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Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

47th Session of the UN Universal Periodic Review

This submission is presented on behalf of Human Rights Watch and Transitional Justice Working Group, addressing developments since the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) in its 33rd session.


The Covid-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to governments worldwide, testing their capacity to uphold human rights protections while imposing restrictions to protect health and reduce transmission. Since 2019, which marked the last UPR of the DPRK), the human rights situation regarding the rights to food, health, adequate standard of living, and to freedom of expression and movement has deteriorated notably.[1] In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the North Korean government enforced stringent measures, placing extreme and unnecessary restrictions on peoples’ most basic freedoms. Measures included enhanced border controls, regional lockdowns, and severe restrictions on trade and movement, ultimately strengthening its control over the population.[2]

For over 75 years, the North Korean government has imposed harsh controls, perpetuating human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture, and unfair trials, fostering a climate of fear and obedience. The implications of the unintended impacts of international sanctions, coupled with the impact of measures implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic, further deepened the nation’s severe isolation from the rest of the world, disrupting cross-border movements, trade, and aid, and exacerbating the country’s already existing humanitarian crisis and the population's hardships, reminiscent of the famine of the 1990s.

During its previous UPR, North Korea received 262 recommendations from United Nations member states.[3] North Korea accepted 132 of the recommendations related to the acceptance of international norms, fair trial, freedom of movement, thought, religion and expression, rights to food, health, education, and an adequate standard of living, equality and non-discrimination, and the rights of women, children, and persons with disabilities.

The North Korean government outright rejected 63 recommendations, including those advocating for the abolition of repressive systems, arbitrary executions, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, slavery, and trafficking, the promotion of press freedom, and improved detainee treatment.[4]

Since the last UPR, the DPRK has not meaningfully engaged with any international human rights mechanisms and has adopted new repressive laws, further deteriorating the human rights conditions in the country.[5] As a UN member that has ratified five core human rights treaties, North Korea has committed to protecting various fundamental human rights, yet it continues to systematically violate these obligations. As of April 2024, the DPRK has not submitted its fifth report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), due in November 2021.[6] The government has disregarded international calls for cooperation, notably rejecting the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, and the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on North Korea.

Accountability for Crimes Against Humanity

During the last UPR review, North Korea rejected 10 recommendations related to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the 2014 Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea.[7] The COI concluded that the DPRK committed “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” that constituted crimes against humanity in political prison camps (kwanliso) and forced labor prison camps for ordinary and minor political crimes (kyohwaso), and targeted religious believers and others considered to introduce subversive influences, people trying to flee the country, including those forcibly returned to North Korea by China, and violated the rights of people from other countries, and caused chronic but avoidable malnutrition, stunting, illness, and starvation.

In 2021, the OHCHR found that North Korea continued to engage in widespread and systematic abuses that could amount to crimes against humanity in its short-term detention facilities system and its forced labor prison camps for ordinary and minor political crimes (kyohwaso).[8]


  • Acknowledge ongoing human rights violations, respond positively and substantively to the COI’s findings and recommendations, and recognize the severity of the findings of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that constitute crimes against humanity;
  • Allow unrestricted access for UN mechanisms and other independent monitors in the country to investigate human rights violations, protect those who provide information to such monitors from any sort of reprisal or retaliation, and request technical assistance to reform the political and institutional structures to ensure accountability for those who commit rights abuses. These reforms are necessary due to the lack of access to international monitors, the repressive and abusive track record of the DPRK, and the lack of protection mechanisms and accountability in the system;
  • Ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC and implement the statute in national legislation, including by incorporating provisions to cooperate promptly and fully with the ICC and to investigate and prosecute grave crimes in violation of international law before its national courts in accordance with international law;
  • Respect obligations under the 1968 Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

Acknowledgment and Accountability for Political Prison Camps (kwanliso)

In its last UPR, the North Korean government rejected all nine recommendations referring to political prison camps (kwanliso).[9] As of November 2023, North Korea had not dismantled some of its political prison camps.[10]

The COI found the “DPRK authorities have committed, and are committing crimes against humanity in the political prison camps, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other grave sexual violence, and persecution on political, religious, and gender grounds.”[11]


  • Provide access to UN officials, international human rights monitors, and humanitarian organizations to the areas where kwanliso are or were located, including areas around Chongjin city, Orang county, and Hoeryong city in North Hamgyong province, Kaechon city in South Pyongan province, and Yodok county and Pukchan county in South Hamgyong province;
  • Acknowledge the existence of political prison camps (kwanliso) and immediately dismantle them; release all persons incarcerated there and enable them to return to their homes and families safely; and investigate and prosecute all those responsible for human rights abuses committed in these camps.

Abductees, Detainees, and Prisoners of War

In its last UPR, the North Korean government rejected all nine recommendations on enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrest and detention.[12]

North Korea continues to detain at least seven citizens of the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). According to the ROK’s Ministry of Unification (MOU), as of March 2024, six South Korean citizens were detained in the DPRK.[13] They are Kim Kuk-gi and Choi Chun-gil, sentenced to an indefinite period of hard labor in 2015; Kim Jeong-wook, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014; three former North Korean citizens who escaped to South Korea were reportedly either abducted in China or detained after entering North Korea, although official details have not been publicized – Kim Won-ho, detained in March 2016, Ko Hyon-chol, whose arrest in May 2016 was made public in July 2016, and another individual whose name is not known.[14] Ham Jin-woo, also a former North Korean citizen who escaped to South Korea, and a journalist with the South Korean news site Daily NK, was reportedly abducted from China in May 2017.[15] He is also believed to be detained in North Korea, as of April 2024.[16]


  • Carry out the immediate and unconditional return of the abductees, detainees, and unrepatriated prisoners of war from other countries.

Freedom of Movement

The right to freedom of movement, including the right to leave one's country, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The North Korean government has imposed harsh restrictions on its people’s ability to exercise this right, with harsh punishments for unauthorized travel, including internment, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, enforced disappearance or the death penalty for exiting or attempting to exit the country without permission.

In the last UPR cycle, the North Korean government accepted France’s recommendation on ensuring the freedom of movement of all citizens of the DPRK in the country and abroad, and Croatia’s recommendation to fulfil treaty obligations under the ICCPR and allow the population to exercise all civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and ability to travel.[17]

To this day, DPRK nationals are deprived of the freedom of movement both within and outside the country.[18] In January 2020, North Korea became the first country in the world to shut its borders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, halting nearly all international travel. Some North Koreans abroad able to return faced stringent quarantine upon return, while resident diplomats and international workers were confined to Pyongyang, leading to their eventual departure and the subsequent halting of independent monitoring in the DPRK.[19] The government implemented a standing "shoot-on-sight" order near the northern border, creating buffer zones and deploying troops to stop North Korean people from approaching the northern border and to enforce these measures.[20] This led to reported deaths and heightened fear among local residents, deterring any attempts to approach the border.[21] Domestic movement was also severely curtailed, with increased checkpoint controls and a complex permit system for inter-provincial travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. Informal trading and attempts to flee the country significantly decreased.


  • Relax excessive travel requirements within the country, including official permits to travel between provinces or regions, and overbroad restrictions on commercial activities to facilitate imports of essential food, goods, and medicine, as well as movement of food and goods.
  • Recognize the right of citizens to leave, enter, and return to North Korea, both in law and in practice, and ensure that those who are forcibly returned are not subjected to punishment upon repatriation.
  • Reopen North Korea’s borders and allow for the movement of people consistent with international human rights law, as well as for trade and economic activity.
  • Review all Covid-19 related measures to ensure that they are aligned with scientific data and international law and lift all excessive and unnecessary measures.
  • Decriminalize the act of individuals returning to the DPRK, whether involuntarily or by their own volition, after having departed the country.

Freedom of Expression

In the last cycle, the DPRK accepted recommendations to ensure the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.[22] However, the North Korean government has significantly intensified its efforts to control expression and enforce ideological conformity, and enacted laws to eradicate foreign influences, particularly following the failure of the Hanoi Summit in 2019 to lift the UN Security Council economic sanctions of 2016 and 2017.[23]

In December 2020, the government enacted the DPRK Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law, which criminalizes the consumption, distribution, and possession of foreign media and cultural products, with severe penalties including the death penalty for violators.[24] The Youth Education Guarantee Law, adopted in September 2021, bans young people from copying foreign culture and reorients them to a “socialist lifestyle.”[25] In January 2023, the government passed the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Law, which permits the authorities to punish people for using South Korean intonations or slang.[26] Judicial officials have been instructed to use the legal system aggressively to eliminate non-socialist elements. Following the passage of these laws there was an increase in reported public trials, executions, and mass arrests related to the consumption of foreign media that served as punishment as well as deterrents to prevent the spread of foreign cultural and ideological influences to further isolate the North Korean population from external ideas and maintain ideological purity. This significantly infringes on citizens' rights to freedom of expression.


  • Ensure the rights to freedom of thought and expression.
  • Repeal the Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law, the Youth Education Guarantee Law, and the Pyongyang Standard Language Protection Act.
  • Decriminalize actions that infringe upon North Korean citizens’ ability to exercise the rights to freedom of speech.

Discrimination and Violence Against Women and Girls

North Korea has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which requires the elimination of discrimination against women and girls in all areas and the promotion of equal rights of women and girls. North Korea is also party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and claims to be committed to gender equality and women and girls’ rights. In practice, however, North Korean women experience widespread discrimination and pervasive violence, including sexual, physical, economic, and judicial abuses.[27]

Women caught trying to escape North Korea without permission or who are forcibly repatriated back to the country systematically face severe punishment, including torture, ill-treatment, detention in inhuman conditions, sexual and gender-based violence, including forced abortions and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children based on gender and racial grounds.[28] The COI found these crimes amounted to crimes against humanity.

North Korea’s Covid-19 response measures placed women, commonly families’ main breadwinners in North Korea, under heightened economic pressure by curbing their ability to participate in the economy and restricting their access to food and essential goods.


  • End discrimination against women and girls in conformity with North Korea’s obligations under CEDAW, the CRC, and the recommendations made to North Korea during the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, as well as by other UN human rights mechanisms.
  • Reform national laws to criminalize all forms of gender-based violence, including sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, and marital rape – which should take into consideration if victims had freely given consent, and ensure effective enforcement of those new provisions.
  • Create mechanisms to anonymously bring complaints about sexual violence by government officials and collect statistics on complaints, anonymous or otherwise, as well as prosecutions and disciplinary actions as a result of complaints or investigations.
  • Develop health and social services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, including counselling, medical assistance, and programs to help women to overcome stigma. Establish reproductive health and sexual education programs and basic education on core issues of non-discrimination, consent, and reduction of stigma against survivors of sexual violence.
  • Immediately end the practice of forced abortions and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children based on gender or racial grounds.

Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world and the government has persistently failed to fulfil everyone’s enjoyment of the right to food, with North Koreans facing chronic food insecurity and early childhood malnutrition leading to general under-nutrition since the mid-late 2000s.[29] According to the most recently available data from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in December 2017, when Kim Jong Un’s North Korea was at the peak of economic growth, an estimated 10 million people out of an official population of 25 million experienced food insecurity, while 200,000 children were acutely malnourished. One in three children under 5, and almost half the children between 12 and 23 months, were anemic.[30] Until 2021, the UN has consistently maintained the same estimates.[31] In July 2023, the UN published a report that estimated food insecurity increased to 46 percent of the population between 2020 and 2022.[32]

One underlying cause of the country’s chronic food insecurity is the government’s inadequate production of food domestically and its mismanagement and prioritization of military and weapons development at the expense of resourcing toward the realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the country. The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified these challenges, with trade restrictions leading to price surges and a scarcity of the availability of food, medicine, and medical supplies. While there has been some improvement in trade in late 2023, it has not sufficed to offset the detrimental impacts of the lack of resources allocated to economic, social and cultural rights.

South Korea's Ministry of Unification (MOU) conducted radiation exposure tests for 30 escapees in 2017 and 10 escapees in 2018 and the test results showed chromosomal abnormalities among 9 of them.[33] Despite the North Korean government’s claims, there are concerns that ground water sources may have been contaminated by possible leakage caused by six nuclear tests.[34]

The restrictions implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic blocked most sources of income for a large majority of the population and reduced their ability to buy already limited food, medicines, and other essential goods and services. They have also adversely impacted the ability of ordinary North Koreans to exercise their right to just and favorable conditions of work, for instance by not being able to trade in local markets, in turn worsening their access to adequate food and health care.


  • As required under international human rights law, urgently invest the maximum available resources, including through international cooperation, to realize economic, social and cultural rights, prioritizing the most marginalized communities.
  • Collect, publicize, and circulate scientific, accessible, and comprehensive health-related information, including on Covid-19, and regular data on the level of realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the country, in line with internationally agreed standards.
  • Permit an independent investigation of the risk of radiation exposure from the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and take measures to ensure to protect the local populations.

Cooperation with other International Mechanisms and Institutions

North Korea has accepted a series of recommendations to improve access for international organizations, aimed at enhancing humanitarian and developmental cooperation.[35] Despite these commitments, North Korea's actions during the Covid-19 pandemic have led to North Korea to become more repressive, centralized, and isolated than ever.


  • Accept international offers of food and medical assistance, including WHO-authorized Covid-19 vaccines. Ensure regular and unrestricted access to humanitarian aid by all those at risk. Utilize systems of distribution adopting principles of universal social protection.
  • Cooperate with relevant UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and other relevant thematic rapporteurs and mechanisms.
  • Invite and grant access to UN human rights monitors to visit North Korea and provide technical assistance, including on border control measures and adequate and proportional health responses.

[1] Human Rights Watch, “‘A Sense of Terror Stronger than a Bullet’: The Closing of North Korea 2018-2023,” March 7, 2024,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Human Rights Council, 42nd Session, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, September 9-27, 2019, (accessed April 4, 2024); Kim Soo-kyung, Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), “Assessment of the 3rd Universal Periodic Review of the DPRK and the Ways to Improve Human Rights in North Korea,” May 22, 2019, (accessed April 4, 2024).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.; Human Rights Watch, “‘A Sense of Terror Stronger than a Bullet’: The Closing of North Korea 2018-2023,” March 7, 2024.

[6]UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), United States Human Rights Treaty Bodies, UN Treaty Body Database, Reporting status for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (accessed April 8, 2024); UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations on the Combined Second to Fourth Periodic Report of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” November 22, 2017, para. 58, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[7] Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, September 9-27, 2019; UPR info, DPR Korea Recommendations, UPR Cycle 3,!f,filters:(response:(values:!(%2734b4d35c-8157-40cf-a42f-c3cd7353d692%27)),state_under_review:(values:!(%270yhr4bcjgyu%27))),from:0,includeUnpublished:!f,limit:30,order:desc,sort:creationDate,treatAs:number,types:!(%275d8ce04361cde0408222e9a8%27),unpublished:!f) (accessed April 8, 2024); United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI), “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” A/HRC/25/CRP.1, February 7, 2014, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[8] Lina Yoon, "UN Finds Torture, Forced Lbor Still Rampant in North Korean Prisons," Human Rights Watch, February 9, 2021,

[9] Recommendations No. 127.25, 126.129, 127.29, 127.34, 127.33, 127.32, 126.186, 126.131, 127.26, from North Korea’s last UPR. OHCHR, UN Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review - Democratic People’s Republic of korea, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[10] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “HRNK Launches Updated Report Based on Satellite Imagery of N. Korea’s Political Prison Camp No. 25,” March 07, 2024, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[11] UN COI.

[12] Recommendations 127.35, 127.30, 127.31, 127.37, 127,38, 127.39, 127.39, 127.40, 127.41, 127.36 in North Korea’s third UPR. OHCHR, Universal Periodic Review - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

[13] United Nations General Assembly (UN GA), “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Report of the Secretary-General,” August 6, 2018, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview with a Ministry of Unification official, online, March 2024.

[16] UN GA, “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Report of the Secretary-General,” August 6, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with Eun-kyoung Kwon, executive director at Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, online, April 4, 2024.

[17] OHCHR< Universal Periodic Review - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

[18] Human Rights Watch, “‘A Sense of Terror Stronger than a Bullet’: The Closing of North Korea 2018-2023,” March 7, 2024.

[19] Ibid.

[20] John Sifton, “North Korea’s unlawful ‘shoot on Sight’ orders,” Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020,

[21] Human Rights Watch, “‘A Sense of Terror Stronger than a Bullet’: The Closing of North Korea 2018-2023,” March 7, 2024.

[22] Recommendations 126.113, 126.138, 126.139, 126.140, 126.141, 126.142, 126.143, and 126.144 at North Korea’s last UPR. OHCHR, Universal Periodic Review - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

[23] Human Rights Watch, “‘A Sense of Terror Stronger than a Bullet’: The Closing of North Korea 2018-2023,” March 7, 2024

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Human Rights Watch, “You Cry at Night but Don’t Know Why,” November 1, 2018,

[28] OHCHR. “’I Still Feel The Pain’: Human Rights Violations against Women Detained in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” July 2020, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[29] UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/ World Food Program (WFP), Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, Special Report FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, December 8, 2008, (accessed April 4, 2024).

[30] UNICEF, Central Bureau of Statistics, “2017 DPR Korea MICS: Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017, Survey Findings Report," June 2018, (accessed April 4. 2024); “2017 DPRK MICS Highlights: Trends, Perspective and Analysis,” UNICEF, Central Bureau of Statistics, July 2019, (accessed April 4, 2024).

[31] Estimates of annual growth range from 1 to almost 5 percent from 2012 until 2017, and the economy grew by 3.9 percent in 2016 and 4.7 percent in 2017. The UN has not had access to the country since March 2021. Bank of Korea, Research, North Korea GDP Statistics, (accessed April 4, 2024); UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) / Central Bureau of Statistics, “2017 DPRK MICS Highlights: Trends, Perspective and Analysis,” July 2019, (accessed April 4, 2024); FAO/ WFP, “DPRK FAO/WFP Joint Rapid Food Assessment,”, May 2019, (accessed April 4, 2024); UN DPRK, “DPRK Needs and Priorities Plan 2020,” April 24, 2020, (accessed April 4, 2024); Ifang Bremer, “41% of North Koreas Face Malnourishment During Pandemic: Report,” NK News, July 8, 2022, (accessed April 4, 2024).

[32] WFP, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report -2023,” July 12, 2023, (accessed April 4, 2024).

[33] Lee Jeong Eun, “풍계리 인근 출신 탈북민 80명 중 17명 방사선 피폭,” Radio Free Asia, February 29, 2024, (accessed April 8, 2024).

[34] Transitional Justice Working Group, “Mapping the Risk and Effect of Radioactive Contamination of Groundwater Sources from the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site in North Korea,”. (accessed April 8, 2024).

[35] Recommendations 126.41, 126.43, 126.56, 126.58, 126.59, 126.62, 126.63, 126.64, 126.65, 126.66, 126.71, and 126.109, in North Korea’s third UPR. OHCHR, Universal Periodic Review - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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