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North Korea Human Rights Essay Topic

North Korea is one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world. In his sixth year in power, Kim Jong-un—the third leader of the dynastic Kim family and head of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) who exercises almost total political control—intensified repressive measures; tightened domestic restrictions on travel and unauthorized cross-border travel with China; and punished North Koreans for contacting the outside world. The government continued to generate fearful obedience from citizens by means of threatened and actual execution, detention, and forced labor under harsh, sometimes fatal, conditions.

During 2017, North Korea fired 23 missiles during 16 tests and conducted its sixth nuclear test, sending tensions between the US and its allies and North Korea to their highest level in decades. Personal insults and threats traded between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in September and October further worsened the situation.

On human rights, the international community continued to press for action on the findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) that found the government committed crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and forced abortion.

On December 9, 2016, for the third consecutive year, the UN Security Council put North Korea’s egregious human rights violations record on its formal agenda as a threat to international peace and security. On March 24, the Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution that authorizes the hiring of “experts in legal accountability” to assess cases and develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for crimes against humanity.

The North Korean government restricts all basic civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly and association. It prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media and civil society, and free trade unions. Lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, forced labor, and executions maintain fear and control.

North Korea discriminates against individuals and their families on political grounds in key areas such as employment, residence, and schooling by applying songbun, a socio-political classification system grouping people into “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes. Pervasive corruption enables some room to maneuver around the strictures of the songbun system, and some people who bribe government officials can receive permission, pursue market activities, or travel domestically or abroad.

Vulnerable Groups

North Korea refuses to cooperate with either the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Seoul office or the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana. However, in 2017, the DPRK engaged with two UN human rights treaty bodies and invited a UN thematic special rapporteur to visit for the first time ever.

On December 6, 2016, the North Korean government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). From May 3 to 8, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, met with government officials, visited schools and rehabilitation centers, and spoke with some people with disabilities. Although her schedule was tightly controlled and authorities did not grant her request to visit a mental health facility, Devandas-Aguilar acknowledged the DPRK’s commitment to advance the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities.

Following a long delay in submitting overdue reports required under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), North Korea submitted reports on both conventions in 2016. North Korean officials had their record on children’s rights examined by the CRC committee on September 20, 2017, and appeared before the CEDAW committee on November 8, 2017.

The CEDAW committee expressed concerns about a broad range of violations affecting women, including discrimination; stereotyping; non-criminalization of marital rape; sexual harassment and violence, including in the workplace; trafficking; lack of political participation; and lack of an independent human rights institution, civil society organizations, or other means to enable independent monitoring and promotion of the rights of women.

Despite such engagement, North Korea often refuses to acknowledge its own rights violations or accept committee recommendations. When the CRC committee raised concerns about the North Korean government requiring unpaid labor from children, subjecting children to physical punishment and violence, and discrimination against children on political grounds, DPRK officials denied these allegations. The government did acknowledge the possibility that schools or individual teachers may have forced children to work, but offered no further details.

Women’s Rights

Women in North Korea face a range of sexual or gender-based abuses, as well as violations of other rights in common with the rest of the population. These include punishment for acts of their husband or other relatives, torture, rape and other sexual abuses in detention facilities, sexual exploitation, or forced marriages of North Korean women in China, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination.

Gender-based discrimination starts from childhood, with girls constantly exposed to and compelled to comply with stereotyped gender roles. It is harder for women than it is for men to be admitted to university and to join the military and the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, which serves as the gateway to any position of power. State authorities are sometimes perpetrators of abuses against women, and fail to offer protection or justice to women and girls facing gender-based or sexual abuse.


Kim Jong-un’s government bolstered efforts to prevent people from leaving North Korea without permission by increasing the number of border guards, CCTV cameras, and barbed wire fences on its border with China. Tactics included jamming Chinese cellphone services at the border and targeting those communicating with people outside the country. China also increased checkpoints on roads leading from the border.

During the summer of 2017, Chinese authorities also apparently intensified crackdowns on both North Koreans fleeing through China and the networks guiding them, resulting in fewer North Koreans being able to complete the arduous overland journey to Laos or Thailand, and from there, most often, to South Korea.

The Ministry of People’s Security classifies defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Harsh punishments apply to North Koreans forcibly returned by China, including potentially a death sentence. Former North Korean security officials told Human Rights Watch that those forcibly returned face interrogation, torture, sexual violence, humiliating treatment, and forced labor.

The severity of punishment depends on North Korean authorities’ assessments of what returnees did while in China. North Koreans caught working or living in China are sent to different types of forced labor camps, long-term (kyohwaso) or short-term prisons (rodong danryeondae). Those discovered trying to reach South Korea are treated as enemies of the country, and may disappear into North Korea’s horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), where prisoners face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment.

North Koreans fleeing into China should be considered refugees sur place regardless of their reason for flight because of the certainty of punishment on return. China treats them as illegal “economic migrants” and fails to meet its obligation to protect refugees as a state party of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Beijing regularly denies the staff of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, permission to travel to border areas where North Koreans are present.

Key International Actors

On May 9, South Korea elected Moon Jae-In, a former student activist and human rights lawyer, as South Korea’s new president, following a bitter race prompted by President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment and removal from office. President Moon proposed dialogue with the North Korean leadership, resumption of humanitarian reunions of families separated between the north and south since the Korean War (1950-1953), and offered to share with the DPRK the privilege of hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics. The DPRK rejected these offers.

In a policy shift from Park’s administration, the Moon administration allowed humanitarian and development groups to engage in projects with North Korea.

To date, the Moon administration has not announced its policy on various North Korean human rights issues. These include the creation of a foundation based on the North Korean human rights law that went into effect in September 2016; assistance for North Korean escapees detained in China; and the seven South Korean nationals currently detained in the DPRK. On September 21, South Korea approved a US$8 million aid package for North Korean children and women at risk that will be distributed at an “appropriate time” and monitored by UNICEF and the UN World Food Program (WFP).

North Korea’s relations with Malaysia and other Southeast Asian states suffered serious damage when Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was assassinated on February 13 in a public area of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in a plot many believe North Korea planned.

Japan continues to demand the return of 12 Japanese citizens whom North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some Japanese civil society groups insist the number of abductees is much higher.

In January and October 2017, the US government imposed targeted sanctions for human rights abuses on five institutions, including the Military Security Command (the military’s secret police), the Ministry of Labor, and 14 North Koreans, including Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-un's younger sister and vice director of the Workers’ Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

North Korea remains one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world, ruled for seven decades by the Kim family and the Worker’s Party of Korea. During his fifth year in power, Kim Jong-Un continued to generate fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor; tightening travel restrictions to prevent North Koreans from escaping and seeking refuge overseas; and systematically persecuting those with religious contacts inside and outside the country.

A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea stated that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, and constituted crimes against humanity.

On December 10, 2015, the UN Security Council discussed North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a formal agenda item for the second year in a row, following the COI’s recommendations.

On March 23, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning human rights abuses in North Korea. It authorized the creation of a group of independent experts tasked with finding practical ways to hold rights violators in North Korea accountable and recommending practical accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court, to secure truth and justice for victims. Lawyers Sonja Biserko and Sara Hossain joined the panel, supporting Tomas Ojea Quintana, the new special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.

North Korea has ratified four key international human rights treaties and its constitution includes rights protections. In reality, the government curtails all basic human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and freedom to practice religion. It prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media, free trade unions, and independent civil society organizations. Arbitrary arrest, torture in custody, forced labor, and public executions maintain an environment of fear and control.

North Korea discriminates against individuals and their families on political grounds in key areas such as employment, residence, and schooling through “songbun,” the country’s socio-political classification system that from its creation grouped people into “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes. This classification has been restructured several times, but continues to enable the government to privilege or disadvantage people based largely on family background, personal performance, and perceived political loyalty.

However, pervasive corruption enables some room to maneuver around the strictures of the songbun system, even while it burdens people as government officials regularly demand and receive bribes from those seeking permissions, pursuing market activities, or wishing to travel inside or outside the country.

Tighter Border

In 2016, Kim Jong-Un’s government increased efforts to stop North Koreans from crossing into China without permission. Some tactics included building barbed-wire fences on the northern border; persecuting those caught in North Korea using Chinese cellphones to communicate with people in China or South Korea; and increasing efforts to block Chinese cell phone services near the border.

Both North Korea and China have increased patrols and established barriers to crossing the border. The Chinese and North Korean governments have also targeted and broken up broker networks in China, meaning fewer people are willing to guide North Koreans on the arduous journey to escape through China.

China is a state party to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol, but it considers all North Koreans in China to be “illegal aliens” and routinely repatriates them without consideration of their claim to asylum. Human Rights Watch believes all North Koreans fleeing into China should be considered refugees, whatever their motivation for flight, because of the certain prospect of severe punishment if they are returned.

Fleeing North Korean women are frequently forced into marriages with Chinese men, or into the sex trade. Even if they have lived in China for years, they face possible arrest and repatriation at any time. Many children from these unrecognized marriages lack legal identity or access to education or health services in China.

Former security officials who left North Korea told Human Rights Watch that North Koreans handed back by China face interrogation, torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor. North Koreans in exile with contacts inside the country told Human Rights Watch that people caught trying to reach South Korea are treated as enemies of the state, and sent to political prison camps.

Freedom of Expression and Access to Information

All domestic media and publications are strictly state-controlled, and foreign media allowed inside the country are tightly controlled as well. Internet and international phone calls are heavily monitored.

Unauthorized access to non-state radio, newspapers, or TV broadcasts is severely punished. North Koreans face punishment if they are found with mobile media, such as Chinese mobile phones, SD cards or USBs containing unauthorized videos of foreign news, films, or TV dramas.

Inhumane Treatment in Detention

The government practices collective punishment for alleged anti-state offenses, effectively enslaving hundreds of thousands of citizens, including children, in prison camps and other detention facilities. Detainees face deplorable conditions, sexual coercion and abuse, beatings and torture by guards, and forced labor in dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.

Those accused of serious political offenses are usually sent to political prison camps, known as kwanliso, operated by North Korea’s National Security Agency. These camps are characterized by systematic abuses, including meager rations that imperil health and can lead to starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment including sexual assault and torture by guards, and public executions. Political prisoners face backbreaking forced labor, including in logging, mining, and agricultural.

UN officials estimate that between 80,000 and 120,000 people are imprisoned in political prison camps. 

Those whom authorities suspect of illicitly trading goods from and into China, transporting people to China, and minor political infractions, such as watching or selling South Korean films, may receive lengthy terms in detention facilities known as kyohwaso (correctional, reeducation centers). Detainees there face forced labor, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards.

People suspected of involvement in unauthorized trading schemes involving non-controversial goods, shirking work at state-owned enterprises for more than six months, or those unable to pay bribes to officials for various reasons are sent to work in short-term forced labor detention facilities (rodong danryeondae, literally labor training centers). Beatings are common in these facilities, and dangerous working conditions purportedly result in significant numbers of injuries.

Forced Labor

The government systematically uses forced labor from ordinary citizens to control its people and sustain its economy. A significant majority of North Koreans must perform unpaid labor at some point in their lives.

Former North Korean students who left the country told Human Rights Watch that their schools forced them to work for free on farms twice a year, for one month at a time, during ploughing and seeding time, and again at harvest time. A former school teacher who escaped North Korea in 2014 said his school forced its students (aged between 10 and 16) to work every day to generate funds to pay government officials, maintain the school, and make a profit.

Ordinary North Korean workers, both men and unmarried women, are required to work at government-assigned enterprises. Although they are theoretically entitled to a salary, they usually are not compensated. All North Korean families also have to send one family member for at least two hours per day, six days a week, to support local government construction or public beautification projects, like building structures, fixing roads, collecting raw materials like crushed stone, or cleaning public areas.

The government launched a 70-day “battle” to prepare for North Korea’s most important political event in 36 years, the 7th Korean Workers Party Congress, which took place between May 6 to 10. The government forced people across the country to produce more goods and crops in order to cover the costs of the congress. Posters, billboards, and media broadcasts demanded that North Koreans complete their “battle plans,” and counted down the days until the congress opened.

Labor Rights

North Korea is one of the few nations in the world that has not joined the International Labour Organization. Workers are systematically denied freedom of association and the right to organize and collectively bargain.

Since Kim Jong-Un’s rise to power, the government has sent more workers overseas to earn foreign currency salaries, most of which the government seizes. Although the country does not release official data, some observers estimate that more than 100,000 North Koreans worked overseas in 2015.

The treatment of North Korean workers overseas falls short of international labor standards, with no right to freedom of association or expression, control by minders who limit freedom of movement and access to information from the outside world, long working hours and no right to refuse overtime.

Key International Actors

Japan continues to demand the return of 12 Japanese citizens whom North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some Japanese civil society groups insist the number of abductees is much higher.

South Korea has also stepped up its demands for the return of its citizens, hundreds of whom were reportedly abducted during the decades after the Korean War. The North Korean government has also kidnapped individuals from China, Thailand, Europe, and the Middle East.

On February 10, the South Korean government closed down the Kaesung Industrial Complex (KIC), a special joint venture industrial zone at the southern border of North Korea. In March, South Korea passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, to improve human rights and provide humanitarian aid for current and former North Korean citizens.

In July 2016, US President Barack Obama imposed targeted sanctions for human rights abuses on five institutions and ten North Koreans, including Kim Jong-Un. The list included individuals responsible for hunting down North Korean escapees, and running labor and political prison camps.