The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is an authoritarian state led by the Kim family since 1949. Shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, his son Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. His titles also include chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Worker’s Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and Supreme Representative of the Korean People. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, remains “eternal president.” The most recent national elections, held in March, were neither free nor fair.
Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. The internal security apparatus includes the Ministries of People’s Security and State Security and the Military Security Command. A systematic and intentional overlap of powers and responsibilities existed between these organizations in order to prevent any potential subordinate consolidation of power and assure that each unit provides a check and balance on the other.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearances by the government; torture by authorities; arbitrary detentions by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; no judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; the outlawing of independent trade unions; the use of forced or compulsory child labor; the use of domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system; and the imposition of forced labor conditions on DPRK overseas contract workers.
The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. 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 the authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017. Impunity continued to be a widespread problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.
Freedom of Expression: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government. Australian citizen Alek Sigley was detained in June and later deported after the government cited “antistate incitement” in articles Sigley published in international publications. In its September report entitled North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial, HRNK asserts that all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically can be punished including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government sought to control 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 Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Within the department, the Publication and Broadcasting Department controls 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 North Koreans who access or disseminate unapproved broadcasts or content, and up to five years for multiple offenses.
The government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists, and has expelled or denied entry to foreign journalists. 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 HRNK’s Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, released in December, noted that a proliferation of foreign broadcaster transmitters has in recent years begun 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.
National Security: Defector and NGO reports included accounts of North Koreans detained and punished, including by execution, for antistate crimes including criticism of the government and Kim Jong Un.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
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, 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 2019 reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province as the use of bribery as a means to circumvent the law became more widespread. An increasing number of people traveled without a permit, only to pay a bribe when caught.
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.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government limited issuance of exit visas for foreign travel to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers. Short-term exit papers were available on a very limited basis for some residents to visit relatives, undertake short-term work opportunities, or to engage in small-scale trade.
The government did not allow emigration, and reports stated that it continued to tighten security on the border during the year, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols and surveillance of residents of border areas and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes.
The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in a third country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases, the state subjects asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2018, most repatriated defectors are detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyeong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyeongan Province.
Many would-be refugees who returned involuntarily from foreign states received imprisonment under harsh conditions. Some sources indicated authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.
Media reported in May 2018 that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors to pressure them to return home. Defectors reported that family members in North Korea contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from North Korean officials. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the number of North Korean defectors remained nearly the same from 2017 to 2018, and projected numbers were similar for 2019, according to a November Yonhap report.
Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced only 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.
Exile: The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens. In the past it forcibly resettled tens of thousands of persons from Pyongyang to the countryside. Sometimes this occurred as punishment for offenses and included those judged to be politically unreliable based on the social status of their family members.
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. The government had no known policy or provision for refugees or asylum seekers and 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.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Verifiable information was not available on whether criminal penalties for official corruption were actually applied. International organizations widely reported senior officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Corruption was reportedly widespread in all parts of the economy and society and endemic in the security forces. A 2016 meeting chaired by Kim Jong Un marked the first public recognition of systemic abuse of power and reportedly addressed the practice of senior officials who sought privileges, misused authority, abused power, and manifested “bureaucratism” in the party. Defectors interviewed for the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights report, The Price Is Rights, published in May, said workers paid off guidance officers at government factories so that they would not have to report to work and could engage in outside commercial activity.
Reports of diversion of food to the military and government officials were further indicators of corruption.
Multiple ministries and party offices were responsible for handling issues of corruption.
Financial Disclosure: Information was not publicly available on whether the state subjects public officials to financial disclosure laws and whether a government agency is responsible for combating corruption.
There were no independent domestic organizations to monitor human rights conditions or comment on the status of such rights. The government reported many organizations, including the Democratic Lawyers’ Association, General Association of Trade Unions, Agricultural Workers Union, and Democratic Women’s Union, engaged in human rights activities, but observers could not verify the activities of these organizations.
The international NGO community and numerous international experts continued to testify to the grave human rights situation in the country. The government decried international statements regarding human rights abuses in the country as politically motivated interference in internal affairs. The government asserted criticism of its human rights record was an attempt by some countries to cover up their own abuses and that such hypocrisy undermined human rights principles.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government emphasized it had ratified a number of UN human rights instruments, but it continued to refuse to cooperate with UN representatives. The government prevented the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK from visiting the country to carry out his mandate, which it continued to refuse to recognize. The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has not visited the DPRK since 2017. The visit did not focus on allegations of human rights abuses, and the DPRK continues to resist the special rapporteur’s mandate.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government’s DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies denied the existence of any human rights violations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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. There were no known labor organizations other than those created and controlled by the government. While the law stipulates that employees working for foreign companies may form trade unions and that 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. Unlawful assembly may result in five years of correctional labor.
The WPK purportedly represents the interests of all labor. The central committee of the WPK directly controls 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.
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 their 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. Nonetheless, the government mobilized the population for construction and other labor 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.
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 South Korean NGO Open North Korea estimated that North Koreans perform $975 million worth of forced labor each year. The Walk Free Foundation, in its 2018 Global Slavery Index, estimated that one of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in North Korea were in situations of modern slavery.
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 2018 workers were reportedly required to work at enterprises to which the government assigned them and then failed to compensate or undercompensated them for their work. Media reported an increasing number of urban poor North Koreans moved to remote mountains to hide from authorities and avoid mass mobilizations.
The May 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 2018 the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea noted that in 2017 authorities reportedly evicted up to 600 families in villages in Ryanggang Province to allow for the construction of a new railway line and high-rise apartment blocks. Some of those evicted were reportedly mobilized alongside local youth shock brigades to help with the railway construction.
According to Open North Korea’s report Sweatshop, North Korea, 16- or 17-year-olds from the low loyalty class were assigned to 10 years of forced labor in military-style construction youth brigades called dolgyeokdae. One worker reportedly earned a mere 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 new floor was added. Loyalty class status also determines lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.
Human Rights Watch reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict level “labor training centers” and forced detainees 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 suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or unemployed. In October 2018 the HRNK reported that tens of thousands of citizens, including children, were detained in prisonlike conditions in these centers and suggested that satellite imagery indicated the number and size of such camps were expanding.
At the end of the year, tens of thousands of North Korean citizens were working overseas, primarily in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly present during the year in the following countries: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Tanzania, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Some of these countries subsequently removed most or all North Korean workers during the year. However, reports suggested several countries either had not taken action or had resumed issuing work authorizations or other documentation, allowing North Koreans to resume work. Russia reportedly issued more than five times as many tourist and study visas to DPRK residents as it did during the previous year, strongly suggesting that these visas are being used as a workaround for workers. Similarly, there were reports that previously closed factories in China had resumed operations with new North Korean workers.
Numerous NGOs noted North Korean 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 DPRK 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 DPRK 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 government reportedly has received hundreds of millions of dollars from this system each year. 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
By law the state prohibits work by children younger than age 16 but does restrict children 16 to 17 from hazardous labor conditions. The law criminalizes forced child labor, but there were reports such practices occurred. NGOs reported government officials held thousands of children and forced them to work in labor camps with their parents.
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 has noted its concern 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. Human Rights Watch published North Korean students’ reports that their schools forced them to work without compensation on farms twice a year for one month each time. Human Rights Watch also reported schools required students under the minimum working age to work in order to raise funds for faculty salaries and maintenance costs for school facilities. According to media reports in August, students ages 14-15 were required to work in WPK opium fields.
Children ages 16 and 17 were enrolled in dolgyeokdae (military-style construction youth 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 as a result of 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 on the basis of 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 according women 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 their access to others. Women’s retirement age is also set at 55 years, compared with 60 years for men, which 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
There is no legal minimum wage in the country. No reliable data were available on the minimum wage paid by state-owned enterprises. Wages are 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. The state’s willingness and ability to provide these services were unknown, however.
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, but 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 is available on enforcement of labor laws.
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. Failures to pay wages were common and reportedly drove some workers to seek income-generating activity in the informal or underground economy.
Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high.