The Democratic People’s Republic of 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 country and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. His titles also include chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and supreme representative of the Korean People. In January Kim Jong Un also took the title of general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a position formerly held by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, who remains “eternal president.” The most recent national elections, held in 2019, were neither free nor fair.
The internal security apparatus includes the Ministries of Social Security and State Security and the Military Security Command. A systematic and intentional overlap of powers and responsibilities existed among these organizations to prevent any potential subordinate consolidation of power and assure that each unit provided a check and balance on the other. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; no judicial independence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement and residence within the country and on the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health, including coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; the outlawing of independent trade unions; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption. The special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported that restrictions on travel due to COVID-19 preventive measures continued to limit international presence in the country and further reduce escapee arrivals. Impunity for human rights abuses and corruption continued to be a widespread problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
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.
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.
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.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but according to defectors, media, and NGO reports, the government did not observe these prohibitions.
The constitution states courts are independent and must carry out judicial proceedings in strict accordance with the law; however, an independent judiciary did not exist. According to KINU’s White Paper for 2020, there were many reports of bribery and corruption in the investigations or preliminary examination process and in detention facilities, as well as by judges and prosecutors in the trial stage. In October 2020 HRW reported treatment of individuals in pretrial detention often depended on access to connections and money.
The constitution provides for the inviolability of person and residence and the privacy of correspondence; however, the government did not respect these provisions. The regime subjected its citizens to rigid controls. According to a 2019 HRNK report entitled Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, the regime relied upon a massive, multilevel system of informants called inminban, which may be loosely translated as “neighborhood watch unit,” to identify critics or political criminals. Authorities sometimes subjected entire communities to security checks, entering homes without judicial authorization.
The government appeared to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and other digital communications. Private telephone lines operated on a system that precluded making or receiving international calls; international telephone lines were available only under restricted circumstances. According to the 2020 KINU White Paper, defectors reported 727 cases related to the dissemination of external information, 315 cases of listening to external broadcasts, and 507 cases of inspection of communications and correspondence that led to detention or judicial punishment.
The Ministry of State Security strictly monitored mobile telephone use and access to electronic media in real time. Government authorities frequently jammed cellular telephone signals along the Chinese border to block use of the Chinese network to make international telephone calls. Authorities arrested those caught using cell phones with Chinese SIM cards and required violators to pay a monetary fine or bribe, or face charges of espionage or other crimes with harsh punishments, including lengthy prison terms. An October 2020 HRNK report entitled Eroding the Regime’s Information Monopoly: Cell Phones in North Korea stated the number of both illegal Chinese-made cell phones and legally registered cell phones had risen sharply in recent years. Mobile networks reportedly reached approximately 94 percent of the population, although only 18 percent of the population owned a cell phone. The Ministry of State Security and other organs of the state actively and pervasively surveilled citizens, maintained arresting power, and conducted special-purpose nonmilitary investigations.
The government divided citizens into strict loyalty-based classes known as songbun that determined access to employment, higher education, place of residence, medical facilities, certain stores, marriage prospects, and food rations. Individuals and families with higher songbun were known to receive more leniency from government authorities regarding the usage of illegal cell phones and consumption of foreign, particularly South Korean, media, television shows, and films. Some media reports suggested this leniency decreased due to the December 2020 antireactionary ideology law.
NGOs reported the eviction of families from their places of residence without due process.