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North Korea: Systematic Repression

Totalitarianism Empowered with Absence of International Pressure

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sits in his vehicle after arriving at a railway station in Dong Dang, Vietnam, February 26, 2019.  © 2019 REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

(Seoul) – North Korea’s government, one of the most repressive in the world, maintained its totalitarian rule during 2019 with ongoing brutality and intimidation, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

The North Korean government uses prison camps, torture, forced labor, and threats of execution and arbitrary punishment to maintain fearful obedience among the population, while restricting North Koreans from travel out of the country and communication with the outside world. Eight years into the rule of Kim Jong Un, the third leader in seven decades of hereditary rule begun under his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, North Korea has now suffered under totalitarian rule for almost as long as the existence of the Soviet Union.

“The people of North Korea suffer under constant surveillance and face the daily threat of imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, and execution – and it’s been this way since 1948,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time for the rest of the world to act. Kim Jong Un isn’t going to change his behavior unless concerned countries demand it.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The government tries to prevent North Koreans from leaving without permission by jamming Chinese mobile phone services at the border, targeting for arrest those communicating with people outside the country or trying to leave, and publicizing punishments of people caught escaping. Those caught trying to cross the border, or forcibly returned by China, face interrogation, torture, and imprisonment in forced labor camps.

The North Korean government systematically requires forced, uncompensated labor from most of its population to control its people and sustain its economy. A significant majority of North Koreans must perform unpaid labor, often called “portrayals of loyalty,” at some point in their lives. It also restricts all basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of religion, expression, and association, and discriminates against at-risk groups, like women and individuals and families with low songbun, a hereditary ranking system that arbitrarily classifies North Koreans according to their family’s history and the individual’s supposed fealty to the government, among other factors.

International attention to North Korea’s human rights record grew after a landmark 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report that documented the government’s widespread crimes against humanity, but attention has waned. Recent summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of the United States and South Korea have failed to lead to North Korea’s increased international engagement or cooperation with the UN. At the same time, North Korea has improved its diplomatic relations with several countries, including Russia and Vietnam.

The North Korean government refuses to cooperate with the UN Seoul field office or the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, and denies the findings of the COI.

In March and December, respectively, the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly adopted without a vote resolutions emphasizing the advancement of accountability mechanisms to ensure eventual prosecution of North Korean officials responsible for crimes against humanity. In December, eight members of the 15-member Security Council indicated support for holding a debate on North Korea’s human rights record, as the council has done in several previous years, even in the face of opposition by China and Russia. The meeting did not occur, however, because of the lack of support by the US government. 

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