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Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is an authoritarian state led by the Kim family for 70 years. Shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011, his son Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. He is currently the Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, remains “eternal president.” The most recent national elections, held in 2014, were neither free nor fair.

Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by authorities; arbitrary detentions by security forces; detention centers, including political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh and life threatening; political prisoners; rigid controls over many aspects of citizen’s lives, including arbitrary interference with privacy; censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; severe restrictions on worker rights, including denial of the right to organize independent unions, and domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system. DPRK overseas contract workers, working on behalf of the government, also faced conditions of forced labor.

The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports the government committed arbitrary and unlawful killings.

Defector reports noted instances in which the government executed political prisoners, opponents of the government, forcibly returned asylum seekers, government officials, and others accused of crimes. The law prescribes the death penalty for the most “serious” or “grave” cases of “antistate” or “antination” crimes, which include: participation in a coup or plotting to overthrow the state; acts of terrorism for an antistate purpose; treason, which includes defection or handing over of state secrets, broadly interpreted to include providing information about economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere; suppression of the people’s movement for national liberation; and “treacherous destruction.” Additionally, the law allows for capital punishment in less serious crimes such as theft, destruction of military facilities and national assets, fraud, kidnapping, distribution of pornography, and trafficking in persons. Defectors also reported that the government carried out infanticide, or required mothers to commit infanticide in cases of political prisoners, persons with disabilities, women who were raped by government officials or prison guards, and mothers repatriated from China.

NGOs and press reports indicated that border guards had orders to shoot to kill individuals leaving the country without permission, and prison guards were under orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape from political prison camps.

On June 22, a firing squad reportedly executed army lieutenant general Hyon Ju Song for abusing authority, profiting the enemy, and engaging in antiparty acts. Hyon had reportedly ordered the distribution of extra food and fuel to his troops, claiming “we no longer have to suffer and tighten our belts to make rockets and nuclear weapons.”

The trial of two women accused of assassinating Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, continued in Kuala Lumpur. The women claimed to have been tricked by four agents working on behalf of the North Korean government into fatally poisoning Kim at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017. The four agents, including Ri Ji U and Hong Song Hac, were able to return to North Korea from Malaysia.

The state also subjected private citizens to public executions. According to the Institute for National Security Strategy, the state held 340 public executions from 2012 to 2016, including executions of 140 government officials between 2013 and 2016. A 2016 survey found that 64 percent of defectors had witnessed public executions. Defectors reported going to public executions on school field trips. One defector claimed to have witnessed the public execution of a man who stole copper from a factory and a woman who had come into contact with a missionary while in China.

b. Disappearance

NGO, think tank, and press reports indicated the government was responsible for disappearances.

During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the DPRK.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) government and media reports noted the DPRK also kidnapped other foreign nationals from locations abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. The DPRK continued to deny its involvement in the kidnappings. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported that 516 South Korean civilians, abducted or detained by DPRK authorities since the end of the Korean War, remained in the DPRK. South Korean NGOs estimated that during the Korean War the DPRK abducted 20,000 civilians who remained in the North or who had died.

During the year South Korean media reported that DPRK Ministry of State Security agents were dispatched to cities near the DPRK border in China to kidnap and forcibly return refugees. According to international press reports, North Korea may have also kidnapped defectors who relocated to South Korea and then were on travel in China. In some cases North Korea reportedly forced these defectors’ family members to encourage the defectors to return to China in order to capture them.

Defectors alleged that the Ministry of State Security (MSS) did not always notify families when a relative was arrested and sentenced to detention in a political prison camp.

According to The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the state closed Hoeryong kwanliso (Camp 22) in late 2012 and demolished the Sirmchon/Kumchon-ri zone with Yodok kwanliso (Camp 15) in late 2014. The whereabouts of the former prisoners of these facilities remained unknown.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The penal code prohibits torture or inhuman treatment, but many sources reported these practices continued. Numerous defector accounts and NGO reports described the use of torture by authorities in several detention facilities. Methods of torture and other abuse reportedly included severe beatings; electric shock; prolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small “punishment cells” in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; water torture; and being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, including “pumps,” or being forced to repeatedly squat and stand with the person’s hands behind their back. Mothers were in some cases reportedly forced to watch or to commit the infanticide of their newborn infants. Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes.

The December 2017 International Bar Association (IBA) Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons alleged that torture with water or electricity was standard practice by the MSS. Other allegations include being stripped, hung inverted, and beaten as well as the sticking of needles under a detainee’s fingernails, among other forms of torture.

The White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, published by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, and the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report stated that officials had in some cases prohibited live births in prison and ordered forced abortions as recently as 2013. Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see section 7.b.).

The KINU white paper found that, in some cases of live birth, the prison guards killed the infant or left the baby to die, and it reported cases of guards sexually abusing or exploiting female prisoners.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

NGO, defector, and press reports noted there were several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and separate camps for political prisoners. NGO reports documented six types of detention facilities: kwanliso (political penal-labor camps), kyohwaso (correctional or re-education centers), kyoyangso (labor-reform centers), jipkyulso (collection centers for low-level criminals), rodong danryeondae (labor-training centers), and kuryujang or kamok (interrogation facilities or jails). According to the 2017 KINU white paper, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps and either it or the Ministry of People’s Security administered the other detention centers.

There were reportedly between 5,000 and 50,000 prisoners per kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. NGOs reported the existence of between four and six kwanliso facilities, including Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Pukchang (Camp 18), Cheongjin (Camp 25), and the Choma-bong Restricted Area. HRNK reported that the Choma-bong Restricted Area, constructed between 2013 and 2014, had not been confirmed by eyewitness reports, but it appeared to be operational and bore all the characteristics of a kwanliso.

Kwanliso camps consist of total control zones, where incarceration is for life, and “rerevolutionizing zones,” from which prisoners may be released. Reports indicated the state typically sent those sentenced to prison for nonpolitical crimes to re-education prisons where authorities subjected prisoners to intense forced labor. Those the state considered hostile to the government or who committed political crimes reportedly received indefinite sentencing terms in political prison camps. In many cases the state also detained all family members if one member was accused or arrested. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

Reports indicated conditions in the prison camp and detention system were harsh and life threatening and that systematic and severe human rights abuse occurred. Defectors noted they did not expect many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors, prisoners received little to no food or medical care in some places of detention. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing. The South Korean and international press reported that the kyohwaso held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals.

Both the kyohwaso re-education camps and kwanliso prison camps host extremely brutal conditions, according to HRNK’s 2016 report North Korea: Kyohwaso No. 12, Jongori. The report noted, “The brutality affects both those convicted of actual offenses and those sentenced for essentially political offenses.”

According to the Hidden Gulag IV report, since late 2008 Jongori (formerly referred to as Camp 12) in North Hamkyung Province was expanded to include a women’s annex that held approximately 1,000 women, most of whom the state imprisoned after forcibly returning them from China. Satellite imagery and defector testimony corroborated the existence of this women’s annex. Defector testimony also cited food rations below subsistence levels, forced labor, and high rates of death due to starvation at Jongori.

Physical Conditions: Estimates of the total number of prisoners and detainees in the prison and detention system ranged between 80,000 and 120,000. Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the 2014 COI report stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. The COI report added, “Cases of rape are a direct consequence of the impunity and unchecked power that prison guards and other officials enjoy.” In November, Human Rights Watch released a report providing defector accounts of sexual abuse at detention centers between 2009 and 2013. Victims alleged widespread sexual abuse at holding centers (jipkyulso) and pretrial detention and interrogation centers (kuryujang) by secret police (bowiseong) or police interrogators, as well as while being transferred between facilities.

There were no statistics available regarding deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The COI report cited “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.

Defectors also reported that in Camp 14, prisoners worked 12 hours a day during the summer and 10 hours a day during the winter, with one day off a month. The camps observed New Year’s Day and the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children age 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than 65 years of age. According to HRNK report Gulag, Inc., three political prison camps and four re-education camps contained mines where prisoners worked long hours with frequent deadly accidents. One prisoner reported suffering an open foot fracture and being forced to return to the mine the same day. Prisoners provided supervision over other prisoners and worked even when they were sick. Prisoners who failed to meet work quotas reportedly faced reduced meals and violence. Those caught stealing faced arbitrary and serious violence.

NGO and press reports estimated there were between 182 and 490 detention facilities in the country.

By law the state dismisses criminal cases against a person younger than age 14. The state applies public education in case of a crime committed by a person older than age 14 and younger than age 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was actually applied. Authorities often detained juveniles along with their families and reportedly subjected them to torture and abuse in detention facilities.

Administration: There was little evidence to suggest prisoners and detainees had reasonable access to visitors. In past years refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment if they made their faith public. No information was available regarding religious observance nor on whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse.

Independent Monitoring: There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2015 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Camp 15 noted officials, especially those within the Korean People’s Army and the internal security organizations, clearly understand the importance of implementing camouflage, concealment, and deception procedures to mask their operations and intentions. The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the DPRK into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.

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