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North Korea

Events of 2023

Photo taken on Dec. 22, 2022, from China's Dandong shows North Korean soldiers patrolling on a riverside in the border county of Uiju.

© Kyodo via AP Images

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report found that the government committed systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that constitute crimes against humanity. Ruled by third-generation totalitarian leader Kim Jong Un, the government maintains fearful obedience by using threats of torture, executions, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and forced labor. It systematically denies basic liberties, including freedom of expression, association, and religion. It does not tolerate pluralism, and it bans independent media, civil society organizations, and trade unions.

In 2023, the government continued to maintain extreme and unnecessary measures under the pretext of protecting against the Covid-19 pandemic, with deepened isolation and repression; border, trade, and travel restrictions; and strong ideological control. These restrictions severely aggravated the existing food crisis and exacerbated the country’s chronic lack of access to medicines, medical supplies, and other necessities. They hurt market activities the population relied on to survive and severely undermined people’s ability to make a living in 2023. The impact of the nearly four-year-long Covid-19 nation-wide country lockdown intensified as the country was hit by major droughts in March and April and flooding in August.

The government continued to prioritize weapons development, conducting over 30 missile tests between January and September, including three long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Freedom of Expression and Information

The government does not permit freedom of thought, expression, or information. All media is strictly controlled. Accessing phones, computers, televisions, radios, or media content that is not sanctioned by the government is illegal and considered “anti-socialist behavior” that is punished, including through the use of torture and forced labor. The government regularly cracks down on those accessing unsanctioned media. It also jams Chinese mobile phone services at the border and targets for arrest people for communicating with contacts outside the country.

In January 2023, the government enacted the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, banning the use of language that is South Korean in style or appears to have foreign influence. The law criminalized communications “in the puppet language,” a reference to the South Korean language style, setting punishments of six years or more of forced labor and even the death penalty in some cases. It also encourages the authorities to use public trials and executions to “awaken the masses.”

In March and April, authorities reportedly conducted public trials in Ryanggang province under the law. One trial targeted 17 young people for watching unsanctioned videos and using South Korean language. One leader of the group was sentenced to 10 years of forced labor. In another trial, 20 youth athletes were sentenced to three to five years of forced labor for using South Korean vocabulary.

Freedom of Movement

Moving from one province to another, or traveling abroad without prior approval, continued to be illegal. The government maintained heightened enforcement of a ban on “illegal” travel to China through border buffer zones on the northern border to protect against Covid-19. Border guards remained under orders to “unconditionally shoot” anyone entering or leaving without permission. Authorities’ strict enforcement of these restrictions severely impacted people’s livelihoods and ability to access food, medicines, and other essential goods.

In August, North Korean state media officially announced the reopening of its borders to citizens residing abroad after they were closed in January 2020. North Korea’s national airline restarted international flights, and the former North Korean ambassador to China returned to North Korea. In March, authorities allowed some Chinese diplomats to enter the country. However, humanitarian organizations and most diplomats remained unable to return. Informal trade activities stayed banned. Official trade by rail and waterways increased but remained lower than before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Activist networks in China and South Korea that help North Koreans flee their country and transit through China to a safe third country were able to resume activities, but they faced major obstacles due to increased security enforcement and mass surveillance in China. Many North Koreans in China remained hidden in safe houses. The Chinese government continued to seek to detain North Korean asylum seekers and return them to North Korea, violating China’s obligations as a state party to the UN Refugee Convention. Many North Koreans detained in China were forcibly returned to North Korea—80 in August, 40 in September, and at least 500 in October—where they almost certainly faced grave abuses for their attempted escape. North Korean law states that leaving the country without permission is a crime of "treachery against the nation," punishable by death.

In 2019, over 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers were resettled in South Korea, but this number declined to 67 in 2022 and only 139 between January and September 2023.

Right to Health

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. The government has constantly struggled with chronic food insecurity. Insufficient domestic food production and the government’s prioritization of military and security development made the ability of the North Korean people to get food, medicine, and other necessities almost totally reliant on both official and unofficial trade with China and private product distribution across the country and market activity.

The excessive and unnecessary Covid-19 related restrictions blocked most sources of income for a large majority of the population, reducing their ability to buy any already limited food and basic necessities available in the markets. They adversely impacted the ability of ordinary North Koreans to conduct basic economic activities, generally worsening their rights to food, health, and an adequate standard of living.

There were reports of a mass vaccination campaign and a second round of vaccinations for Covid-19 in North Pyongan province, Nampo port, and Pyongyang in September 2022. However, there are no official numbers of vaccinated people available.

Forced Labor

The North Korean government routinely and systematically requires forced, uncompensated labor from much of its population to sustain its economy. The government’s forced labor demands target women through the Women’s Union, children at schools, workers at state-owned enterprises or deployed abroad, detainees in short-term hard labor detention centers (rodong dallyeondae), and prisoners at long-term ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso) and political prison camps.

At some point in their lives, a significant majority of North Koreans must perform unpaid hard labor, often justified by the state as “portrayals of loyalty” to the government. Since punishment for crimes in North Korea is arbitrary and dependent on a person’s record of loyalty, personal connections, and ability to pay bribes, the refusal of a government order to work as a “volunteer” can result in severe punishment, including torture and imprisonment. North Korea remains one of only seven UN member states that has not joined the International Labour Organization.

At-Risk Groups under Songbun

North Korea uses songbun, a sociopolitical classification system that, in its creation, grouped people into “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes and discriminates against those placed in the lower classes in employment, housing, and education.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

In February 2023, Elizabeth Salmon, the UN special rapporteur on North Korea, raised concerns about the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 restrictions on women and girls, the declining economic participation of women, and the impact on livelihoods since women are the main breadwinners in most families. She also flagged possible increases in domestic violence and economic pressures linked to the pandemic. The government has failed to take any meaningful action to address the country’s intense and pervasive women’s rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, widespread discrimination, and enforcement of rigid gender stereotypes.

Key International Actors

The 2014 COI report recommended the UN Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court. In August 2023, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights restated this recommendation to the UN Security Council, noting its ongoing documentation of crimes and abuses, including crimes against humanity against people held in long-term prison camps (kyohwaso) and short-term detention facilities.

The UN Security Council held an Arria-formula meeting on human rights issues in March 2023 and a formal debate in August, its first discussions on human rights in North Korea since 2017. (The council regularly debates and passes resolutions to address North Korea’s weapons proliferation activities.) Due to opposition by China and Russia, the council remained unable to adopt any resolution addressing the situation. The council’s separate debates on weapons proliferation in March, May, and June featured minimal discussion of human rights issues.

The UN General Assembly was expected to pass a resolution on North Korea’s human rights record in December, as it has repeatedly done since 2007.

South Korea strengthened its commitment to promote human rights in North Korea. The United States government maintained human rights-related sanctions on the North Korean government and on Kim Jong Un and several other officials. In December 2022, the European Union extended human rights-related sanctions on two top government officials and the country’s public prosecutor’s office. The EU continued to lead on bringing resolutions on North Korea at the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council. Japan continued to demand the return of Japanese citizens whom North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some Japanese civil society groups allege the number of abductees is much higher than reported.