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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - North Korea

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Reference 1
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - North Korea, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a dictatorship under the absolute rule of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). The KWP exercises power on behalf of its leader, General Secretary Kim Il Sung, who is also President of the DPRK. Kim Il Sung, in power for 56 years, has largely turned over day-to-day control of the Government and the Korean People's Army to his son, Kim Jong Il. The younger Kim ranks second in the KWP and, with his father, is the object of a personality cult.

The North Korean regime is repressive and subjects its citizens to rigid controls. The regime establishes security ratings for each individual which determine access to employment, schools, medical facilities, and certain stores as well as admission to the KWP, but this loyalty system appears to have been relaxed somewhat in recent years. Individual rights is an alien concept that the state leadership perceives as potentially subversive to the goals of the State and party.

The State directs all significant economic activity, and only government supervised labor activity is permitted. The North Korean economy has contracted significantly due to the elimination of Russian/Soviet concessional trade and aid. Economic development continues to be hindered by distribution bottlenecks, nonproductive allocation of resources, and a poor international credit rating stemming from the DPRK's default on much of its foreign debt, as well as by the diversion of as much as a quarter of gross national product to military expenditures. From time to time in 1993, there were reports of sporadic, small scale civil disturbances in some cities, apparently caused by food shortages. Significant amounts of food grain were again imported in 1993. The rationing of food, clothing, and energy appeared to continue in most parts of the country. The KWP Plenum in December admitted serious economic shortfalls, but claimed a bumper rice crop had been harvested.

North Korea continues to deny its citizens the most fundamental human rights. Unlike in the previous 2 years, the number of North Koreans allowed to visit the United States, other than to attend U.N. affiliated functions, dropped to zero. Americans continued to be admitted to North Korea, but this number was also down significantly compared to the number in the previous 2 years.

Furthermore, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Cooperation, and Exchange Between North and South Korea, signed in December 1991, calls for increased family exchanges and established a joint committee to discuss implementation. After some initial progress in 1992, the committee was unable to meet in 1993, and no exchanges have taken place under the Agreement.

The North Korean Penal Code is draconian, stipulating capital punishment and confiscation of all assets for a wide variety of "crimes against the revolution," including defection, slander of the party or State, and possessing "reactionary" printed matter. The regime permits no independent press or associations, and little outside information reaches the public except that approved and disseminated by the Government.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Political prisoners, opponents of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, repatriated defectors, and others have been summarily executed. The death penalty is mandatory under Article 52 of the Criminal Law for activities "in collusion with imperialists" aimed at "suppressing the national-liberation struggle," and some prisoners are sentenced to death for "ideological divergence" and other "counterrevolutionary crimes."

b. Disappearance

There is no reliable information on disappearances within North Korea. There were reports in the 1980's, however, of DPRK involvement in the kidnaping abroad of South Koreans, Japanese, and other foreign citizens. The Japanese press estimates as many as 20 Japanese may have been kidnaped and are being detained in North Korea. The DPRK denies these reports.

The 1993 Annual Report of Amnesty International (AI) details the case of the Shibata family of Japan. Shibata Kozo and his wife Shin Sung Suk, a Korean resident of Japan, in 1960 left Japan and resettled in North Korea. Mr. Shibata in 1965 was reportedly charged with spying and sent to a sanatorium. He apparently is in poor health, according to former detainees, and there has been no word about his wife and three children since 1965. Mr. Kim Myong Sed, according to AI, has not received any news about his wife, daughter, or other family members still in North Korea since he applied for political asylum in Russia in 1992.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

There is no information on recent practices, but credible reports indicate that during the 1980's prisoners were routinely tortured or ill-treated, and many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, or exposure. In some cases executions reportedly are carried out at public meetings attended by workers, students, and school children. Executions have also been carried out before assembled inmates at places of detention.

According to AI, whole families, including children, are imprisoned together. "Reeducation through labor" is common punishment, consisting of forced labor (logging, tending crops) under harsh conditions. A small number of people who claim to have escaped from North Korean detention camps report that starvation and executions are common. In one prison, clothing was issued only once in a 3-year period. Former inmates have produced photographs of an inmate wearing specially designed leg irons which permit walking but make running impossible. AI also reports the existence of "punishment cells," too low to permit standing upright and too small for lying down flat, where prisoners are kept for up to several weeks for breaking prison rules.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Little information is available on North Korea's criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside observation of its legal system has not been permitted.

Under North Korean law, prisoners may be held for interrogation for a maximum of 2 months, but this period may be extended indefinitely. Family members or other concerned persons find it virtually impossible to obtain information on charges against detained persons. Judicial review of detentions does not exist in law or in practice.

Defectors claim that North Korea detains about 150,000 political prisoners and family members in maximum security camps in remote areas. An October 1992 report by two former inmates made reference to the severe living conditions in what they called "concentration camps." The severe conditions were filmed in the summer of 1992 by a Japan NHK television crew when it visited, escorted by local Russian authorities, a North Korean-controlled logging camp located in Russia's Maritime Province. North Korean officials deny the existence of such gulags or prisons but admit the existence of "education centers" for people who "commit crimes by mistake."

One credible report lists 12 such prison camps believed to exist in the DPRK. It is believed that some former high officials are imprisoned in the camps. Visitors to, and any form of communication with, detainees, although once allowed, are now said to be prohibited.

In July 1991, Cho Kap Chae, a North Korean defector who had been a ranking official in the DPRK Ministry of Public Security, said that there were two types of detention areas. One consists of closed camps from which prisoners never emerge, and where conditions are extremely harsh. In the other, prisoners can be "rehabilitated," and Cho reported that a prisoner he knew was released after a 3-year detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution states that courts are independent and that judicial proceedings are to be carried out in strict accordance with the law, which contains elaborate procedural guarantees. Article 138 of the Constitution states that "cases are heard in public, and the accused is guaranteed the right to defense; hearings may be closed to the public as stipulated by law." However, the concepts of an independent judiciary and individual rights, as understood in Western democracies, are alien to the DPRK. Also, the Public Security Ministry dispenses with trials in political cases and refers them to the Ministry of State Security for imposition of punishment.

When trials are held, lawyers are apparently assigned by the Government, and reports indicate that defense lawyers are not considered representatives of the accused, but rather are independent parties who are expected to help the court by persuading the accused to confess guilt. Some reports note a distinction between political and common criminals and state that the Government affords trials only to the latter. North Korea equates "political criminals" with those who criticize the regime. Numerous other reports suggest that in the past political offenses included such forms of lese majesty as sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung's picture.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Citizens in all age groups and occupations are subject to indoctrination designed to shape and control individual consciousness. This effort is aimed at ensuring reverence for Kim Il Sung and his family, as well as conformity to the State's ideology and authority. Multiple security organizations ensure the indoctrination is evident in the mass media and is carried out systematically by schools and worker and neighborhood associations. Koreans with relatives who fled to the south at the time of the Korean War appear to be still classified as part of the "hostile class" in the DPRK's elaborate loyalty system. Because approximately 10 million families were separated by the end of the Korean War, this category encompasses a significant percentage of the North Korean population.

The defector Cho Kap Chae estimated that the "impure" class may comprise 25 to 30 percent of the population. Members of this class may still be subject to some discrimination, although Cho claimed that their treatment has improved greatly in recent years.

The Constitutional stipulation that "citizens are guaranteed the inviolability of person and residence and the privacy of correspondence" does not reflect reality. The Government relies upon an extensive system of informers to identify critics and potential trouble makers.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the Constitution states that "citizens have freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration," the regime permits such activities only in support of government objectives. Other articles of the Constitution that require citizens to follow the "Socialist norms of life" and to obey a "collective spirit" take precedence over individual political or civil liberties.

The Government strictly curtails the rights of freedom of expression and association guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which North Korea became a party in 1981. Persons criticizing the President or his policies are liable to punishment by imprisonment or "corrective labor." One defector reported in 1986 that a scientist, whose home was bugged through his radio set, was arrested and executed for statements made at home critical of Kim Il Sung. In another case, AI reports that a family, formerly resident in Japan, was sent into internal exile because one of them was accused of having made remarks disparaging of the Government. They were last reported to be in a "reeducation through labor" center in 1992.

The Government attempts to control all news that enters and leaves the DPRK. The visits of Western journalists are carefully managed. Russian publications that have written critically of North Korea have had access restricted, and during 1991 several had their offices closed. Domestic media censorship is strictly enforced, and no deviation from the official government line is tolerated. The regime prohibits listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators are subject to severe punishment. Radios and television sets are built to receive only domestic programming. The Government controls artistic and academic works, and visitors report that the primary function of plays, movies, operas, and books is to contribute to the cult of personality surrounding "the Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, and "the Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

No public meetings may be held without government authorization. There are no known organizations other than those created by the Government. The State even prohibits apolitical groups such as neighborhood or alumni organizations. Professional associations exist solely as another means of government control over the members of these organizations.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides that "citizens have religious liberty and the freedom of antireligious propaganda." In reality, the regime firmly discourages all organized religious activity except that which serves the interests of the State. In recent years, the regime has facilitated the formation of government-sponsored religious organizations to advance its foreign policy goals. The DPRK claims there are 10,000 Christians who worship in 500 home churches, and the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government sponsored group based on a native Korean religious movement, is still in existence. There are a few Buddhist temples where religious activity is permitted, and two Christian churches – one Protestant and one Catholic – were built in late 1988. Some visitors attest to the authenticity of the church services and to the faith of the several dozen worshipers observed; others say the church activity appears staged.

Kim Il Sung, his family, and his juche (self-reliance) ideology are revered, and the cult of the Kim family approaches that of a state religion. The regime seems to be seeking a theological basis for melding "Kim Ilsungism" (as it is called by North Korean media) and Christianity.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The DPRK regime strictly controls internal travel, requiring a travel pass for any movement outside one's home village; these passes are granted only for official travel or attendance at a relative's wedding or funeral. Long delays in obtaining the necessary permit often result in denial of the right to travel even for these limited purposes. Only a very small elite are allowed to have vehicles for personal use. The regime tightly controls access to civilian aircraft, trains and buses, food and fuel. In Pyongyang, there are no taxi cabs, and there are only a few buses and street cars. Most citizens either walk or, when it is operating, ride the subway. Most workers are required to live outside Pyongyang and commute to and from work on foot, unless mobilized for special government projects when they are transported in open trucks.

Reports, primarily from defectors, indicate that forced resettlement, particularly for those deemed politically unreliable, is common. Permission to reside in, or even enter Pyongyang, the capital, is strictly controlled.

Foreign travel is limited to officials and trusted artists, athletes, and academics. The regime does not allow emigration, and only 1,000 or so defectors have succeeded in fleeing the country since 1953. The regime retaliates against the relatives of those few persons who manage to escape. Involuntarily repatriated defectors have been jailed or, in some cases, executed. AI reports that Shin Sook Ja and her two daughters were detained in 1986 after her husband, Oh Kil Nam, requested political asylum in Denmark. Oh Kil Nam has not been able to contact his family since 1986. In 1991, for the first time, a single North Korean citizen was allowed to travel to the United States to visit relatives. He was accompanied by a government official and returned after 2 weeks. The regime does not allow students to study outside of Communist or friendly Third World countries. It tightened controls over DPRK students studying abroad when six defected from Eastern Europe in 1989, and in 1990 called back its students from Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R.

From 1959 to 1982, 93,000 Korean residents of Japan, including 6,637 Japanese wives, voluntarily repatriated to North Korea. Despite DPRK assurances that the wives, 1,828 of whom still had Japanese citizenship, would be allowed to go home to Japan every 2 or 3 years, none is known to have returned to Japan and most have never been heard of again. Most of the returnees and their families were placed in the "wavering class" and generally treated with contempt. As this became known abroad, voluntary repatriation ceased. In recent years, the treatment of Japanese spouses appears to have improved, possibly because visiting relatives from Japan bring in hard currency, which is in short supply in the DPRK, estimated to be about $600 million annually.

Over the past decade, the DPRK has gradually permitted an increasing number of overseas Korean residents of Japan, China, North America, and other countries to visit their relatives in North Korea. Entry by all foreigners was suspended temporarily for brief periods in 1993 because of military alerts or for unexplained reasons. Visitors are closely monitored and itineraries are usually fixed, although some visitors are able to walk freely in the vicinity of their hotels or guest quarters. Prior arrangements are necessary for access to apartment buildings, public buildings, stores, and similar facilities.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have no right or mechanisms by which they can effect transitions in leadership or changes in government. The political system is completely dominated by Kim Il Sung and heir-designate Kim Jong Il. The legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly, which meets only a few days a year, serves only to rubber-stamp resolutions presented to it by the leadership.

In an effort to create an appearance of democracy, the DPRK has created several "minority parties." Lacking grass roots organizations, they exist only as rosters of officials with token representation in the Supreme People's Assembly. Their primary purpose appears to be that of promoting government objectives abroad as touring parliamentarians. Free elections do not exist in North Korea. Although elections to the Supreme People's Assembly and provincial, city, and county assemblies are held regularly, in all cases the Government approves only one candidate in each electoral district. According to the government-controlled media, over 99 percent of the voters turned out to elect 100 percent of the candidates approved by the regime's Korean Workers Party or KWP. The vast majority of the KWP's estimated 3 million members (in a population of 22 million) work to implement decrees formulated by the party's small elite.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

No organizations within the DPRK are permitted to monitor human rights conditions or to observe violations of such rights. North Korea does not belong to any international human rights organizations, but it has for some years sent observers to meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Amnesty International representatives visited the DPRK in 1991 and met officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, as well as with judges, lawyers, and legal scholars. Subsequently, the DPRK has ignored visit requests by the AI, Asia Watch, and other human rights organizations.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


The Constitution states that "women hold equal social status and rights with men." However, few women have reached high levels of the party or the Government. Women are represented proportionally in the labor force, with the exception of small factories where the work force is predominantly female.

Neither government policy or traditional social norms condone violence against women. The AI has reported that women are detained with their families for political offenses committed by their spouses.


Social norms reflect traditional, family-centered values in which children are cherished. All children have access to state-provided education. Visitors to Pyongyang report that children are well dressed and at least as well fed as the general population. There are no reports of children begging or of child labor in factories. Pyongyang has at least two amusement parks and one department store for use primarily by children. The children of KWP members, disabled veterans, and "revolutionary heroes" seem to receive preferential treatment. Children may be detained with parents deemed guilty of political offenses, according to AI.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

North Korea has a largely homogeneous population, except for a small Chinese community and the Japanese spouses of former Korean residents in Japan. There are no reports of discrimination against the Chinese community. Systematic discrimination is unlikely since China is North Korea's primary ally and trading partner.

People with Disabilities

Traditional social norms condone discrimination against the physically handicapped. Handicapped persons, other than war veterans, are reportedly not allowed within the city limits of Pyongyang. According to one credible report, authorities check every 2 to 3 years in the capital for persons with deformities, including dwarfs, and relocate them to special facilities in the countryside. There are no legally mandated provisions for accessibility for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Nongovernmental labor unions do not exist in North Korea. The Korean Workers' Party purports to represent the interests of all labor. There is a single labor organization, called the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, which is affiliated with the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions. Operating under this umbrella, unions function on the classical Soviet model, with responsibility for mobilizing workers behind productivity goals and state targets and for providing health, education, cultural, and welfare facilities. They do not have the right to strike. North Korea is not a member of, but has observer status with, the International Labor Organization.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers have no right to organize or to bargain collectively. Wages are set by government ministries. The State assigns all jobs. Ideological purity is as important as professional competence in deciding who receives a particular job. Factory and farm workers are organized into councils which do have an impact upon management decisions.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There is no prohibition on the use of forced or compulsory labor, and the Government routinely uses military conscripts for construction projects. "Reformatory labor" and "reeducation through labor" are common sentences for political offenses. Amnesty International reports that forced labor, such as logging and tending crops, is common among prisoners.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

No data are available on the minimum age for employment of children. However, education is universal and mandatory until age 15, and it is believed that this regulation is enforced.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

No data are available on minimum wages. They appear to be adequate to support a worker and his family at a basic subsistence level. But wages are not the primary form of compensation since the State provides all educational and medical needs free and only token rent is charged.

The Constitution stipulates an 8-hour workday, but several sources report that, during production campaigns, most laborers work 12 to 16 hours daily.

[1]* The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. North Korea does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited visitors the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess human rights conditions there. Most of this report, therefore, is based on information obtained over a period of time extending from well before 1993. While limited in detail, the information is nonetheless indicative of the human rights situation in North Korea today.

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