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North Korea

Executive Summary

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

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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.

Trial Procedures

Little information was available on formal criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside access to the legal system was limited to trials for traffic violations and other minor offenses. Public trials were sometimes held for crimes such as violation of the December 2020 antireactionary ideology law aimed at curtailing South Korean cultural influence (see also section 2.a.).

The constitution contains elaborate procedural protections providing that cases should be public, except under circumstances stipulated by law. The constitution also states the accused has the right to a defense, and when the government held trials, it reportedly assigned lawyers. Some reports noted a distinction between those accused of political, as opposed to nonpolitical, crimes and claimed the government offered trials and lawyers only to the latter. The Ministry of State Security conducted “pretrials” or preliminary examinations in all political cases, but the courts conducted trials. Some defectors testified that the ministry also conducted trials. KINU’s White Paper for 2020 cited defector testimony that imprisonment in political prison camps was decided exclusively by the ministry, regardless of trial. There was no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers existed. There were no indications authorities respected the presumption of innocence.

According to the 2014 UNCOI report, “the vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.” A 2020 OHCHR report focusing on cases from 2009-2019 stated that women forcibly repatriated from China to North Korea were imprisoned without due process or a fair trial, then subjected to egregious human rights abuses such as sexual violence, forced abortion, infanticide, forced labor, and detainment in overcrowded prisons with dangerous conditions.

By law the state dismisses criminal cases against persons younger than age 14. The state applies public education in case of a crime committed by a person older than 14 and younger than 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was applied.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

Although no information was available regarding the total number of political prisoners and detainees, KINU’s White Paper for 2020 reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the kwanliso political penal-labor camps. Incarceration in a kwanliso was in most cases for life and in many cases included three generations of the prisoner’s family. NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and had fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees.

According to the OHCHR report of October 8, 2021, escapees said anyone believed to be a threat to the political system and the country’s leadership – those who tried to reach the ROK, or those who engaged with Christians, brokers, or traffickers who helped individuals reach the ROK – were sent to kwanliso, where they endured “inhumane conditions without access to adequate food, clean water and sanitation and subjected to mistreatment, including beatings that often amount to torture.” The OHCHR report also noted that political prisoners were denied contact with the outside world, and their families were unable to determine their fate or whereabouts.

On May 15, 2021, Lee Han-byoel, a human rights activist in Seoul who fled the DPRK in 1999, told media that the last clear sighting of her brother, Le Se-il, was in 2009, when he was in custody after attempting to escape. Seeking more information concerning him a few years ago, she got only a “second-hand glimpse; he was apparently still in a prison camp in North Hamgyong Province, near the country’s borders with China and Russia. Since then, no word.”

The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including attempting to defect to South Korea or contacting family members who had defected to South Korea, sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s or Kim Jong Il’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims. The 2014 UNCOI report noted that many “ordinary” prisoners were, in fact, political prisoners, “detained without a substantive reason compatible with international law.”

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: According to a 2020 report by the Hudson Institute, the DPRK’s kidnappers in recent years focused on China, where they abducted South Korean citizens who helped North Korean refugees while “China looks the other way.” In February 2021 media reported a statement by the ROK Ministry of Unification that 42 North Korean defectors had gone missing in the previous five years and a defector’s observation that in some cases there was “strong suspicion of abduction or other foul play” by the DPRK Ministry of State Security.

According to RFA, in October 2021 Kim Jong Un “ordered the extraterritorial arrest of an armed border guard” who had fled across the border to China. Stationed in Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, the guard escaped across the Tumen River to Jilin Province on September 30. Following a failed two-week manhunt on the North Korean side of the river, the escape was reported to the central government, Kim gave the order, and the Military Security Command dispatched an arrest team to China, while requesting cooperation from Chinese border forces and police. Military authorities reportedly treated the escape of a soldier “with an automatic rifle and about 30 rounds of ammunition” as “a political case.” At year’s end there was no indication whether the border guard was captured.

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: The government attempted to target, harass, and threaten defectors and other perceived enemies outside the country. Media reported in 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 the country contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from government officials. Other defectors reported in 2020 that they received threatening calls and text messages, presumably from the government.

In May 2021 South Korean officials arrested a North Korean spy, Song Chun-son (also known as Song Mo), on charges of helping the DPRK Ministry of State Security in violation of South Korea’s National Security Act. She confessed to operating in the ROK for approximately three years, coercing defectors to return to the DPRK to support the regime’s political agenda. Caught by DPRK authorities in 2016 while helping North Korean defectors in the South transfer cash remittances to their relatives in the North, she reportedly was pressured into working as an undercover agent for the Ministry of State Security before staging her own defection to the ROK two years later. During her trial Song admitted she had given a DPRK secret police agent, Yon Chol-nam, the telephone number of a defector she knew living in the ROK and had asked the defector to help Yon, claiming he was her husband and was assisting North Korean families reach their defector relatives in the South. With the defector’s unwitting assistance, Yon had located three other defectors in the South, put their North Korean relatives on the telephone with them, and persuaded one of them to return to the North, where he later appeared on television as part of the government’s propaganda operations. On November 30, Song was sentenced to three years in prison.

The DPRK also harassed its own diplomats and other officials abroad, amplifying financial demands on them, tightening restrictions on them, and directing threats against those who ignored the restrictions. In August 2021 RFA reported the government had banned its trade representatives in China from making money on the side, ordering punishment of those who defied the ban for betraying the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and Kim Jong Un. Finding themselves stranded in China without income after the DPRK closed the China border and suspended all trade in January 2020 to counter the pandemic, they had taken temporary jobs such as delivering food for Chinese restaurants to support themselves. North Korean trade workers in Dalian and Dandong, Liaoning Province, China, confirmed that DPRK investigations of them and their interpreters were under way in both locations. Earlier in the year, according to an RFA report, the DPRK had ordered the impoverished trade workers to pay “loyalty funds” in advance of the annual April 15 “Day of the Sun” celebrating the birth anniversary of regime founder Kim Il Sung.

The DPRK made similar demands on workers it dispatched to Russia to earn foreign cash. In June 2021 RFA reported an order from DPRK authorities to North Korean workers in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg, whose “loyalty funds” payments had continued after the pandemic sharply increased their work hours and cut their income, to increase their loyalty contributions to fund construction of 50,000 homes to alleviate a housing shortage in the North Korean capital. The order prompted complaints not only from the workers but also from low-level party secretaries and security officers dispatched to watch over them. As expressed by a source, “The money they earn has come from dangerous work during the pandemic which takes a physical and psychological toll on them, and most of it had already been going to loyalty funds. Now the authorities are making them pony up for construction in Pyongyang …. No one can accept this.”

Efforts to Control Mobility: The government restricted the movement and access to other fundamental freedoms of North Korean workers in China and Russia, with the complicity of local authorities, and often involving methods and agents of the DPRK Ministry of State Security. Although most countries previously employing North Korean workers responded to international pressure and UN sanctions to cease using them by the end of 2019, China and Russia continued the practice, including employment of forced labor. On November 17, 2021, the UN General Assembly Third Committee adopted a resolution expressing concern regarding “the exploitation of workers sent abroad” by the DPRK “to work under conditions that reportedly amount to forced labor.”

In November 2020 the Guardian disclosed its investigation had revealed that hundreds of North Koreans, mostly women, were secretly employed by factories in Dandong, China, across the Yalu River from North Korea, as forced labor. They worked for up to 18 hours a day with no days off and under constant surveillance, manufacturing personal protective equipment for export as worldwide demand for items like isolation gowns and protective overalls spiked during the pandemic. Approximately 70 percent of their wages were reportedly passed by North Korean factory managers to the DPRK. It was, the Guardian reported, “a mutually beneficial arrangement, with Chinese factories getting a cheap and compliant workforce and the North Korean regime receiving millions of dollars in return.” During 2021 indications of North Korean labor in Dandong, including forced labor, continued. RFA reported that as of March an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 North Korean workers remained in and near Dandong, working in textiles, electronics, accessories, and quarantine product manufacturing, as well as seafood processing and agriculture. In November Reitmans Ltd., a major Canadian retailer of women’s clothing, broke off its business relationship with the Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garments Company following the disclosure of evidence in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation that their factory was using North Korean forced labor. Earlier in the year, a foreign government blocked the importation of goods from that factory on suspicion it used North Korean forced labor.

On December 9, 2021, Daily NK reported that DPRK authorities, concerned regarding potential defections by North Korean workers forced to extend their sojourns abroad due to North Korea’s border closures, were “exerting increasingly cruel surveillance and controls” over these workers. On December 4, authorities reportedly issued an order calling for strict surveillance and regular reports on workers who often complained, whose movements were “suspicious,” or who wanted to “abandon the Fatherland and escape” to prevent their alleged shortcomings from “turning into actual crimes.” The order called for the arrest of those who tried to escape and their return to the country in accordance with “Ministry of State Security repatriation procedures.” According to a North Korean defector who had worked in Russia, all workers there knew that the “Ministry of State Security’s repatriation procedures” meant breaking the legs of would-be defectors and repatriating them in wheelchairs. A high-ranking source in the DPRK reportedly verified that Chu Kyong Chol, a North Korean worker in Russia who attempted to defect, was repatriated in an anesthetized state with injured Achilles tendons after his arrest by a Ministry of State Security team sent to Russia.

Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the DPRK attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse action against specific individuals. On November 17, 2021, the UN General Assembly Third Committee expressed concern regarding the pressure the government exerted on other states to forcibly return North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, and regarding retaliations those individuals faced once repatriated, including internment; torture; other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; sexual and gender-based violence; or the death penalty. The resolution urged all states to respect the fundamental principle of nonrefoulement.

At various times since 2019, authorities in China have detained at least 52 North Korean asylum seekers in Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangsu, Yunnan, Hebei, and Jilin provinces, and in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. These detainees were at risk of forcible repatriation to the DPRK and, if repatriated, faced the prospect of torture and other serious human rights abuses. In April Daily NK reported detention facilities for defectors in Dandong, Liaoning Province, were full, since police arrested increasing numbers of North Koreans who crossed the border, driven by food scarcity after the DPRK cut off cross-border trade in 2020.

On July 14, 2021, after the DPRK opened its border to forcible repatriation while maintaining the closure to regular repatriations imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year earlier, China responded to the demand signal, repatriating approximately 50 North Korean escapees, including soldiers and air force pilots who could face severe punishment including the death penalty. HRW stated it believed that China continued to hold at least 1,170 North Koreans in detention, at risk of forcible repatriation. In August, according to an RFA report, after a long period of time in which the North Korean spouses of Chinese nationals were treated leniently despite Beijing’s commitment with Pyongyang to repatriate all illegal North Koreans found within its borders, police began “actively arresting them.” Activists and human rights organizations expressed fear that the escapees repatriated in July and the others in China at risk of repatriation faced the prospect after arrival in North Korea of forced labor, imprisonment, sexual violence, or torture. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea declared that China was “challenging international law” and urged “the application of the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ to North Koreans who may face torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon repatriation.”

In February 2021 RFA reported DPRK agents in Russia were offering bounties of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of escaped North Korean construction workers in Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Khabarovsk, and Ussuriysk. A source from Ussuriysk said the North Korean authorities asked Russian police to issue wanted orders for the workers who had escaped. Another source from Vladivostok said a wanted order was issued for North Korean workers who had escaped from their workplace there and “arrest operations by North Korean agents are underway.” RFA noted that although the workers were screened for loyalty before their assignment abroad, some of them used the opportunity to escape the DPRK entirely by running away from their workplaces in Russia and going into hiding.

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