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North Korea

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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

There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. The government had no functioning investigative mechanism.

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 upon conviction for the most “serious” cases of “antistate” or “antination” crimes. These terms are broadly interpreted to 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 state secrets; providing information regarding economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere; and “treacherous destruction.” Additionally, the law allows for capital punishment in less serious crimes such as theft, destruction of military facilities and national assets, distribution of narcotics, counterfeiting, fraud, kidnapping, distribution of pornography, and trafficking in persons. Defectors and media also reported that the government carried out infanticide or required mothers to commit infanticide if they were political prisoners, persons with disabilities, raped by government officials or prison guards, or forcibly repatriated from the People’s Republic of China. Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and press reports in the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and elsewhere indicated that those attempting to leave the country without permission could be killed on the spot or publicly executed, and guards at political prison camps were under orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape (see also section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, execution of children of defectors in psychiatric hospitals).

The state also subjected private citizens to attendance at public executions. A 2019 survey by the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a Seoul-based NGO, found that 83 percent of a sub-sample of 84 participants (from 610 persons interviewed) witnessed public executions in their lifetime. Defectors reported going to public executions on school field trips. The 2020 edition of the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea (White Paper), an annual report based on interviews with recent escapees and published by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, reported that testimonies recounted continued public and secret executions. Escapees declared the purpose of the executions was to punish offenses including drug dealing, watching and disseminating South Korean videos, and violent crimes such as murder and rape. Testimonies also stated executions were carried out for possession of Bibles, circulation of antiregime propaganda material, and superstitious activities. Although KINU noted that public executions appeared less frequent in recent years, the practice continued. According to online newspaper Daily NK, in April 2021 a man in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, was executed by firing squad in front of a crowd of 500 for illegally selling South Korean movies, dramas, and music videos in violation of the December 2020 antireactionary ideology law (see also section 2.a.). In November 2021 Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that a man in North Hamgyong Province who smuggled the South Korean Netflix drama Squid Game into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and sold it on flash drives was sentenced to death, also by firing squad.

In December 2021 the TJWG reported in the Mapping Killings under Kim Jong-un study that escapee interviews and satellite imagery of Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, pointed toward a state strategy to stage public executions at the local airfield and other locations away from the China border and from residential areas, and to monitor the crowds for recording equipment, in order to prevent information on the executions from leaking outside the country. The six-year study also reported numerous interviewee statements that “secret killings continue to take place in North Korea.”

During the year media reported large troop deployments from the “Storm Corps” special forces unit and the Seventh Corps to the border with China, and “repeated shootings by troops along some stretches of the border,” as the DPRK implemented an August 2020 “shoot-to-kill” order in a buffer zone near the border to prevent transmission of COVID-19 into the country. Media further reported that in early January 2021, border guards shot and injured or killed locals participating in five incidents of defection or smuggling along the border in North Pyongan Province, and in early February, a soldier and his girlfriend were shot and killed by border guards in Chasong County, Chagang Province, as they tried to cross the river into China. On August 11, 2021, border patrol troops shot and killed a man, reportedly a member of a labor brigade who had deserted his unit, along the Yalu River in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province. On September 30, the Storm Corps shot and killed a local man they discovered attempting to return to Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, after visiting a relative in China. On August 23, 2021, three UN rapporteurs expressed concern and requested clarification of the shoot-to-kill order. The rapporteurs acted after the TJWG asked the United Nations to press the government regarding the order. In October 2021 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) termed the order “alarming.” In September 2020 media had reported the order was caused by fear due to a COVID-19 outbreak, and that a photograph of an August 2020 poster had been published describing a 1,100- to 2,200-yard buffer zone between the DPRK and China with the warning that any person making an unauthorized entry into the country “shall be shot unconditionally.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic the government continued to heighten restrictions, border closures, and government-sponsored threats and killings during the year.

As of year’s end, the government still had not accounted for the circumstances that led to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in unjust and unwarranted detention by authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017.

b. Disappearance

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

South Korean media reported the government dispatched Ministry of State Security agents to cities in China near the country’s border to kidnap and forcibly return refugees. According to international press reports, the government also may have kidnapped defectors traveling in China after relocating to the ROK. In some cases the government reportedly forced these defectors’ family members to encourage the defectors to travel to China in order to capture them. According to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), as political prison camps in border areas near China closed, thousands of inmates reportedly disappeared in the process of their transfer to inland facilities, amounting to enforced disappearance.

During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the government in the 1970s and 1980s. As of July 2021, the website of Japan’s National Police Agency indicated 873 missing Japanese citizens were suspected of being kidnapped by the DPRK.

South Korean government and media reports noted the government also kidnapped other foreign nationals from locations abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. The government continued to deny its involvement in the kidnappings. Tomas Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, reported the ROK officially recognized 516 South Korean civilians abducted by regime authorities since the end of the Korean War, with thousands more unaccounted for. ROK NGOs estimated that 20,000 civilians abducted by the government during the Korean War remained in the country or had died.

Authorities took no steps to ensure accountability for disappearances.

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

The law 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 up with their hands behind their back (see also section 1.a.).

Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see also section 7.b.).

A 2020 report from the OHCHR catalogued numerous allegations of beatings, torture, and sexual violations against women who were forcibly repatriated after seeking to flee the country to find work, usually in neighboring China. KINU’s White Paper for 2020 reported that children repatriated from China underwent torture, verbal abuse, and violence including beatings, hard labor, and hunger. On January 11, 2021, the OHCHR reported that beatings, stress positions, psychological abuse, forced labor, denial of medical care and sanitation and hygiene products, and starvation all combined to create an atmosphere of severe mental and physical suffering in detention, exacerbated by extremely poor living conditions. The report added that multiple credible accounts of such abuse provided reasonable grounds to believe that officials “have inflicted and continue to intentionally inflict severe physical and/or mental pain upon detainees in custody.” The December 2021 TJWG Mapping Killings under Kim Jong-un study reported testimonies describing “inhumane treatment” of the accused immediately before their executions; violence used to deny their dignity and serve as a warning to the public; public statements denouncing the accused as a threat to society, to justify the violence directed at them including torture, execution, and corpse desecration; and victims’ family members compelled to watch them being executed.

Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights 2020 White Paper on Human Rights stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. The White Paper added that women defectors who were forcibly repatriated suffered significantly worse sexual assaults and abuse in prisons and jails than did other women.

Reports from previous years attributed rape to the impunity and unchecked power of prison guards and other officials. OHCHR reporting noted that, contrary to international human rights standards that require women prisoners to be guarded exclusively by female prison staff to prevent sexual violence, female escapees reported they were overseen almost exclusively by male officers. In the same report, survivors 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 during transfer between facilities.

An October 2020 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled Worth Less Than An Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea stated the pretrial detention system was opaque, arbitrary, violent, and lacked any semblance of due process. Individuals in pretrial detention reportedly endured brutal conditions and were routinely subjected to systematic torture, sexual violence, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor.

On July 14, China forcibly repatriated approximately 50 North Korean refugees to the DPRK, prompting fear among human rights organizations that the repatriated individuals, and more than 1,000 North Koreans still detained in China and at risk of forcible return, faced the prospect in the DPRK of forced labor, imprisonment, sexual violence, and torture (see also section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal).

Impunity for acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by members of the security forces was endemic.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and life-threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. NGO, defector, and press reports noted the government operated several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and 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 KINU’s White Paper for 2020, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers.

NGOs reported varying numbers of political prisons. According to a 2020 report by the HRNK, the government operated six kwanliso: Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, and 25, as well as Choma-bong Restricted Area. According to KINU’s most recent estimate in 2013, there were between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in the kwanliso. The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. KINU identified the five kwanliso facilities as Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myonggan (Camp 16), Bukchang (Camp 18), and Chongjin (Camp 25).

Kwanliso camps consisted of total-control zones, where incarceration is for life, and may include “revolutionary” or re-education zones from which prisoners may be released. Those whom 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. According to KINU’s White Paper for 2020, children were allowed to leave camps after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire families to political prison camps. The 2020 White Paper contained testimony indicating that in some cases, only parents were detained while children were released. In other cases children were detained in psychiatric hospitals and executed there. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

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.

In August media reported that the government had ordered preliminary work for constructing “specialized quarantine facilities” to replace the local inns, nursing homes, and other makeshift facilities where individuals confined with suspected COVID-19 symptoms failed to receive proper treatment. These makeshift facilities lacked medicine and adequate food, and individuals in them often died of hunger and cold. The same month media reported the government was “believed to be confining violators of quarantine rules in ‘total control zones,’” camps of “lifetime imprisonment” where inmates were subjected to forced labor in mines and lumber camps.

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 re-education through labor camps held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. A 2020 HRNK report entitled North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 1, Kaechon postulated that the government may have operated more than 20 kyohwaso. That report, which relied on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, estimated the population of Kyohwaso Number 1, located near Kaechon in South Pyongan Province, at 2,000 to 6,000 prisoners.

Another 2020 report by the HRNK entitled North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 12, Jongori stated the kyohwaso held both political and nonpolitical prisoners. According to the HRNK, based on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, Kyohwaso Number 12, located near Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, held approximately 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom were accused of illegal border crossings into China. The HRNK described frequent deaths within Kyohwaso Number 12 from injury, illness, and physical and mental abuse by prison officials, and included first-hand accounts of crematorium operations designed to dispose of prisoners’ bodies surreptitiously.

On July 22, 2021, an HRNK report, North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 8, Sunghori, stated that the facility was located approximately 16 miles east of Pyongyang and held 2,000 prisoners who mined coal. Using satellite imagery, the HRNK determined that two elements of the facility were within 1,200 feet of six small mining operations with a “well-used trail” leading directly there – “strong indications” that prisoners were used for mining operations. A former prisoner told the HRNK that due to the proximity of the mine, parts of the floor were so hot it was impossible to walk on, and that one day when an export unit connecting doll eyelashes for export to China failed to reach its quota, women in the unit had to kneel on the hot part of the floor, causing their skin to burn within five minutes. The prisoner reported that five or six inmates died from the heat during her imprisonment.

On November 3, 2021, the HRNK, announcing another report, North Koreas Long-term Prison-Labor Facility, Kyohwaso No. 3, Tosong-ni, noted that both satellite imagery and interviewee testimony indicated prisoners were “forced to work in agricultural production as well as in some light manufacturing, likely including clothing and bicycles.” The report included a satellite image from March 2021 that it termed “somewhat unique” in showing “what are most probably three groups of prisoners in formations of different sizes outside the main prison entrance and in the nearby support area,” where “what appear to be numerous stacks of grain” stood adjacent to the formations, supporting testimony that prisoners were used to work nearby agricultural fields. The HRNK executive director stressed that the facility’s location in Sinuiju city, just across the Yalu River from Dandong, China, was of great importance “to both the illicit border trade fueling North Korea’s informal markets and the routes followed by North Koreans who attempt to escape.” He added that “under the pretext of COVID prevention,” the government was “cracking down hard” on both markets and attempted escapes.

On December 22, 2021, the HRNK, announcing the publication of North Koreas Political Prison Camp, Kwanliso No. 14, Update 1, stated that the entire camp was believed to be a “total control zone,” where prisoners were never eligible for release. “Based on the physical security measures observed,” most individuals inside the camp perimeter were prisoners. According to satellite imagery analysis, prisoners maintained the agricultural fields, orchards, and livestock. Forced to work in logging and manufacturing wood products, they were also dispatched as forced labor at light industrial facilities and mines. The report cited testimony from several interviewees that prisoners were routinely treated with brutality and received limited food rations.

In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Koreas An-Jeon-Bu Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment, forced labor, and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.”

Physical Conditions: Nutrition, hygiene, and the medical situation inside prison camps were dire, according to KINU’s 2020 White Paper. There were no statistics for deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) report cited an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.

Political prisoners faced significantly harsher conditions than the general prison population. In July media reported that the number of inmates in political prisons had increased since March 2020 from an estimated 209,000 to approximately 232,400. KINU’s 2020 White Paper noted political prisoners were often forced into hard labor, which one defector of Camp 18 stated led to 10 deaths a year at the camp from overwork. Defectors 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 II Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children ages 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than age 65. According to the 2016 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 were forced to work 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.

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. Refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment than others. According to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons whom prison authorities found were practicing religion within detention facilities. No information was available regarding whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse. There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2019 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Pokchong-ni Lab noted officials, especially those within the military and the internal security organizations, continued to camouflage and conceal activity at prison camps.

Independent Monitoring: The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press for citizens, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.

Freedom of Expression: According to the 2020 KINU White Paper, arrest or detention as a punishment for exercising the freedom of expression was arbitrary and in reality, expressions of political opinion that differed from those of authorities were prohibited. There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government.

South Korean culture was targeted as being antiregime. Following enactment in December 2020 of a “Law on Rejecting Reactionary Ideology and Culture,” the government cracked down on the consumption and distribution of cultural materials from the ROK, and on the expression of South Korean culture. Penalties ranged from two years of correctional labor for speaking, writing, or singing in the South Korean style; to five to 15 years for watching, listening to, or possessing films, recordings, publications, books, songs, drawings, or photographs from the ROK; to life sentences or execution for importing and distributing such materials. In April 2021 authorities publicly executed a man by firing squad before a crowd of 500 in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, for illegally selling South Korean movies, dramas, and music videos. In May two high-school boys and four high-school girls in Nampo, South Pyongan Province, were sentenced to five years at a re-education camp for watching South Korean dramas and disseminating them to classmates. In November RFA reported that a man in North Hamgyong Province who smuggled the South Korean Netflix drama Squid Game into the DPRK and sold it on flash drives was sentenced to death by firing squad, while a high-school student who bought a drive received a life sentence, six other students who watched the show were sentenced to five years’ hard labor, and the students’ principal and homeroom teachers were fired.

KINU’s 2020 White Paper reported that expression of political opinion differing from that of authorities, negative reference to the Kim family, and positive reference to South Korea constituted “misspeaking” and often resulted in extrajudicial detention in a kwanliso political prisoner camp.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government controls virtually all information; independent media do not exist. Domestic journalists had no freedom to investigate stories or report freely. The government tightly controlled print media, broadcast media, book publishing, and online media through the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the WPK. Within the department the Publication and Broadcasting Department controlled all media content, including content used on television, in newspapers, and on the radio. The law allows for up to one-year sentences to a labor camp for individuals who access or disseminate unapproved broadcasts or content and up to five years for multiple offenses.

COVID-19 preventive measures prohibited visits by all foreigners including journalists. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists, and at times expelled foreign journalists or denied them entry into the country. During visits by foreign leaders, authorities permitted groups of foreign journalists to accompany official delegations and file reports. In all cases the state strictly monitored journalists. Government officials generally prevented journalists from talking to officials or to persons on the street.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Strict enforcement of domestic media censorship continued, with no toleration for deviation from official messages. The government prohibited listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators were subjected to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, received only domestic programming; radios obtained from abroad were altered for the same end. Elite citizens and facilities for foreigners, such as hotels, had access to international television broadcasts via satellite. The government continued attempts to jam all foreign radio broadcasts, but the HRNK’s 2019 report, Digital Trenches: North Koreas Information Counter-Offensive, noted a proliferation of foreign broadcasting transmitters began in recent years to overwhelm the jamming effort. Officials imprisoned and punished citizens for listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts and, in some cases, for simply owning radio or television sets able to receive nongovernment broadcasts. In May media reported that residents of Pyongyang had been ordered to report the number of television sets for each household in order to prevent watching of foreign broadcasts. Based on defector interviews conducted in 2015, InterMedia estimated as many as 29 percent of defectors listened to foreign radio broadcasts while inside the country and that approximately 92 percent of defectors interviewed had seen foreign DVDs while in the country.

National Security: Defector and NGO reports included accounts of individuals detained and punished, including by execution, for antistate crimes such as criticism of the government and Kim Jong Un.

Internet Freedom

Internet access was limited to high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including selected university students. The Korea Computer Center, which acts as the government’s gatekeeper to the internet, granted access only to information it deemed acceptable, and employees constantly monitored users’ screens.

A tightly controlled and regulated intranet was reportedly available to a growing group of users centered in Pyongyang, including an elite primary school; selected research institutions, universities, and factories; and a few individuals. The NGO Reporters without Borders reported some email access existed through this internal network. Government employees sometimes had limited, closely monitored access to email accounts. The HRNK reported that the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that, among other things, logged every webpage visited and randomly took undeletable screenshots.

The government continued its attempt to limit foreign influence on its citizens. Individuals accused of viewing or possessing foreign films were reportedly subjected to imprisonment and possibly execution, an effort expanded following the passage of the antireactionary ideology law in December 2020 (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression). The 2020 White Paper also reported that the number of persons executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content online increased in recent years, with additional reports of correctional labor punishment. In 2019 the HRNK reported the government’s introduction of a file watermarking system on Android smartphones and on personal computers that added a user- or device-specific data string to the end of the filename of any media file each time it was shared.

The HRNK reported that younger individuals preferred foreign digital video content to foreign radio broadcasts.

The government sought to prevent the importation of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas. According to media and NGO reports, police could search homes to enforce restrictions on foreign films. According to the HRNK, the government added a software-based censorship program known as the “signature system” to all domestic mobile telephones. This system made it impossible to view foreign media on mobile phones. Mobile phones were randomly inspected physically for illegal media, and a history of all activity on the device was available for export upon inspection through monitoring software called TraceViewer.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled artistic works. School curricula were highly controlled by the state. The government severely restricted academic travel. The primary function of plays, movies, operas, children’s performances, and books was to buttress the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and support of the regime.

The state carried out systematic indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations. Such indoctrination involved mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this provision and continued to prohibit public meetings not previously authorized and not under government control.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government failed to respect this provision. There was no information available on organizations other than those created by the government. Professional associations existed primarily to facilitate government monitoring and control over organization members.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law provides for the “freedom to reside in or travel to any place”; however, the government did not respect this right.

In-country Movement: The government restricted freedom of movement for those lawfully within the state. Those who violated travel regulations were subject to warnings, monetary fines, or forced labor. Only members of a very small elite class and those with access to remittances from overseas reportedly had access to personal vehicles. Security checkpoints on main roads at entry and exit points from every town hampered movement. KINU’s White Paper for 2020 reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province, because the use of bribery to circumvent the law became more widespread. An increasing number of persons traveled without a permit, only to pay a bribe when caught.

The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens.

The government strictly controlled permission to reside in, or even to enter, Pyongyang, where food availability, housing, health, and general living conditions were much better than in the rest of the country. Foreign officials visiting the country observed checkpoints on the highway leading into Pyongyang.

Due to fears regarding the spread of COVID-19, media and NGOs reported, the government tightened in-country movement restrictions, making internal movement even more difficult since March 2020. NGOs, foreign diplomats, and UN agency personnel were not allowed to leave Pyongyang except for their final departure from the country. This severely hampered foreign observers’ already extremely limited ability to monitor human rights and humanitarian aid conditions in the country.

Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government issued almost no exit visas for foreign travel, which were only available to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers.

The government did not allow emigration, and media and NGOs reported that due to fears of importing COVID-19, it continued to tighten security on the border, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China with and without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols, surveillance of residents of border areas, and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes. On April 15, 2021, the Asia advocacy director at HRW testified that the situation was “especially worrying.” In the context of COVID-19, he declared, Kim Jong Un “appears to be using the pandemic to further entrench his already firm grip on power” by placing harsh new controls on food distribution, stopping all information flows into the country, and closing the China border. The advocacy director warned that with reported shortages of food and basic supplies, “serious concerns have been raised about mass famine.” On December 16, 2021, HRW reported that “under the pretext of protecting the population” against COVID-19, Kim Jong Un had “isolated the country more than ever.” Kim had imposed “unnecessary and extreme measures that far exceed the impact of the Security Council sanctions,” blocking almost all unofficial and official trade, increasing surveillance to prevent information or people from entering or leaving the country, using forced labor to build up the economy, and creating “an artificial food and humanitarian crisis.”

The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in another country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases, the state condemns asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. According to KINU’s White Paper for 2020, most repatriated defectors were detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyongan Province.

Many would-be refugees who returned involuntarily from foreign states were imprisoned under harsh conditions. OHCHR reporting included the accounts of several forcibly repatriated escapees who stated authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners or religious groups or who had spent time in the ROK, including those with family members resettled in the ROK.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification website, the number of defectors arriving in the ROK remained nearly the same from 2017 (1,127) to 2018 (1,137), dropped slightly in 2019 (1,047), and plummeted in 2020 (229) and during the year (63, provisional figure).

Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced to a few months of forced labor or in some cases merely issued a warning) and persons who crossed repeatedly for “political” purposes (who were sometimes sentenced to harsher punishment), including those who had alleged contact with religious organizations based near the Chinese border. The law stipulates a sentence of up to two years of “labor correction” for illegally crossing the border.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection for refugees. The government did not grant refugee status or asylum. No information was available on any government policy or provision for refugees or asylum seekers and the government did not participate in international refugee fora.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government peacefully.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national elections to select representatives to the Supreme People’s Assembly occurred in 2019. These elections were neither free nor fair. The government openly monitored voting, resulting in a reported 100 percent participation rate and 100 percent approval of the preselected government candidates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government has created several “minority parties.” Lacking grassroots organizations, the parties existed only as rosters of officials with token representation in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although the law affords women equal right to vote and hold political office, few women were elected or appointed to senior government positions. As of 2016 women constituted approximately 3.1 percent of members and 2.8 percent of alternate members of the Central Committee of the WPK and held few key WPK leadership positions. In 2020 media reported the appointment of a woman, Pak Myong Sun, to the WPK Central Committee Political Bureau, the party’s highest-level body, and as director of a WPK Central Committee department. In October Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was appointed a member of the State Affairs Commission. She previously served on the Political Bureau but was not listed among the members after the party congress in January. Among approximately 20 party departments and offices, one was headed by a woman. The 2014 UNCOI report indicated 10 percent of central government officials were women.

The country is racially and ethnically homogeneous. There were officially no minority groups.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Workers do not have the right to form or join independent unions, bargain collectively, or strike. No information was available regarding labor organizations other than those created and controlled by the government. While the law stipulates employees working for foreign companies may form trade unions and foreign enterprises must provide conditions for union activities, the law does not protect workers who might attempt to engage in union activities from employer retaliation, nor does it provide penalties for employers who interfere in union activities. The constitution stipulates the freedom of assembly for citizens, but this right was not protected in practice. Unlawful assembly may result in five years of correctional labor.

The WPK purportedly represents the interests of all labor. The WPK Central Committee directly controlled several labor organizations in the country, including the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea. Operating under this umbrella, unions functioned according to a classic Stalinist model, with responsibility for mobilizing workers to support production goals and for providing health, education, cultural, and welfare facilities, but did not provide a means for worker expression.

The government controlled all aspects of the formal employment sector, including assigning jobs and determining wages. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies were required to hire employees from government-vetted lists. The government organized factory and farm workers into councils, which purportedly afforded a mechanism for workers to provide input into management decisions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The government did not enforce the law and mobilized the population for compulsory labor on construction and other projects. “Reformatory labor” and “re-education through labor,” sometimes of entire families, were common punishments for political offenses. Forced and compulsory labor in such activities as logging, mining, tending crops, and manufacturing continued to be the common fate of political prisoners. Penalties for forced labor were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes such as kidnapping and were not applied.

The law requires all citizens of working age to work and “strictly observe labor discipline and working hours.” There were numerous reports that farms and factories did not pay wages or provide food to their workers. Forced labor continued to take place in the brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. The Walk Free Foundation in its 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that one of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in the country were in situations of modern slavery.

On July 28, 2021, the UN secretary-general reported that the economy “continues to be organized in a way that relies on the widespread extraction of forced labor, including from conscripted soldiers and the general populace, including children” (see also section 7.c.). In June RFA reported the government was forcing nearly 14,000 married women from all regions of the country to “volunteer” for farm work in South Hwanghae Province to boost food output after the 2020 suspension of border trade with China cut off food imports and the country endured a bad harvest. In July RFA reported the government forcibly mobilized married women in Ryanggang Province, near the river bordering China, to make cement blocks for the construction of a wall to prevent escape and stop the smuggling of food and other goods that had escalated after the government’s border closure caused price spikes in 2020. The schedule required those ranging “from newlywed women in their 20s to those in their 60s” to transport enough sand from the mountains each day to mix with cement and produce 10 blocks, for the wall to be built by October 10, the Party Foundation Day deadline.

According to reports from an NGO, during the implementation of short-term economic plans, factories and farms increased workers’ hours and asked workers for contributions of grain and money to purchase supplies for renovations and repairs. By law failure to meet economic plan goals may result in two years of “labor correction.” In 2019 workers who were reportedly required to work at enterprises assigned by the government received no compensation or were undercompensated by the enterprises. In 2020 women in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, reported that government officials required all women in the area to work daily on construction and other projects. Those physically unable to work had to pay a monetary fine, and security forces arrested evaders.

The 2019 UN report The Price Is Rights noted work “outside the State system, in the informal sector, has become a fundamental means to survival [but] access to work in the informal sector has become contingent on the payment of bribes.” In addition, NGOs and media reported that stricter border and internal travel restrictions, due to government fears concerning the spread of COVID-19, made it extremely difficult for persons to pursue a living through informal trading. The HRNK’s 2020 report entitled Imagery Analysis of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri, Update 3 detailed the use of forced labor by prison officials in the production of false eyelashes.

According to NGO Open North Korea’s 2016 report Sweatshop, North Korea, individuals ages 16 or 17 from the low-loyalty class were assigned to 10 years of forced labor in military-style construction youth brigades. One worker reportedly earned 120 won (less than $0.15) per month. During a 200-day labor mobilization campaign in 2016, for example, these young workers worked as many as 17 hours per day. State media boasted that the laborers worked in subzero temperatures. One laborer reported conditions were so dangerous while building an apartment building that at least one person died each time a floor was added. Loyalty class status also determined lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.

HRW reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict-level “labor training centers” where detainees were forced to work for short periods doing hard labor, with little food and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly sent individuals to such centers if they were suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or were unemployed. In 2018 the HRNK reported that thousands of citizens including children were detained in prison-like conditions in these centers and suggested that satellite imagery indicated the number and size of such camps were expanding.

The vast majority of North Koreans employed outside the country were in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly in Georgia (in Abkhazia, a Russia-occupied region), Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Laos, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Tanzania. While some places removed most or all of these workers during the year, reports suggested that some places either took no action or issued work authorizations or other documentation, allowing these individuals to work.

Numerous NGOs noted workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and that they were under constant and close surveillance by government security agents. Laborers worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, and sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. Employers stated the average wage was 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the government, which took between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total earnings, leaving approximately 90,000 won ($100) per month for worker take-home pay. The state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, information technology services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits work by children younger than age 16 and restricts children 16 to 17 from working in hazardous conditions. The law criminalizes forced child labor, but observers did not know whether that included all the worst forms of child labor. There were reports that forced child labor occurred, including the worst forms of child labor. NGOs reported government officials held thousands of children and forced them to work in labor camps with their parents.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar serious crimes such as kidnapping but were not applied. Officials occasionally sent schoolchildren to work in factories or fields for short periods to assist in completing special projects, such as snow removal on major roads or meeting production goals. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted children were also sometimes subjected to mass mobilizations in agriculture away from their families, with long working hours per day, sometimes for periods of a month at a time, and work under hazardous conditions. HRW previously published students’ reports that their schools forced them to work without compensation on farms twice a year for one month each time. HRW also reported schools required students under the minimum working age to work to raise funds for faculty salaries and maintenance costs for school facilities. According to 2019 media reports, students ages 14 and 15 were required to work in WPK opium fields.

On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR reported that orphans and street children were vulnerable to child labor, including deployment to permanent “shock brigades” for extended periods without pay. The OHCHR noted that children ages 16 and 17 were not legally protected against hazardous labor and cited August state media reporting that more than 200,000 youth league officials and members had taken part in “youth shock brigade activities” since April. Citing state media reporting in May that more than 160 orphans who graduated from secondary school volunteered to work at coal mines and farms to “repay the love the Workers’ Party of Korea showed for taking care of them over the years,” the OHCHR expressed concern that orphans had to volunteer to work to “repay” the care they had received from the state, which was the state’s human rights obligation. The OHCHR declared that “the use of child labor involving those under 18 years of age in harmful and hazardous environments such as coal mines are considered the worst forms of child labor and are prohibited under international law.”

In May state-run media reported that hundreds of children, apparently teenagers, “volunteered” to perform manual labor for the state in coal mines, factories, farms, and forests and that more than 700 orphans who had graduated from middle schools “volunteered” to work on cooperative farms, at an iron and steel complex, and in forestry, among other areas. HRW stated the reality of such “volunteer” work was “backbreaking labor under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions for long periods of time with little or no pay” that “very few people can turn down.”

Children ages 16 and 17 were enrolled in military-style youth construction brigades for 10-year periods and subjected to long working hours and hazardous work. Students suffered from physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies resulting from required forced labor.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

While the law provides that all citizens “may enjoy equal rights in all spheres of state and public activities” and all “able-bodied persons may choose occupations in accordance with their wishes and skills,” the law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, religion, ethnicity, or other factors. There is no direct reference to employment discrimination in the law; classification based on the songbun loyalty system has a bearing on equal employment opportunities and equal pay.

Despite the law’s provision for women of equal social status and rights, societal and legal discrimination against women continued. Labor laws and directives mandate sex segregation of the workforce, assigning specific jobs to women while impeding access of others to these jobs. Women’s retirement age is set at age 55, compared with age 60 for men, which also has material consequences for women’s pension benefits, economic independence, and access to decision-making positions.

Persons with disabilities also faced employment discrimination. Most of the approximately 1,200 workshops or light factories for persons with disabilities built in the 1950s were reportedly no longer operational; there were limited inclusive workplaces.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: There is no legal minimum wage in the country. No reliable data were available on the minimum wage paid by state-owned enterprises. Wages were sometimes paid at least partially in kind rather than in cash.

The law stipulates an eight-hour workday, although some sources reported that laborers worked longer hours, perhaps including additional time for mandatory study of the writings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The law provides all citizens with a “right to rest,” including one day’s rest per week (Sunday), paid leave, holidays, and access to sanitariums and rest homes funded at public expense. No information was available, however, regarding the state’s willingness and ability to provide these services.

Mandatory participation in mass events on holidays and practice sessions for such events sometimes compromised leave or rest from work. Workers were often required to “celebrate” at least some part of public holidays with their work units and were able to spend an entire day with their families only if the holiday lasted two days. Failure to pay wages was common and reportedly drove some workers to seek income-generating activity in the informal or underground economy.

Occupational Safety and Health: The law recognizes the state’s responsibility for providing modern and hygienic working conditions. The law criminalizes the failure to heed “labor safety orders” pertaining to worker safety and workplace conditions only if the conditions result in the loss of lives or other “grave loss.” Workers themselves do not have a designated right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions. No information was available on enforcement of occupational safety and health laws.

Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high. Managers were often under pressure to meet production quotas and often ignored training and safety requirements. According to reports, in March 2021 three untrained teenage workers died and several were critically injured in an industrial accident at the Sungri Motor Complex in South Pyongan Province. Also in March at least 20 individuals who were part of a “storm trooper” construction brigade died in an electrical fire at their Pyongyang jobsite.

Informal Sector: The informal sector is large, but there is little information on its size or composition. Many citizens depend on the informal economy for their survival as regular wages and rations are not sufficient. The informal sector has been growing rapidly, but during the year there were signs that the government increased efforts to tighten its regulatory control.

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