Skip to main content
Kim Song Ju Primary school students have their temperatures checked before entering the school in Pyongyang, North Korea.  © 2020 AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin

(New York, January 13, 2021) – North Korea’s government used unnecessary and opaque Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 to reinforce its standing as one of the world’s most repressive countries, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, the third leader of the nearly 75-year Kim dynasty, the totalitarian government maintained a reign of fear through arbitrary imprisonment, unpaid forced labor, torture, enforced disappearance, and execution. 
Sealing the borders with China and Russia, and extreme restrictions in response to Covid-19 far exceeded public health protection needs, leaving North Koreans more isolated than ever. The authorities intensified already tight restrictions on communications with the outside world, and created “buffer zones” on the northern border with orders to “unconditionally shoot” on sight anybody entering without permission. On September 22, the North Korean navy shot and killed a 47-year-old South Korean fisheries official along North Korea’s western sea border. 
“Kim Jong Un’s government used Covid-19 restrictions as a pretext to further entrench totalitarian rule and keep North Koreans isolated from the rest of the world,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments and international institutions should stand with the North Korean people by pressing Pyongyang to take transparent action with international assistance to address the pandemic.” 
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.  
The North Korean government severely restricts all basic civil and political rights, including freedom of religion, expression, and association, and discriminates against at-risk groups. They include women and people 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. The government systematically requires forced, uncompensated labor from most of its population to control its people and sustain its economy.  
In 2020, the North Korean government continued to prioritize developing strategic weapons over reducing poverty, allocating enormous resources that could have been used to address food security, health, and other social needs. The country was hit by severe floods between June and September that destroyed crops, roads, and bridges, and undermined the country’s agricultural production plan. The government continued to rebuff international diplomatic engagement and repeatedly rejected offers of international aid. 
While previously the United Nations Security Council discussed North Korea’s widespread crimes against humanity, in 2020 there was no formal council discussion of North Korea’s record. 

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country