The Worst of the Worst 2006 - North Korea

Population: 22,900,000
GNI/capita: $440
Life Expectancy: 71
Religious Groups: Buddhism, Confucianism, other
Ethnic Groups: Korean
Capital: Pyongyang

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free

Ratings Timeline (Political Rights, Civil Liberties, Status)

Year Under Review1996199719981999200020012002200320042005


After months of failed negotiations over the apparent escalation of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, on September 19, 2005, Pyongyang agreed to give up all its nuclear activities and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite this concession to international opinion, in October, North Korea ordered an end to nearly all international humanitarian aid programs in the country, a move that has increased concerns that the lack of food supplies in North Korea may lead to renewed famine.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the northern part of the Korea Peninsula in 1948 following three years of post-World War II Soviet occupation. At independence, North Korea's uncontested ruler was Kim Il-sung, a former Soviet army officer who claimed to be a guerilla hero in the struggle against Japan, which had annexed Korea as a colony in 1910. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under Communist rule. Drawing in China and the United States, the ensuing three-year conflict killed at least 2.5 million people and ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty. Since then, the two Koreas have been on a continuous war footing, and the border remains one of the most heavily militarized places in the world.

Kim Il-sung solidified his power base during the Cold War, purging rivals, throwing thousands of political prisoners into labor camps, and fostering a Stalinist personality cult that promoted him as North Korea's "Dear Leader." The end of the Cold War, however, brought North Korea's command economy to the brink of collapse, as Pyongyang lost crucial Soviet and Eastern bloc subsidies and preferential trade deals.

Kim's death in 1994 ushered in even more uncertainty. Under his son, the reclusive Kim Jong-il, the regime has maintained its rigid control on all aspects of its citizens' lives. According to reports by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, during the initial years of Kim Jong-il's rule (1995-1997) natural disasters, severe economic mismanagement, and extreme political isolationism caused famine killing as many as 2.5 million people and economic shrinkage of approximately 30 percent.

Despite its recent and devastating history with famine, in October 2005, North Korea ordered the UN World Food Program (WFP) to shut down 19 food-enrichment factories, which since 1995 have provided more than two million tons of food aid. Seven percent of North Koreans are believed to be starving, and 37 percent of North Koreans are chronically malnourished. The factory closings came after North Korean deputy foreign minister Choe Su Hon declared, "Our government is prepared to provide the food to all our people," and made claims that the United States was attempting "to politicize humanitarian assistance, linking it to the human rights issue." In October 2004, U.S. president George W. Bush had signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which banned all non-humanitarian assistance to North Korea because of its dismal human rights record. North Korea has stated that it will still accept long-term development aid, including assistance with infrastructural projects intended to promote the country's long-term economic growth.

In addition, North Korea's state-run health system has all but collapsed – hospitals lack adequate medicine and equipment, and clean water is in short supply because of electricity and chlorine shortages. Concerns over public health and sanitation have become more salient because of rising fears of an avian influenza pandemic in East Asia.

North Korea permitted some market reforms in 2002, which included easing price controls, raising wages, devaluing the currency, giving factory managers more autonomy, and allowing some farmers to sell their products at market prices. Nevertheless, living standards for ordinary North Koreans have actually decreased, as a result of a subsequent rise in inflation and unemployment. In October 2005, a ban on the free market sale of rice and other grains was imposed to ensure that "public distribution centers will take over countrywide distribution." Citizens have thus increasingly sought employment in the informal economy to complement their average monthly salary of $1. At present, there is no expectation of more far-reaching market reforms; the government is opposed to any measures that would grant North Koreans more personal autonomy for fear of undermining the dictatorship's tight grip on power.

Tensions relating to North Korea's 2002 claim of having an active nuclear weapons program have effectively defined its foreign relations for the past several years. In 2002, North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors charged with monitoring its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. In 2003, North Korea officially pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Despite North Korea's unverified claims of possessing nuclear weapons, many analysts believe that the greatest threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program is the potential of the cash-strapped country to sell plutonium to rogue states or terrorists for hard currency. For this reason, efforts have been made to engage North Korea in the six-nation nuclear talks, which have included South Korea, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan, in order to convince Pyongyang to end its nuclear program. North Korea has resisted these efforts. The North Korean Foreign Ministry maintains the country has manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense to "cope with the Bush administration's ... undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the [North]."

In May 2005, military tensions in East Asia were heightened by the North Korean launch of a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan on the eve of a meeting by member nations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many analysts now believe that the missile launch amounted to a negotiating tactic – that of creating a minor crisis to force concessions in a subsequent round of the six-nation talks.

Despite initial opposition to the six-party talks, in a joint statement in September 2005, North Korea agreed to give up all its nuclear activities and to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in return for, according to the U.S. State Department, an international agreement to discuss the provision of "security assurances, economic and energy cooperation" and the possible development of nuclear power for "peaceful purposes" in the form of a light-water reactor.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties:

Citizens of North Korea cannot change their government democratically. North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship and one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Every aspect of social, political, and economic life is tightly controlled by the state. The regime denies North Koreans all basic rights, subjects tens of thousands of political prisoners to brutal conditions, and maintains a largely isolationist foreign policy.

Kim Jong-il, who has been the North Korean leader since 1997, and a handful of elites from the Korean Worker's Party (KWP) rule by decree, although little is known about the regime's inner workings. Kim is formally general secretary of the KWP, supreme commander of North Korea's 1.1 million-person army, and chairman of the National Defense Commission. This last post has been the "highest office of state" since the office of president was abolished in 1998.

North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, is a rubber-stamp institution and meets only a few days each year. Parliamentary and local assembly elections were held in 1990, 1998, and, most recently, in August 2004. The elections were not free. The Central Election Committee often reports that Kim Jong-il receives 100 percent of the vote in his constituency. The government has created a few minority parties for the sake of appearances, but they do not fulfill any real electoral role. The next round of elections is slated for 2008.

North Korea was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but in practice they are nonexistent. All media outlets – print, television, and radio – are either run or controlled by the state. In 2005, Reporters Without Borders reported that a North Korean journalist was punished for mistakenly referring to a deputy minister as simply a minister. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels, and all publications are subject to strict supervision and censorship. As of this year, internet access in North Korea is restricted to a few thousand people who have received state approval; all foreign websites are blocked by the state.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it does not exist in practice. The U.S. State Department has reported that "members of underground churches have been killed because of their religious beliefs and suspected contacts with overseas evangelical groups."

North Koreans are subject to intense political and ideological indoctrination. According to a U.S. State Department human rights report, released in 2005, the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il (and his father, Kim Il-sung) and the official juche ideology have approached the level of a state religion. "Juche" refers to a national ideology of self-reliance and may help explain the regime's resistance to foreign humanitarian aid, despite widespread hunger and poverty. The juche ideology, which takes precedence over academic education in the nation's schools, is ingrained into citizens through all forms of civic engagement, all of which are state-controlled. The state-owned media bolsters the cult of personality of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by infusing plays, movies, books, and music with patriotic messages.

The law bans all independent civic and social welfare groups. There are no known associations or organizations other than those created by the government, although there have been reports this year of what has been called the "first sign of a dissident movement" in North Korea – the Freedom Youth League. Strikes, collective bargaining, and other basic organized-labor activities are illegal.

North Korea does not have an independent judiciary and does not acknowledge individual rights, emphasizing instead "socialist norms of life" and a "collective spirit." Little information is available about specific criminal justice practices. Security forces are known to commit serious human rights abuses. Reports of arbitrary detentions, "disappearances," and extrajudicial killings are common; torture is widespread and severe. Starvation, torture, and execution in prisons are frequent. Collective punishment – the imprisonment of an entire family if one member of the family is accused of a crime – is also a common practice.

In addition to its unofficial denial of nominal "liberties," the government operates a highly developed system of official social discrimination. In this regard, all citizens are classified under specific security ratings – "core," "wavering," or "hostile" – in terms of their perceived loyalty to the regime. This rating essentially determines every facet of a person's life, including employment and educational opportunities, place of residence, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores. These ratings are based on reports from a huge network of informers that monitors nearly all correspondence and communication and can subject entire communities to security checks.

Freedom of movement does not exist. Although internal travel rules have been relaxed to allow citizens to travel beyond their home village, most people have no viable means of transportation. Forced internal resettlement is routine. Access to Pyongyang, where the availability of food, housing, and health care is relatively better, is tightly restricted. Emigration is illegal, although exit visas are sometimes issued to trusted businessmen, artists, athletes, scholars, and religious figures. Defection is a capital crime punishable by death. Controversy has developed in recent months over the Chinese government's willingness to return defectors to North Korea, where they are subject to torture, harsh imprisonment, or death.

Despite recent market reforms, North Korea's economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged. The government assigns all jobs, prohibits private property, and spends nearly one-third of its gross domestic product on its military. The economy is also hobbled by a lack of infrastructure, a scarcity in energy and raw materials, and an inability to borrow on world markets or from multilateral banks because of sanctions, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolationism.

Little is known about how problems such as domestic violence or workplace discrimination may affect North Korean women. There have been widespread reports of trafficked women and girls among the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have recently crossed into China.

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