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

North Korea Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 7.


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, was formally 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 dividing 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." Under this Communist regime, North Korea has been 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 by Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey as well as by other human rights organizations.

North Korea

North Korea’s population is approximately 25 million by the UN’s 2016 estimate, the 50th largest in the world. Given the lack of independent information sources, reliable economic data are lacking. The United Nations in 2014 ranked it 104th in total GDP output ($15 billion). The World Bank, UN, and CIA, however, all classify North Korea among the lowest-income countries. The IMF measurement of nominal GDP per capita in 2015 was $583 per year (174th out of 186 countries), while the CIA World Factbook measured it at $1,200 (149th out of 191 countries). Since the mid-1990s, it is estimated that as many as two million people have died unnatural deaths from food shortages brought about by the combination of natural disasters and economic mismanagement by the government. Although North Korea received significant amounts of food assistance over the previous decade as a result of international agreements limiting nuclear weapons development, most assistance stopped after the government reneged on those agreements and resumed nuclear and missile development. Much of the national budget is dedicated to security services and the military. Under previous and current leaders, the government has assumed an aggressive security policy of developing nuclear weapons and threatening their potential use against South Korea, the United States, and other targets. 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 2014 was the world's 13th largest economy in nominal gross domestic product at $1.4 trillion in total and 28th highest in average GDP per capita at more than $27,500 per year.


Ancient History: Chosun and Lolang

The Korean Peninsula was first inhabited by peoples migrating from the northwestern regions of Asia, speaking a distinct language that was later influenced by Chinese and Japanese. Walled city-states emerged around 400 BC with the rise of the first kingdom, called Old Chosun, which spanned the bronze to the iron ages. This period saw the beginning of influence from China, whose Han dynasty established commanderies, or military prefectures, in Korea around the first century BC, including in Lolang, near modern-day Pyongyang. Current North Korean historiography, based on Juche ideology of “self-reliance,” denies the existence of this period of Chinese dominance in the northern part of the peninsula.

Kingdoms and Dynasties

Beginning in the fourth century AD, three Korean kingdoms arose (the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms in the north and the Silla kingdom in the central region). Reflecting the continuing influence of China, each adopted Buddhism as the common state religion, Confucian practices in education, and introduced Chinese characters and mural art in writing. Ultimately, the Silla kingdom, with its capital in Kyongju, allied with the Tang dynasty in China to defeat the other two kingdoms. The Silla Kingdom then drove the weakened Chinese off the peninsula by the late seventh century to introduce an era of Korean self-reliance and isolation. Kyongju was known as the "city of gold" for its temples and other architecture as well as for its high culture (the oldest known example of woodblock printing was discovered in Kyongju, dating to 750, well before its development in Europe). Not surprisingly, the southern kingdom adopted stratified social structures, with little social mobility. The practices of slavery and indentured servitude were widespread. estimated 2 million people engaged in protests aimed at liberating Korea from [Japanese] occupation. . .

Following the decline of the Silla Kingdom in the 10th century, Korea had two long-lasting dynasties, the Koryo dynasty (918–1392) and the Choson dynasty (1392–1910). The Chosun dynasty's founder, Yi Song-gye, switched the capital to present-day Seoul in order to weaken the old ruling structures. Song-gye instituted a number of reforms aimed at reducing the power of aristocratic clans by placing farmland under state control and strengthening the practice of Confucianism, instead of Buddhism, among elites. The Chosun dynasty developed highly ritualistic practices and its own stratified social structures. It came to be known as “the hermit kingdom” for its enforced isolation from neighboring Japan and China.

The Japanese Annexation

The 600-year-old Chosun dynasty ended when Japan annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. Korean leaders had withstood European and US attempts to control trade from the peninsula but towards the end of the 19th century they were forced to succumb to the growing industrial and military power of Japan. Lasting until August 1945, Japanese rule was harsh. Unlike European colonial powers that staffed their colonial bureaucracies with indigenous populations, Japan sent 700,000 administrators to implement a legal system of racial discrimination against ethnic Koreans. The Korean aristocracy was eradicated; Japanese conglomerates dominated the economy; and forced labor and sexual servitude were widespread. Koreans were forced to abandon Buddhism and Confucianism and to worship at Shinto shrines. Even the Korean alphabet, language, and books, as well as Korean history, were suppressed. Japanese history stresses positive developments that occurred in Korea under its rule (such as industrialization), but Koreans remember the occupation as an historical tragedy.

Resistance to Japanese Rule and the Establishment of Two Koreas

There was ongoing resistance to Japanese rule. The most significant event occurred on March 1, 1919, when an estimated 2 million people engaged in protests aimed at liberating Korea from occupation. The protests were forcibly suppressed, with thousands of people killed and many more wounded. While the resistance movement failed, it led to the establishment of a provisional government-in-exile in Shanghai, which, between 1919 and 1948, was formally recognized by many states as the legitimate government of Korea. Accordingly, it is considered to be the legitimate precursor to the Republic of Korea (South Korea). North Korean history, however, bases its legitimacy on the communist guerrilla resistance organized against the Japanese invasion of neighboring Manchuria in 1937. Unable to defeat the Japanese, the guerrilla forces nevertheless created difficulties for the occupation and assisted the Soviet army's last-minute entry into the Asian theater of conflict during World War II. The Korean Communist Party guerrillas became the advance guard for the Soviet Union’s occupation of the northern half of the peninsula.

Kim Il-sung

The United States entered southern Korea on September 9, 1945, well after the Soviet army occupied the North. Earlier, US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and China’s Chiang Kai-shek had pledged to establish a "free and independent Korea," but this promise was abandoned in the 1945 Yalta Agreement signed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. It called instead for a trusteeship of Korea. To avoid further conflict, the US proposed an initial division of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel, a natural marker, and future negotiations to unite the two areas. Stalin accepted the proposal, but refused later to negotiate unity. Stalin installed communist guerrilla leader Kim Il-sung as head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee to consolidate Soviet control. The Soviet Union boycotted UN deliberations to broker unified elections, and elections took place only in South Korea. 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. Kim Il-sung declared the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea three weeks later.

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 (see Country Study). After the founding of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung followed a strict Soviet model and adopted a doctrinaire Communist ideology. Kim’s regime nationalized the economy, confiscated property, collectivized land, and built a powerful police and administrative apparatus. The government imposed a rigid totalitarian system that repressed all citizens' political rights and civil liberties. A system of forced labor camps was established in which millions of people have been punished.

Drawing upon Soviet-trained anti-Japanese guerrillas and Korean veterans of the Chinese Communist revolution, Kim built a large army and directed his efforts toward reunifying the peninsula. With Stalin's approval, he launched a nearly successful military invasion of the South in 1950. A UN coalition force, comprised of fifteen nations including the US, intervened to help the South Korean army push the invasion force back. After three years of stalemate and a total of more than a million civilian and military deaths, an armistice was signed that ended the fighting but left rival armies in place across a demilitarized zone (DMZ). Kim Il-sung never accepted the outcome of the war. Among other initiatives, he constructed hundreds of miles of tunnels designed for another secret strike — these were discovered before they could be used. To date, a permanent peace agreement has not been signed. Approximately 28,500 US troops remain in South Korea to deter a future invasion. Intermittent talks between North and South Korea to formally end the war have failed, although there have been some agreements that resulted in family re-unification meetings and a joint manufacturing facility (the North-South Kaesong Industrial Complex). Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and Maoism in the People’s Republic of China, a distinct ideological variant of communism called Juche . . . has controlled all aspects of life in North Korea.

North Korea’s Unique Communism: Juche

Like Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and Maoism in the People's Republic of China, a distinct ideological variant of communism called “Juche” (self-reliance) developed by Kim Il-sung has controlled all aspects of life in North Korea. Under Juche, the military, not industry or agriculture, is the central element of the North's economy. It is thus the source of wealth and stature and the basis of North Korea’s class structure. Juche allowed Kim Il-sung to maneuver between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, as well as to transform himself into a mythic figure central to the DPRK's birth and existence (see below). After Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-il, was appointed head of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) and chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest political office in the state. The country's centrally planned economy declined to the point of near collapse under Kim Jong-il in the mid- to late1990s. Barter became the normal means of exchange. From 1995 to 1998, North Korea experienced widespread famine, which ended only when the government accepted offers of food, medical, and other aid from the international community. It is estimated that food shortages resulted in up to two million deaths. Thereafter, the system has stabilized, but North Korea remains impoverished. After his death in 2011, Kim Jong-il was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un.

Human Rights

Korea’s history, rich in civilization and culture, was dominated by monarchical ruling structures that restricted the development of political and economic freedom and isolated the peninsula from outside influences. Korea’s longest-ruling dynasty ended in 1910 with annexation by Japan and the introduction of harsh colonial rule that destroyed existing Korean cultural and social structures. The division of Korea by Soviet and US armed forces at the end of World War II resulted in the division of the peninsula and the creation of two distinct states that were cemented in place by the military stalemate of the Korean War. The Republic of Korea in the south emerged from a period of authoritarianism to develop a stable democracy and a thriving economy. Initially under Soviet influence (Stalin himself wrote the original constitution), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north evolved to adopt a distinct communist dictatorship maintained through dynastic leadership.

In North Korea, citizens are deprived of all human rights and they suffer under a totalitarian regime that controls all aspects of their lives and has impoverished the country. North Korea's original constitution established a “dictatorship of people’s democracy” under the control of the Korean Workers Party. In its adapted form (see below), the constitution imposed a governing structure built around a single leader, Kim Il-Sung. The governing structure ensured that Kim Il-Sung has been succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, and grandson, Kim Jong-un. All three generations of Kims have kept power through their control over a vast military and security apparatus; purges and arbitrary executions of anyone posing a threat to their leadership; mass imprisonment and forced labor; control over all information and the economy; and a system of political and social conformity that is required of every citizen. Millions of citizens have died due to state oppression, government-created famine, and other causes.

The Cult of Personality as a Governing Structure

The constitution is supplemented by the Monolithic Ideological System, whose ten principles were adopted in 1974 during the Sino-Soviet split to institute North Korea’s distinct communist system under Kim Il-Sung, known as juche (self-reliance). To illustrate, the first principle is, “We must give our all in the struggle to unify the entire society with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.” The third is, “We must make absolute the authority of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung.” Citizens must strictly follow the Ten Principles and are required to memorize, study, and reflect on them in organized self-criticism sessions. In North Korean propaganda, Kim Il-sung achieves God-like status as “the tender-hearted father of all the people” whose “heart is a centripetal force uniting the [people] as one.” Any questioning of Kim Il-sung's "love" and "paternity" of North Koreans resulted — and still results — in imprisonment or death. His son and grandson, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, have similar, although lesser, cult-of-personality status as “Supreme Leaders,” but their legitimacy is through the original “Father” of the nation. He is now accorded the status “Eternal Leader.”

In practice, each of the Kims consolidated power by assuming positions as head of the Korean Workers Party, head of state, and head of the National Defense Committee, now the highest state office controlling military and security structures. A highly stratified governance structure exists around a core of apparatchiks who are deemed politically loyal and who help maintain the dynastic cult of personality. The individuals who comprise this inner core can change suddenly. Purges of higher officials are frequent in order to prevent any individual from challenging the Supreme Leader (see Current Issues).

No Free Expression, Association, or Movement Allowed

All political, social, and economic institutions in North Korea are controlled by the state, the ruling party, and the military. All facets of a person’s life, including employment, education opportunities, residence, and access to medical facilities and stores, are determined through a system of social classification. Citizens are given security ratings under three main classifications: “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” (within which there are 53 subgroupings). A person’s category is based on their and their families’ assessed loyalty to the regime. political penal labor colonies, or kwan li-so, hold between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals . . . who have been seized by officers of the National Security Agency for alleged political transgressions.

The state controls all media, which is simply an instrument of state propaganda and the ruling ideology. There are no independent newspapers or broadcast media. Religious worship is allowed only by organizations linked to the state. The ownership of a Bible is illegal and can result in imprisonment or even execution. Black markets and individual economic transactions are tolerated, but are under strict observance and control by a special division of the security services. Freedom of movement is forbidden and trying to leave the country without permission is considered a treasonous act. Even so, tens of thousands attempt to cross to South Korea, often by round-about way through China. Those who succeeded have provided first-hand witness testimony of North Korea’s gruesome regime (see Resources). Many, however, fail or are forcibly returned by China. These individuals are imprisoned within the penal and labor system or executed.

The Machinery of Terror

The North Korean state maintains a vast prison system modeled on the Soviet GULAG’s penal labor prisons and slave labor camps. The penal labor colonies, or kwan li-so, are under the control of the National Security Agency. It is not known the total number imprisoned since 1948 but it counts many millions of people. Today between 80,000 and 130,000 people are held for alleged political transgressions. These prisons do not operate within a formal legal system and no due process exists. The harsh conditions in these camps and the long sentences meted out often mean that prisoners do not survive. The National Safety Agency, more akin to a regular police, runs a separate prison system for supposed common criminals, where prisoners are also subject to forced labor. The rate of death in these camps is also high, due to harsh conditions of 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.

Current Issues

Kim Jong-un, the grandson of Kim Il-sung, was declared by the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly to be “Supreme Leader” of the party, military, and state on December 28, 2011 at the state funeral of his father, Kim Jong-il. He has since assumed the positions of First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Supreme Commander and Marshal of the Korean People’s Army, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission and National Defense Committee. To consolidate his power, Kim Jong-un has carried out widespread purges of the state and party leadership (among them all pall bearers other than himself at his father’s funeral and four officials chosen by his father to be his initial political mentors). In December 2013, the regime announced the summary execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Il-sung’s brother-in-law and the second most powerful figure within the state hierarchy. Kim Jong-un then carried out arrests and executions of Jang’s military associates and family members. It was reported that the purge was connected to infighting over profits in export trading controlled by Jang. In a New Year’s message, however, Kim Jong-un, said he had acted to tighten the Party’s “revolutionary ranks by making a timely decision to ferret out and purge the anti-party, anti-revolutionary factional clique.” In March 2015, Kim Jong-un gathered hundreds of officials to witness the public execution of the Minister of Defense by means of anti-aircraft fire. He had reportedly fallen asleep during one of Kim’s speeches.

In May 2016, Kim Jong-un presided over the first Congress of the Korean Workers Party held since 1980, a stage-managed event aimed at re-coronating him again as its leader and reinforcing the role of the “leading party” as a central institution in the state machinery. During the Congress, Kim Jong-un repeated his determination for North Korea to be a nuclear power, claiming it gave the country “dignity” (see below).

Without "Parallel in the Contemporary World”

In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council took the unusual step of establishing a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate human rights violations in the DPRK (the only other active COI is for Syria). The government refused to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry, but the COI held extensive hearings in a number of countries to receive oral and written testimony on the human rights situation in North Korea, especially accounts of victims and first-hand witnesses. In February 2014, the COI issued a comprehensive report condemning the government of North Korea for “a wide array of crimes against humanity, arising from . . . policies established at the highest level of State.” It further stated that “the gravity, scale and nature of these [human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. . . .” (See link in Resources for the COI report.) A resolution of the UN Human Rights Council was adopted in March 2014 that continued recommended action by the UN Security Council to authorize the International Criminal Court to investigate individuals responsible for crimes against humanity, including Kim Jong-un. The UNHRC re-affirmed that resolution in 2015 and authorized the opening of an office for continuing monitoring of the human rights situation. In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council announced that it would seek ways to prosecute human rights violators despite North Korea not being a signatory to the Rome Convention and subject to the International Criminal Court.

The Drive for Nuclear Weapons

Despite the country’s destitution, Kim Jong-un has continued his father’s and grandfather’s policies, begun in the early 1980s, to develop a stockpile of nuclear weapons. He often threatens their use against the US and South Korea. Kim Jong-il reneged on several international agreements to suspend development of nuclear weapons, both in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UN Security Council has adopted a regime of international sanctions since 2009 to prevent trade of military and nuclear technology to North Korea as well as to put economic pressure on the regime. So far, these restrictions have not prevented North Korea’s nuclear development. In late 2012, Kim Jong-un initially declared his willingness to resume negotiations within the framework of what are called the Six-Party Talks, but subsequently resumed nuclear and missile testing. There were three underground atomic nuclear tests since. In December 2015, he announced detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which is much more powerful than an atomic bomb, but experts have not agreed that such an explosion actually occurred.

The United States, which under the administration of President George W. Bush eased sanctions in 2008 in response to the apparent adherence of North Korea to one of the broken agreements, resumed sanctions in 2009 when Kim Jong-Il withdrew from the agreement and resumed nuclear weapons development. President Obama instituted additional economic sanctions in January 2015 following a North Korean cyberattack on the Sony Corporation for its production and distribution of the movie “The Interview,” whose theme was a fictional plot to kill Kim Jong-un. In March 2016, the UN Security Council adopted new stringent measures aimed at the North Korean regime for its nuclear program, including full inspections of cargo ships and new sanctions on luxury goods, technology, arms, and specific individuals. Nevertheless, North Korea continued to test its ballistic missiles (failing again in a third launch later in March). The Obama Administration announced in April 2016 that it would seek means to ensure enforcement of existing UN and US sanctions regimes to maintain pressure on the North Korean regime to end its nuclear weapons program.