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Human Rights in Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Amnesty International Report 2008

Head of State: Kim Jong-il
Head of government: Kim Yong-il (replaced Pak Pong-ju in April)
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 22.7 million
Life expectancy: 66.8 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 56/49 per 1,000

Systemic violations of human rights continued, including capital punishment, torture and the political and arbitrary use of imprisonment. Dissent of any kind, including leaving the country without permission and unauthorized assembly or association, was severely punished and national and international media were strictly controlled. Access by independent human rights monitors continued to be denied.


In February, the government pledged to shut down and disable the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for economic aid and political concessions.

Severe floods in August affected over 960,000 people, displaced tens of thousands, and at least 450 people were reportedly missing, presumed dead. A food shortfall, already 20 per cent before the floods, was exacerbated by outbreaks of blight and insect infestation. The government relied on international aid, officially asking the World Food Programme to provide immediate food assistance for three months in some counties.

In October, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and the countries' Prime Ministers met in November.

In December, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution expressing very serious concerns about systematic, widespread violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in North Korea.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Hundreds of North Koreans were forcibly repatriated from China every month, with approximately 50,000 reportedly still hiding in China, living in constant fear of deportation.

Hundreds of North Koreans continued to be detained in Thailand for several months before being allowed into South Korea where at least 10,000 were granted citizenship. North Koreans faced difficulty in adapting to life in South Korea; over a third were unemployed and many were reported to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Enforced disappearances

Hundreds of North Koreans forcibly returned from China were unaccounted for. The families of several people who left the country without permission disappeared. They were believed to be victims of enforced disappearance, a form of collective punishment for those associated with someone deemed hostile to the regime ("guilt-by-association"). The North Korean authorities have also abducted nationals of other countries, including South Korea and Japan. The government failed to acknowledge any enforced disappearances.

Denial of access

Despite repeated requests, the government continued to deny access to independent human rights monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in DPRK and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. In December, the UN General Assembly expressed serious concern at the refusal of the DPRK to recognize the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights.

UN relief agencies were granted increased access after the August floods. WFP was upholding the long-standing principle of "no access-no food".

Freedom of expression

Opposition of any kind was not tolerated. In April, the Korean Workers' Party reportedly denounced foreign media as aiming to destabilize the regime and ordered the security forces to stop all video cassettes, written material, mobile phones and CDs from entering the country.

The domestic news media continued to be strictly censored and access to international media broadcasts remained severely restricted.

Any unauthorized assembly or association was regarded as a "collective disturbance", liable to punishment. Religious freedom, although guaranteed by the Constitution, was in practice sharply curtailed. People involved in public and private religious activities faced imprisonment, torture and execution.

Death penalty

Executions were by hanging or firing-squad. There were reports of executions of political opponents in political prisons and of people charged with economic crimes.
* In August it was reported that the president of the export company of the Soonchun Vinalon 1 synthetic fibre factory in South Pyongan Province had been publicly executed. He was charged with selling factory equipment to buy food for starving workers. Subsequently he was also charged with hiding his membership of a grassroots anti-communist civil militia, the Chi-an-dae during the Korean War (1950-3).

Prison conditions

Prisoners, particularly political prisoners, reportedly suffered appalling conditions, in a wide range of detention centres and prisons.

North Koreans forcibly returned from China faced torture or ill-treatment and up to three years' imprisonment. Their punishments depended on their age, gender and experiences. Women and children were generally sentenced to two weeks in a detention centre, although longer sentences of several months in labour camps were also common. People who confessed to meeting South Koreans or missionaries were punished particularly harshly. Summary executions and long sentences of hard labour were enforced. The authorities often released prisoners close to death, who died shortly after release.

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