North Korea

North Korea

WhatMillions of people in North Korea suffer extreme forms of repression and violations that infringe upon nearly the entire spectrum of their human rights. In January 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that North Korea had “one of the worst—but least understood and reported—human rights situations in the world.” Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are arbitrarily held in political prison camps and other detention facilities where they are subjected to forced labor, denial of food as punishment, torture, and public executions. Many of those held in political prison camps are family members of those deemed unfriendly to the regime; these family members are arbitrarily detained as a form of collective punishment.[1]



North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a country in East Asia located on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is bordered by South Korea to the south and China and Russia to the north. North Korea is approximately the size of Pennsylvania and has an estimated population of 24.5 million people.[2]



Following World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into North Korea and South Korea. North Korea became communist under the rule of Kim Il-sung, who began a series of social and economic reforms throughout the country. The Korean War, between communist and Soviet-backed North Korea and democratic and U.S.-backed South Korea, lasted from 1950-1953. The war reached a stalemate and the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” The Korean peninsula was split into communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. No ‘final peaceful settlement’ has been reached to date.[3]

Following the war and with support from the Soviet Union, Kim Il-sung made efforts to make North Korea self-reliant, or ‘Juche.’[4] North Korea industrialized and saw economic growth through the 1950s and ‘60s, but the 1970s brought high oil prices and a technology gap that left communist countries struggling. Other countries opted for reform but North Korea maintained a rigid state-controlled system. High military spending and economic crises caused North Korea to default on all of the country’s loans except those owed to Japan in 1980.[3] Kim Il-sung refused to open the country to foreign investment.

Known as the ‘Great Leader’ or the ‘Heavenly Leader,’ Kim Il-sung restricted almost all aspects of society. He placed a large emphasis on loyalty and hierarchy and created a cult mentality within North Korea’s population. He replaced spiritual components of religion with loyalty to the state and ruling family to maintain control over the population.[4] The government claims that this is ‘genuine hero worship’ rather than a cult of personality.[5]

Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and the country exhibited an outpouring of grief. Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, took control of the country and appointed a number of his relatives to high-ranking government and military positions.[3] The country has since struggled with economic collapse, widespread and continuing famine, and an entirely closed political environment.[2]

Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.[3]


HowNorth Korea has a dire human rights record and pervasive problems include arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, starvation and malnutrition, lack of press freedom, and a lack of due process or rule of law.[6]

North Koreans deemed ‘unloyal’ to the regime or otherwise ‘politically undesirable’ are sent to prison camps and detention centers for life. There are more than 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated, including children, who face torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.[7] Prisoners are forced to work in slave-like conditions and many prisoners die in the camps because of starvation, lack of medical care, abuse by guards, and unhygienic living conditions. Prisoners are refused trial.[8]

It is estimated by The International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) that more than 10,000 people die in the prison camps every year.[9] According to U.S. News & World Report, more than 400,000 people have perished in the camps in the last forty years.[10]

Starvation and famine are massive problems in North Korea, as the country itself is unable to provide adequate food for its population. Reports continue of people dying of starvation and nearly a million North Koreans have starved to death since the 1990s.[7] Despite small increases in household food consumption reportedly due to recent improved harvests, food insecurity and chronic malnutrition remain widespread, and millions remain dependent on food aid.[11] A recent survey carried out by the North Korean government with United Nations support reported that one-third of the population suffers from stunting, a condition of below normal body growth.12]

North Korea’s media control by the government is among the strictest in the world. Although the constitution grants freedom of speech and press, the government prohibits the exercise of both.[13] Reporters without Borders ranked North Korea’s freedom of the press 177th out of 178 in 2013.[14] The only news allowed in North Korea is information that favor the regime. Foreign criticism or articles about economic and political issues are not allowed.[13]


ResponseNorth Korean regime collapse is imminent. Historically, China was the largest trade partner with North Korea, accounting for more than 70% of North Korea’s international trade.[15] In May 2013, Bank of China Ltd., one of China’s largest banks, closed North Korea’s accounts and suspended all financial transactions.[16]

The U.N. General Assembly has condemned North Korea every year since 2005 for its conduct.[17]  Many countries and multilateral organizations criticize North Korea’s human rights abuses. China has condemned allegations against North Korea, claiming the regime has made progress in terms of human rights.[18] Sudan claims that the international community should provide more support to North Korea to protect human rights.[19]

In 2004, the United States passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which created an office in the State Department to monitor North Korean human rights.[20]

In March 2013, Amnesty International analyzed new satellite images of North Korea. They found that the North Korean government is blurring the lines between the political prison camp kwanliso 14 and the surrounding population. This raises concerns about increasing restrictions and control of people living near prison camps.[21]

Also in March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council established a year-long Commission of Inquiry to investigate a range of “systematic, widespread and grave” human rights violations including crimes against humanity in North Korea.[21]

In December 2015, the UN Security Council made North Korea part of its formal human rights agenda. The Human Rights Council, and later the UN General Assembly 3rd Committee, adopted resolutions condemning North Korea’s human rights violations. [22]

North Korea rejects all reports of human rights violations.


Supplementary Materials:

North Korea Extends Its No-Free Zone‘ by Jack Rendler, North Korea Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA (PDF download)


[1] Render, Jack, North Korea Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA. E-mail interview. 26 April 2013.
[2] “The World Factbook: North Korea.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[3] Shah, Dhruti. “North Korea – A Country Never at Peace.” BBC News. 04 Sept. 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[4] Lee, Grace. “The Political Philosophy of Juche.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 3 (2003): 105-12.
[5] Lodestar May-June 2005. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[6] “North Korea.” Human Rights Watch. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[7] “World Report 2013: North Korea.” Human Rights Watch. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[8] “Annual Report 2012: North Korea.” Amnesty International. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[9] “Human Rights Groups Call on UN Over N.Korea Gulag.” The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[10] Omestad, Thomas. “Gulag Nation.” U.S.News & World Report. 15 June 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[11] “AFP: Millions of N.Koreans dependant on food aid.” Yahoo News Singapore. 13 Mar. 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[12] “World Briefing | Asia; North Korea: A Third of Children Under 5 Are Stunted, U.N. Says.” The New York Times. 13 June 2012. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[13] “North Korea’s tightly controlled media.” BBC News. 19 Dec. 2011. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[14] Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index (2013).
[15] Demick, Barbara. “China’s trade with North Korea increases.” Los Angeles Times. 28 Dec. 2012. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[16] “Bank of China halts business with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank.Reuters. 07 May 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[17] “The Editor View from America.” The Editor. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[18] Bajoria, Jayshree and Xu, Beina. “The China-North Korea Relationship.” Council on Foreign Relations. 21 Feb. 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[19] “Q & A for Activists on a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea.” Human Rights Watch. 21 Jan. 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[20] “Implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act.” U.S. Department of State. 02 June 2011. Accessed 07 May 2013.
[21] “North Korea’s Human Rights Crisis.” Amnesty International. 13 Apr. 2013. Accessed 07 May 2013.

[22] “North Korea Events of 2015.” Human Rights Watch. 2015. Accessed 17 February 2017.


This page was written by Rachel Hall Beecroft. This page was updated on May 7, 2013.