U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - North Korea


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a dictatorship under the absolute rule of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). Kim Il Sung ruled the DPRK from its inception until his death in July. Although he has not yet assumed his father's positions of President of the DPRK and Secretary General of the KWP, Kim Jong Il appears to be in control of the DPRK following his father's death. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il continue to be the objects of intensive personality cults.

The North Korean regime 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 it may have relaxed this loyalty system somewhat in recent years. The state leadership perceives individual rights as an alien concept subversive to the goals of the State and party.

The State directs all significant economic activity, and only government-supervised labor union activity is permitted. The North Korean economy has contracted by an average of approximately 7 percent per year over the last 3 years, largely due to the elimination of Russian/Soviet concessional trade and aid. Economic development continues to be hindered by distribution bottlenecks, inefficient allocation of resources, poor international credit stemming from the DPRK's default on much of its foreign debt, and by the diversion of a quarter of the gross national product to military expenditures. The rationing of food, clothing, and energy appeared to continue in most parts of the country.

The Government continues to deny its citizens most fundamental human rights. The Penal Code is draconian, stipulating capital*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 1994. While limited in detail, the information is nonetheless indicative of the human rights situation in North Korea today. 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 the regime, repatriated defectors, and others (reportedly including military officers suspected of plotting against Kim Jong Il) have been summarily executed. Article 52 of the Criminal Law makes the death penalty mandatory for activities "in collusion with imperialists" aimed at "suppressing the national liberation struggle," and some prisoners are sentenced to death for such ill-defined "crimes" as "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.

Amnesty International (AI) reports issued in 1993 and 1994 detail a number of cases, including that of the Shibata family of Japan. Shibata Kozo and his wife Shin Sung Suk, a Korean resident of Japan, left Japan in 1960 and resettled in North Korea. Mr. Shibata was reportedly charged in 1965 with spying and sent to a sanatorium. He reportedly 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 Se, 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 were carried out at public meetings attended by workers, students, and schoolchildren. 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.

The law provides that 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." 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 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.

According to an AI report, the Government is currently detaining for political offenses 58 people, some of them for as long as 30 years.

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. The Constitution contains elaborate procedural guarantees. Article 138 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 accepted international concepts of an independent judiciary and individual rights are alien to the DPRK. The Public Security Ministry dispenses with trials in political cases and refers defendants 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 those accused of political crimes and common criminals, and state that the Government affords trials only to the latter. The Government considers critics of the regime to be "political criminals." Numerous reports suggest that political offenses have in the past 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

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 troublemakers. In some cases, entire families are detained for alleged political offenses committed by one member of the family.

The authorities subject citizens in all age groups and occupations to political and ideological indoctrination. Even after Kim Il Sung's death, his cult of personality and glorification of his family and the official "juche" (self-reliance) ideology continued to be omnipresent. The cult approaches the level of a state religion. The goal of indoctrination remains to ensure loyalty to the Kim Il Sung system and his son and heir Kim Jong Il, as well as conformity to the State's ideology and authority. Indoctrination is carried out systematically not only through the mass media, but also in schools and through worker and neighborhood associations. Citizens with relatives who fled to South Korea 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 war, this category encompasses a significant percentage of the North Korean population.

The defector Cho Kap Chae estimated that the class of those considered politically "impure" 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.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

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. While freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration are formally guaranteed, they do not exist in practice. The regime permits only activities which support its objectives.

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. The authorities may punish persons criticizing the regime or its policies 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 to a "reeducation through labor" center because one member of the family allegedly made remarks disparaging the Government.

The Government attempts to control all information that enters and leaves the DPRK. It carefully manages the visits of Western journalists. The authorities restricted access to Russian publications that carried articles critical of North Korea, and during 1991 closed several of their offices. 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, children's performances, and books is to contribute to the cult of personality surrounding Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government prohibits any public meetings without authorization. There are no known organizations other than those created by the Government. Professional associations exist solely as another means of government control over the members of these organizations.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for the rights of "religious liberty and the freedom of antireligious propaganda." However, the regime firmly discourages all organized religious activity except that which serves the interests of the State. In recent years, it 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 worshipers observed; others say the church activity appears staged.

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 have vehicles for personal use. The regime tightly controls access to civilian aircraft, trains, buses, food, and fuel. Most workers are required to live outside Pyongyang, the capital, and commute to and from work on foot.

Reports, primarily from defectors, indicate that the Government routinely uses forced resettlement, particularly for those deemed politically unreliable. The Government strictly controls permission to reside in, or even enter, Pyongyang.

The regime limits foreign travel to officials and trusted artists, athletes, and academics. It does not allow emigration, although there have been a limited number of defections. Recently, the number of defectors has increased somewhat. 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. As a rule, the regime does not currently allow students to study outside of friendly countries.

From 1959 to 1982, 93,000 Korean residents of Japan, including 6,637 Japanese wives, voluntarily repatriated to North Korea. Despite regime 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 done so. Most have not been heard of again. Over the past decade, the DPRK has gradually permitted an increasing number of overseas Korean residents of North America, Japan, China, and other countries to visit their relatives in North Korea.

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 the KWP, with Kim Il Sung's heir Kim Jong Il apparently in control. (There is very little hard information available on intraregime politics following Kim Il Sung's death.) The legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly, which meets only a few days a year, serves only to rubberstamp resolutions presented to it by the party leadership.

In an effort to create the 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 there is only one government- approved candidate in each electoral district. According to the media, over 99 percent of the voters turned out to elect 100 percent of the candidates approved by the 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

The Government does not permit any domestic organizations to monitor human rights conditions or to comment on violations of such rights.

AI 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 requests for visits by AI, Asia Watch, and other human rights organizations.

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

The Constitution grants equal rights to all citizens. As noted above, however, the Government denies its citizens the most fundamental human rights.


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 in which the work force is predominantly female.

Neither government policy nor traditional social norms condone violence against women.


Social norms reflect traditional, family-centered values in which children are cherished. The State provides education for all children. There is no pattern of societal or familial abuse of children.

People with Disabilities

There are no legally mandated provisions for accessibility to buildings or government services for the disabled. 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 and relocate them to special facilities in the countryside.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Nongovernmental labor unions do not exist. 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 production goals 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 punishments for political offenses. AI 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 workers and their families at a basic subsistence level. Wages are not the primary form of compensation since the State provides all educational and medical needs free of charge, while most goods are distributed according to a rationing system and only token rent is charged.

In January labor regulations for foreign-funded enterprises were reportedly adopted by the Administration Council. Referring to labor contracts, they set out provisions on the employment and dismissal of workers, technical training, work hours, rest periods, remuneration, labor protection, social security, fines for violations of regulations, and settlement of disputes.

The Constitution stipulates an 8-hour workday, but several sources report that 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 1994. While limited in detail, this information is nonetheless indicative of the human rights situation in North Korea today.


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