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Human Rights in Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Amnesty International Report 2009

Head of state: Kim Jong-il
Head of government: Kim Yong-il
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 23.9 million
Life expectancy: 66.8 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 62/62 per 1,000

Millions of people faced the worst food shortages since the late 1990s. Thousands continued to cross the border into China, mainly for food and economic reasons. Those arrested and forcibly repatriated were subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment in prison camps. Other widespread violations of human rights persisted, including politically motivated and arbitrary use of detention and executions, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and movement. Independent human rights monitors continued to be denied access to the country.


In June, North Korea submitted a list of its nuclear assets to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, as part of the process to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. In October, the US government removed North Korea from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism after it agreed to provide full access to its nuclear facilities.

In November, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing very serious concern about human rights violations in North Korea.

Right to food

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), millions of people experienced hunger on a scale not seen in a decade with women, children and the elderly being the most vulnerable. Food production dropped sharply and food imports declined. Long- distance telephone calls were reportedly blocked to prevent news of food shortages from spreading.

In June, a WFP and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) survey covering 53 counties in eight provinces indicated that almost three quarters of North Korean households had reduced their food intake. The majority of families stopped eating protein-rich foods and were living on cereals and vegetables. Many people were forced to scavenge for wild foods which are poor in nutrition and cause digestive problems. According to the WFP and FAO, one of the leading causes of malnutrition among children under the age of five was diarrhoea caused by increased consumption of wild foods.

Despite the food shortage reaching critical levels, the government failed to ensure minimum essential levels of food. Due to strained relations, North Korea did not request assistance from South Korea, one of the biggest donors of rice and fertilizer in previous years.

Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers

Thousands of people crossed into China, mainly in search of food and economic opportunities but also because of political oppression. Some stayed on a short-term basis gathering food and other essential supplies before returning home. Others, mostly women, stayed for the long-term and often married Chinese farmers. Some brokers took advantage of their vulnerability by trafficking them into forced marriages. The majority of North Koreans in China lived in fear of arrest and forcible return. Virtually all those forcibly returned to North Korea faced up to three years in a prison camp where they were subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment.

Hundreds of North Koreans travelled through China to Thailand where they were able to seek settlement in a third country. The majority went on to South Korea where they were granted citizenship but significant numbers faced difficulty in adapting to life in South Korea and some reportedly suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. A growing number migrated to other countries, mainly in Europe.

Prison conditions

Prisoners in camps and detention centres were forced to undertake physically demanding work which included mountain logging and stone quarrying, often for 10 hours or more per day, with no rest days. Guards beat prisoners suspected of lying, not working fast enough or for forgetting the words to patriotic songs. Forms of punishment included forced exercise, sitting without moving for prolonged periods of time and humiliating public criticism.

Prisoners fell ill or died in custody, or soon after release, due to the combination of forced hard labour, inadequate food, beatings, lack of medical care and unhygienic living conditions.

Death penalty

The government continued to execute people by hanging or firing squad. There were reports that the authorities executed individuals to deter political and economic crimes. In February, North Korean authorities executed 15 people in public for illegally crossing the border with China, reportedly as a warning to others.

In December, North Korea voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

Enforced disappearances

North Korea's widespread policy of enforced disappearance practised since the Korean War (1950-53) continued. North Korean family members of suspected dissidents disappeared under the principle of "guilt by association".

The authorities continued to refuse to acknowledge the use of enforced disappearances. However in August, North Korean officials agreed to re-open investigations into the fate and whereabouts of several Japanese nationals who had been disappeared since the 1970s.

Freedom of expression

The government rigidly controlled the media and severely restricted religious practice. There were reports that local authorities arrested individuals who watched South Korean videos or were in possession of unauthorized mobile phones.

International scrutiny

The government continued to deny access to independent human rights monitors. In December, the UN General Assembly expressed serious concern at the refusal of North Korea to recognize the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea.

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