms that remonetized the economy. Despite such destitution, Kim Jong-il has pursued his father's policy, begun in the early 1980s as a central element of Juche, to amass a stockpile of nuclear weapons. When confronted in 1994 with evidence the government had taken steps to produce plutonium, North Korea agreed to a U.S.-proposed deal that offered the building of internationally supervised nuclear power plants, as well as other energy subsidies, in exchange for ending the development of nuclear capabilities. By 1998, the Clinton administration suspected that the North's government was trying to renege on the agreement. In 2002, when confronted by intelligence gathered by the United States, the government admitted to the existence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2005, North Korean leaders announced that the country had operational nuclear weapons, and in October 2006, its leaders claimed it had tested a nuclear weapon for the first time. Although many of North Korea's missile tests have failed, they confirmed what the CIA and other intelligence agencies believed: that the DPRK has operational nuclear weapons.

There have been ongoing intermittent talks involving six principal actors (China, Japan, North and South Korea, the United States, and Russia) on the nuclear issue, with North Korea frequently reneging on its agreements. In September 2005, six-party negotiations resulted in an overall agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and existing weaponry in exchange for energy and economic assistance and discussions on a peace agreement. North Korea has not fulfilled the first parts of the agreement; rather, its leaders have pursued nuclear weapons testing. As a result, the UN adopted limited sanctions to enforce bans on weapons-related materials.

North Korea and Human Rights

In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, human rights are not generally respected in practice, and the rule of law is extremely weak. In a similar way as ancient autocracies, North Korea's government and constitution are built around a single leader, whose veneration is a constant requirement of public and private life. Kim Il-sung was known by the title of "Great Leader," while his son is known as "Dear Leader." Both have instilled absolute terror in the population through measures such as a vast prison network, executions, and arbitrary and mass arrests for the slightest display of opposition to the system or its leaders.

Costumed protestors in South Korea, protesting the human rights situation in North Korea and China
The Cult of Personality

To illustrate the extent of the cult of personality around Kim Il-sung, below is a standard encomium that appeared in a state-controlled party newspaper from 1981:

Kim Il-sung... is the great father of our people... Long is the history of the word father being used as a word representing love and reverence... expressing the unbreakable blood ties between the people and the leader. Father. This familiar word represents our people's single heart of boundless respect and loyalty... The love shown by the Great Leader for our people is the love of kinship. Our respected and beloved Leader is the tender-hearted father of all the people... His heart is... a centripetal force uniting the [people] as one... Kim Il-sung is the great sun and a great man... thanks to this great heart, national independence is firmly guaranteed.

The questioning of Kim Il-sung's "love" and "paternity," however, resulted in imprisonment or death. All newspapers, books, television programs, movies, plays, and educational institutions were dedicated to the perpetuation of the cult of personality. Meanwhile, a highly stratified social structure developed around this center, beginning with a core of leaders and apparatchiks who were deemed politically loyal. Following Kim Il-sung's death, the cult of personality surrounding him continued and also passed along to his son.

No Free Expression or Movement Allowed

All institutions are controlled by the state or by the ruling party. There are no independent broadcast media, newspapers, political parties, civic associations, trade unions, or any other type of organization essential to the development of civil society in a modern society.

The political penal labor colonies, or kwan li-so, hold between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals and their families (up to three generations) who have been seized by officers of the National Security Agency for alleged political transgressions.
There is no freedom of religion; indeed, the government permits religious worship only by organizations approved by and linked to the state. The ownership of a Bible (sometimes distributed by Christian groups on the border with China) is illegal and can result in imprisonment or even execution. The state controls all aspects of the economy, including the production and sale of grain and other goods. Freedom of movement is restricted. As in Cuba, it is treasonous to try to leave the country, although tens of thousands have attempted to cross to South Korea (the DMZ is an impassable military barrier). In contravention of international human rights conventions that protect the rights of refugees, the Chinese government has returned refugees to North Korea, where they are often imprisoned or executed.

The Machinery of Terror

The North Korean state's control over the citizenry is maintained through a system of detention facilities, political penal labor prisons, and slave labor prison camps, modeled on the Soviet gulag system. The political penal labor colonies, or kwan li-so, hold between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals and their families (up to three generations) who have been seized by officers of the National Security Agency for alleged political transgressions. These prisons do not operate within a formal legal system, since there are no judicial procedures, formal charges, or anything resembling due process for the targeted prisoners and family members. The harsh conditions in these camps mean that many do not survive them. The National Safety Agency, more akin to a regular police, runs the other main prison system, where prisoners are also subject to forced labor. The rate of death in these camps is also reportedly high, due to unsafe conditions, overwork, and lack of nourishment. The police also run detention facilities where unsuccessful refugees, economic migrants, and others are kept and often tortured. The prison system swelled during the period of the famine, when many peasants were imprisoned for supposedly stealing food.

The UN Commission on Human Rights has issued resolutions condemning human rights conditions in North Korea and calling upon the regime to allow a UN Special Rapporteur to further examine the situation. Ultimately, information on the human rights situation in North Korea remains quite limited, and knowledge of general conditions, human rights abuses, and the operation of the labor prisons is largely based on refugees who have escaped and on the few visitors who have been allowed into the country.