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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but according to defectors, media, and NGO reports, the government did not observe these prohibitions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law limits detention during prosecution and trial, requires arrest by warrant, and prohibits forced confessions. The application of these provisions was not verified.
Members of the security forces arrested and reportedly transported citizens suspected of committing political crimes to prison camps without trial. According to one South Korean NGO, the Ministry of Social Security handled criminal cases directly without the approval of prosecutors, reportedly to bypass prosecutorial corruption. An NGO reported that, by law, investigators could detain an individual for investigation for up to two months. Nonetheless, the HRNK reported Ministry of State Security or Ministry of Social Security units interrogated suspects for months on end. No functioning bail system or other alternative for release pending trial exists.
There were no restrictions on the government’s ability to detain and imprison persons or to hold them incommunicado. Family members and other concerned persons reportedly found it virtually impossible to obtain information on charges against detained persons or the lengths of their sentences. According to defector reports, families were not notified of arrest, detention, or sentencing. Judicial review or appeals of detentions did not exist in law or practice. According to an opinion adopted in 2015 by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, family members have no recourse to petition for the release of detainees accused of political crimes, since the state may deem any such advocacy for political prisoners an act of treason against the state and petitioning could result in the detention of family members. No information on detainees’ access to a lawyer was available.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests reportedly occurred. According to the 2020 report of the UN secretary-general on human rights in the country, arbitrary arrests appeared to be carried out in a widespread and systematic manner. According to KINU’s 2020 White Paper, arbitrary arrest commonly occurred for political crimes, attempting to enter the ROK, and engaging in religious activities, as well as for watching or distributing foreign media.
Six South Korean prisoners (Jung-wook Kim; Kuk-ji Kim; Chun-kil Choi; Won-ho Kim; Hyun-chul Ko; and Jin-woo Ham) were believed to remain in detention in the DPRK, some of them incarcerated for as long as eight years.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to defectors there was no mechanism for persons to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court. The October 2020 HRW report, Worth Less Than An Animal, termed the pretrial detention and investigation system “opaque,” with an “apparent presumption of guilt” and no provisions for judicial review of detention at the investigation or preliminary examination stages. The report cited descriptions by former detainees of systematic torture, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor during the investigation process.
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.
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 Korea’s 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 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.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.
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.
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 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The government criminalized rape of women but not rape of men. Rape is punishable by “reform through labor” for up to five years; if the assailant “commits a grave offense,” a term of more than 10 years; and if the rape was “particularly grave,” a life term or the death penalty. No information was available on how effectively the law was enforced. The 2014 UNCOI report found the subjugation of inmates and a general climate of impunity created an environment in which guards and other prisoners in privileged positions raped female inmates. This was reconfirmed in OHCHR reporting on women who attempted to flee the country, were forcibly repatriated, and finally escaped for good. The women testified they had been subjected to widespread, systemic sexual violence while detained after repatriation. The 2018 HRW report You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why cited endemic sexual and gender-based violence and detailed cases of sexual assault or coerced sexual acts by men in official positions of authority between 2011 and 2015.
When cases of rape came to light, the perpetrator often escaped with mere dismissal or no punishment. For example, HRW reported a 2009 case in which a woman arrested for illegally fleeing the country was raped by a police chief. After she told her lawyer, the lawyer refused to mention it during her trial, saying nothing would be done and that the woman could be punished more severely for bringing it up. As noted in the KINU White Paper for 2020, the law prohibits domestic violence, but both KINU and the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that the government took no protective or preventive measures against such violence. Defectors continued to report violence against women was a systematic problem both inside and outside the home. The White Paper, however, noted some recent testimonies that domestic violence was decreasing as the economic power of women increased.
Sexual Harassment: Despite the law defectors reported the populace generally accepted sexual harassment of women due to patriarchal traditions. They reported there was little recourse for women who had been harassed. Defectors also reported lack of enforcement and impunity enjoyed by government officials made sexual harassment so common as to be accepted as part of ordinary life. According to the 2020 KINU White Paper, authorities repeatedly stated there was no sexual harassment problem in the workplace, suggesting willful ignorance on the part of the government.
Reproductive Rights: NGOs and defectors reported state security officials subjected women to forced abortions for political purposes, to cover up human rights abuses and rape, and to “protect” ethnic purity, and not for population control. Cases of infanticide were also reported.
Vulnerable populations were not always able to provide informed consent to medical treatment affecting reproductive health. The KINU White Paper for 2020 described testimony of forced sterilization of persons with nanocormia, a form of dwarfism.
KINU’s report for 2020 described the testimony of a substantial number of female North Korean defectors who, following forcible repatriation from abroad, were subjected to “uterus examinations” in detention centers and holding centers, specifically, “examination … conducted during the body search process to find money, secret letters or secret documents.”
According to one 2020 NGO report on menstrual health, menstruation carries social stigma. Sanitary pads were available but remained costly to many, and most women used home-made reusable cloth pads. Lack of adequate menstrual hygiene limited women’s social inclusion and ability to travel and work.
There was no information on what sexual and reproductive health services (including emergency contraception), if any, the government provided to survivors of sexual violence.
Discrimination: The constitution states, “women hold equal social status and rights with men”; however, few women reached high levels of the party or the government, and defectors reported that gender equality was nonexistent. KINU reported discrimination against women emerged in the form of differentiated pay scales, promotions, and types of work assigned to women, in addition to responsibility for the double burden of labor and housework, especially considering the time and effort required to secure food.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The country is racially and ethnically homogeneous and officially there are no minority groups. The small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese in total number less than 1 percent of the population, and there are no laws to protect members of racial or ethnic minorities or groups from violence and discrimination. In Freedom in the World 2021: North Korea, Freedom House reported that members of the ethnic Chinese population had “limited options for education and employment.”
The HRNK testified that officials treated women returning from China who were pregnant with half-Chinese babies as “impure”, and that the officials commonly used racial slurs while forcibly performing abortions or committing infanticide.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from their parents and, in some cases, birth within the country’s territory.
Education: The law provides for 12 years of free compulsory education for all children. Many NGO reports indicated that authorities denied some children educational opportunities and subjected them to punishment and disadvantages because of the songbun loyalty classification system and the principle of “collective retribution” for the transgressions of family members. NGO reports also noted some children were unable to attend school regularly because of hidden fees or insufficient food. NGOs reported that children in the total-control zones of political prisons did not receive the same curriculum or quality of education available to those outside the total-control zones.
Foreign visitors and academic sources reported that from the fifth grade, schools required children to attend several hours a week of mandatory military training and that all children received political indoctrination. In its 2019 report The Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Korea’s Children, 1990-2018, the HRNK characterized the national curriculum as prioritizing political indoctrination and unswerving loyalty to the regime, while punishing those who deviated from the curriculum.
Medical Care: There was no verifiable information available on whether boys and girls had equal access to state-provided medical care. Access to health care largely depended on loyalty to the government. In a 2019 report on broader health and well-being trends in the country, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, using publicly available data and interviews of defectors who arrived in South Korea during the year, documented widespread inadequacies in medical care for children.
Child Abuse: Information regarding societal or familial abuse of children remained unavailable. The law states that a man convicted of having sexual intercourse with a girl younger than age 15 shall be “punished gravely.” There was no reporting on whether the government enforced this law.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 15. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Because many girls and young women attempted to flee repressive conditions, poverty, and food shortages for their own survival or the betterment of their families, 2019 international media reports and the 2014 UNCOI report noted they were often subjected to sexual exploitation by traffickers. Traffickers promised these young girls jobs within the country or in China but instead exploited them in forced marriages, domestic servitude, or commercial sex. In its 2019 publication Inescapable Violence: Child Abuse within North Korea, the Seoul-based NGO People for Successful Corean Reunification documented endemic child abuse, including child sexual abuse, in schools, homes, camps, orphanages, and detention centers.
Infanticide: A 2020 OHCHR report stated that infanticide occurred. The HRNK also testified that officials sometimes killed the babies of women repatriated from China.
Displaced Children: According to NGO reports, there were numerous street children. The HRNK reported in 2020 that while not all were orphans, some were abandoned due to economic difficulties or escaped abusive family situations. Displaced children were forced to survive by begging and stealing at local markets or in front of train stations. On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR reported that orphans and street children were vulnerable to child labor, including deployment to “shock brigades” for extended periods without pay (see also section 7.c.).
Institutionalized Children: Guards subjected children living in prison camps to torture if they or a family member violated the prison rules. Reports noted authorities subjected children in such camps to forced labor for up to 12 hours per day and did not allow them to leave the camps. Prisons offered them limited access to education.
Daily NK, an online newspaper operating in the ROK, reported children at boarding schools for orphans received inadequate nutrition and that staff stole food to pay school debts.
In addition to children in detention facilities, a substantial number of children lived in orphanages and other institutions. In 2019 the HRNK reported that Kim Jong Un directed that 40 child-protection facilities, including orphanages, elementary academies, and middle academies, be modernized to accommodate these children. The HRNK’s interviews of those who had lived in these facilities reported substandard conditions, including lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter. As a result, many were malnourished and in poor physical condition. While living in orphanages, children often received only one meal a day, leading them to compete and fight for food or run away from the orphanage to survive. Children living in orphanages were often subjected to forced labor instead of attending school. Several respondents explained how children were forced to perform “simple work” such as carrying stones rather than being cared for and protected in orphanages.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no known Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with disabilities could not access education or health services on an equal basis with others. While the law mandates equal access to public services for persons with disabilities, the government did not provide consistent support for them. Although the government claims the law meets the international standards of rights for persons with disabilities, in a 2016 survey by the ROK-based National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 89 percent of defectors reported there was no consideration for persons with disabilities. The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities visited the country for the first time in 2017 and noted most infrastructure, including newly constructed buildings, was not accessible to persons with physical disabilities. There was no information on whether authorities provided government information and communication in accessible formats.
NGO reports and KINU’s 2020 White Paper stated that while the government on balance treated veterans with disabilities well, escapees often described support for veterans with disabilities as inconsistent and only at a perfunctory level. The government reportedly provided no support to other persons with physical and mental disabilities. In some cases authorities sent persons with disabilities from Pyongyang to internal exile, quarantined them within camps, and forcibly sterilized them. On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR expressed concern regarding the expulsion of such persons from Pyongyang to isolation in “restricted areas or to facilities in other cities.”
Persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in accessing public life. Traditional social norms condoned discrimination against persons with disabilities, including in the workplace (see also section 7.d.). On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR stated that children with disabilities were vulnerable to isolation from society and expressed concern regarding “a lack of available disaggregated data on the situation of children with disabilities, including those living in State institutions.” The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child repeatedly expressed concern, most recently in 2017, regarding de facto discrimination against children with disabilities and insufficient measures taken by the state to ensure these children had effective access to health, education, and social services. KINU’s 2020 White Paper evaluated the provision of special education to children with disabilities as poor.
There are no laws against consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults, but little information was available on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs expressed concern that decency and obscenity laws could be used legally to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014 the Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency, denied the existence of consensual same-sex sexual activity in the country. According to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights group Equaldex, no legal mechanisms exist to protect LGBTQI+ individuals against discrimination in housing and employment. Adoption by same-sex couples is illegal. Equaldex characterized legal protections for same-sex sexual activity, the right to change legal gender, and gay and lesbian persons serving openly in the military as ambiguous.