Country Scores

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free
Population: 23,300,000
Capital: Pyongyang


2008 Key Developments: While North Korea's relations with the United States appeared to thaw in 2008, relations with the South worsened after conservative president Lee Myung-bak took office there in February. Pyongyang expelled South Korean managers from the joint Kaesong industrial complex in April, and North Korean forces shot and killed a South Korean tourist in July. In August, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was reported to have suffered a stroke, and questions about his health lingered at year's end. North Korea made no progress on human rights in 2008, and experienced severe food shortages in the wake of floods in 2007.

Political Rights: North Korea is not an electoral democracy. Kim Jong-il has led the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) since the 1994 death of his father, founding leader Kim Il-sung. North Korea's parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, is a rubber-stamp institution that meets irregularly for only a few days each year. It last elected Kim Jong-il as National Defense Commission chairman in September 2003. All candidates for office, who run unopposed, are preselected by the ruling Korean Workers' Party and two subordinate minor parties. Corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy.

Civil Liberties: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but in practice these rights are nonexistent. All media outlets are run by the state. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels, and all publications are subject to strict supervision and censorship. Internet access is restricted to a few thousand people with state approval, and foreign websites are blocked. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it does not exist in practice. Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informers. Freedom of assembly is not recognized, and there are no known associations or organizations other than those created by the state. Strikes, collective bargaining, and other organized-labor activities are illegal. Despite these bans, it has been reported that scores of women have banded together to protest government crackdowns on black-market activities – an act that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. North Korea does not have an independent judiciary. The UN General Assembly has recognized and condemned severe DPRK human rights violations including the use of torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, and forced labor; the absence of due process and the rule of law; death sentences for political offenses; and a large number of prison camps. The regime subjects thousands of political prisoners to brutal conditions, and collective or familial punishment for suspected dissent by an individual is a common practice. Freedom of movement does not exist, and forced internal resettlement is routine. 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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