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 Speech: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government. In June 2019 Australian citizen Alek Sigley was detained and deported after the government cited “antistate incitement” in articles Sigley published in international publications. In its September 2019 report entitled North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial, the HRNK asserted that all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically may be punished, including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported that expression of political opinion differing from that of North Korean 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 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 individuals 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 at times expelled or denied foreign journalists’ entry to 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 Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive noted a proliferation of foreign broadcasting transmitters had 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 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. In December 2019 the HRNK reported that the government maintained complete visibility of all network traffic. 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 3G cell phone network was described by the HRNK in an October report as antiquated and limiting users’ access to an internal intranet. The HRNK separately reported that the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that, among other things, log every webpage visited and randomly take 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. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, defectors reported varying penalties for consuming South Korean media ranging from three to 10 years in a correctional labor prison, as well as proclamations stating that those caught would be sentenced to death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the number of persons executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content increased in recent years, with additional reports of correctional labor punishment. In December 2019 the HRNK reported the government’s introduction of a file watermarking system on Android smartphones and on personal computers that adds a user- or device-specific data string to the end of the filename of any media file each time it is shared.
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. The HRNK reported that younger individuals preferred foreign digital video content to foreign radio broadcasts.
The government maintained efforts to prevent the import 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 makes 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. In October 2019 NW News reported that Kim Jong Un created a special police unit to restrict and control the flow of outside information into the country.
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.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this provision and continued to prohibit public meetings not previously authorized and not under government control.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government failed to respect this provision. There were no known organizations other than those created by the government. Professional associations existed primarily to facilitate government monitoring and control over organization members.
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 persons 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.
Due to fears regarding the spread of COVID-19, media and NGOs reported the government tightened in-country movement restrictions, making internal movement extremely difficult since March. NGOs, foreign diplomats, and UN agency personnel were not allowed to leave Pyongyang. 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 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 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 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 2019, most repatriated defectors were detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyeong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyeongan 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 said authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners or religious groups or who had spent time in South Korea, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.
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. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification website, the number of defectors leaving the country remained nearly the same from 2017 (188) to 2018 (168), rose slightly in 2019 (204), and fell to 39 as of March.
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 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 their family’s songbun, or loyalty-based class.
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.