2001 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 7.0
Civil Liberties: 7
Political Rights: 7


North Korea undertook a string of surprising diplomatic initiatives. The most important was the historic three-day summit between the leaders of North and South Korea on June 13 in Pyongyang. The two sides agreed to promote economic cooperation and work towards reconciliation and reunification, with some kind of confederation, or "one country, two systems" as the preferred outcome. In early 2001, Kim is expected to make a reciprocal visit to Seoul in early 2001.

However, these diplomatic moves by Pyongyang were not matched by positive changes domestically. In fact, there were no improvements in political rights and civil liberties. Mass starvation is also never far away. The regime spends on arms, buying weapons from Russia and other countries and building missiles, using the lives of its people and its military arsenal as bargaining chips in international negotiations. A food crisis is expected in 2001. Some 2.4 million North Koreans are believed to have died from starvation in recent years. United Nations agencies are appealing for nearly $400 million in food aid, more than three times their request for 2000.

The Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established on September 9, 1948, following the end of World War II and the partition of the Korean peninsula by the Soviet-led Communist forces and U.S.-led Western democracies. With assistance from Moscow, Kim Il-Sung, a former Soviet army officer, became head of the North Korean government. In June 1950, Kim, with Soviet military support, invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under Communist rule. The three-year Korean War ended in a truce after intervention by U.S. and Chinese troops, and left the two Koreas bitterly divided.

Throughout the Cold War, Kim Il-Sung solidified his power base in the north through an extensive personality cult and the development of Juche (self-reliance), a home-grown ideology said to be an application of Marxism-Leninism specific to North Korea. In practice, it became an ideological justification for Communist leadership under Kim's rule and for the pervasive Stalinist control of the economy and all aspects of public and private life.

By the 1990s, the North Korean economy was in negative growth annually. Disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the loss of Pyongyang's Cold War patrons in Moscow and increasing isolation for North Korea. Kim Il-Sung died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. His son and appointed successor Kim Jong-Il assumed power. This was the first known Communist dynastic succession. The young Kim delayed formally assuming positions of power, becoming general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party only in 1997. In 1998, the Korean legislature revised the socialist constitution and renamed it as the "Kim Jong-Il Constitution," thus marking the beginning of the Kim Jong-Il era. The legislature also abolished the post of president. This made the National Defense Commission (NDC) the highest organ of power in the North Korean government, and its chairman the de facto head of state. Kim was elected to head the NDC. He also heads the ruling party and is the supreme military commander.

Government mismanagement, natural disasters, and the end of food subsidies from former Communist allies have brought massive famine in recent years. The government accepts food aid from overseas, but reports allege that food aid is often diverted to military and government officials. Since Kim Jong-Il consolidated power in 1998, North Korea has tried to bring in foreign investment, while simultaneously asserting its independence and power in regional affairs. Hyundai, a top conglomerate in South Korea, agreed to transfer $906 million over six years to develop a tourist facility in the North and to organize tours for South Koreans. The first group of South Koreans visited Diamond Mountain in the North in November 1998 under heavily restricted conditions. Pyongyang has also opened free economic zones, such as in Rajin-Sonbong and the Nampo-Wonson area south of the capital, as a way to revive the economy without undertaking serious reform. North Korean border crossings to trade in China have increased, and Pyongyang has not curbed these exchanges.

In recent years, Pyongyang has played a high-risk game of missile and nuclear threats to extract aid from the United States and Japan. In August 1998, North Korea launched a missile, which flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang claimed that the launch was part of an effort to put a satellite into space. Both the United States and Japan reacted with tightened sanctions against North Korea. In September 1999, North Korea and the United States agreed in Berlin that North Korea would suspend long-range missile testing in exchange for easing of comprehensive sanctions imposed by the United States. The next day, North Korea made an unusual call for inter-Korean dialogues at all levels of government and society. In December 1999, Japan lifted the remaining sanctions: a freeze on talks to normalize bilateral relations and suspension of food aid.

North Korea is also suspected of building nuclear weapons. Pyongyang sought $300 million in cash and food aid from the United States in exchange for rights to inspect a site north of Pyongyang. U.S. rejection of this demand threatened to undermine the 1994 Framework Agreement under which North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for light-water reactors, which could not easily be used to make weapons. A breakthrough occurred on March 16, 1999, when Pyongyang agreed to open the facility in question to a U.S. team in May 1999, May 2000, and thereafter in exchange for a U.S. pledge to launch an agriculture project in North Korea and to provide 100,000 tons of food aid. In December 1999, an agreement to build two of the light-water reactors was signed.

The series of diplomatic surprises in 2000 began with the opening of relations with Italy. Following the summit in June, Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Bangkok in July to use the opportunity to improve bilateral ties with the United States, China, Australia, Russia, Japan and Canada. In the same month, the two Koreas agreed to reopen border liaison offices at Panmunjom and to reconnect a rail link between the two sides. The first family reunion, which brought together 100 families each side, was held in August. About 7.6 million South Koreans are believed to have relatives in the North.

In September, the two Koreas marched under one banner at the Summer Olympic Games in Australia. In the same month, defense chiefs from the two sides discussed plans to clear mines in the demarcation area to aid the reopening of land transport links. In October, senior North Korea military commander and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) Jo Myong Rok met U.S. president Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C. U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang on October 22 for talks with Kim Jong-Il to clarify North Korea's position on its missile program and its view on the future of U.S. troops in South Korea. Kim Jong-Il was reported to favor the continued presence of U.S. forces to check Russian, Chinese and Japanese influence and was reported to consider giving up North Korea's missile program, which earns the country about $500 million in overseas sales, in exchange for international assistance to launch civilian satellites. Albright was the highest level U.S. official to visit North Korea. In November, Pyongyang accepted a United Nations proposal to build a railway linking the two Koreas. A second round of North-South government talks followed in December. The North wanted economic aid but the South was eager to expand joint humanitarian projects.

Whether it is brinkmanship politics or diplomacy, it is clear that North Korea and its leadership need outside help to survive. And Pyongyang has been very successful. In food aid alone, North Korea obtained 200,000 tons of fertilizers – valued at $60 million – from South Korea before the summit and another 100,000 tons after the meeting. In October, Seoul sent 500,000 tons of food aid. Since 1994, the share of North Korea's food imports obtained on concession terms has grown from zero to more than 80 percent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

North Korea is arguably the most tightly controlled country in the world. Its citizens cannot change their government democratically. Elections are held regularly, but all candidates are state-sponsored and belong either to the ruling Workers' Party or smaller, state-organized parties. The Supreme People's Assembly, nominally the highest organized state power, provides little more than a veneer of legitimacy to government decisions. Opposition parties are illegal, and there is little organized dissent as a result of the regime's repression, widespread internal surveillance, and isolationist policies. Even the most basic elements of a civil society do not exist in North Korea.

The judicial system consists of the Central Court, under which there are various municipal courts. The SPA has the power to elect and recall the president of the Central Court. The criminal law subjects citizens to arbitrary arrest, detention, and execution for "counterrevolutionary crimes" and other broadly defined political offenses. In practice, these can include nonviolent acts such as attempted defection, criticism of the leadership, and listening to foreign broadcasts. Defense lawyers persuade defendants to plead guilty rather than advocate for them. The rule of law is nonexistent.

Prison conditions are characterized by severe mistreatment of prisoners and, by some accounts, frequent summary executions. The regime operates "reeducation through labor" camps that reportedly hold tens of thousands of political prisoners and their families. Defectors say some political prisoners are "reeducated" and released after a few years, while others are held indefinitely.

Authorities implement arbitrary checks of residences, use electronic surveillance, and maintain a network of informants to monitor the population. At school, children are encouraged to report on their parents. The government assigns a security rating to each individual that, to a somewhat lesser extent than in the past, still determines access to education, employment, and health services. North Koreans face a steady onslaught of propaganda from radios and televisions that are pre-tuned to government stations.

Travel within the country generally requires a permit, which is normally granted only for state business, weddings, or funerals, although some reports suggest that internal travel restrictions have been slightly eased. Travel into the capital is heavily restricted, with permission usually granted only for government business. The government reportedly forcibly resettles politically suspect citizens. Chinese authorities return some refugees and defectors at the border, many of whom are reportedly summarily executed. Chinese sources say many North Koreans are, in fact, captured by North Korean agents operating across the border. Only a handful of foreign journalists are accredited in North Korea, and entry for foreign visitors is highly restricted.

The General Federation of Trade Unions is the sole legal trade union federation, and its affiliates are used to monitor workers. The regime does not permit strikes, collective bargaining, or other core labor activity. Religious practice is restricted to state-sponsored Buddhist and Christian services. Private property ownership is prohibited. Women are given equal status under the law, but they continue to battle gender discrimination at home and at work.

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