Human Rights Violations in North Korea

South Koreans protest the North Korean regime

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images News / Getty Images

After World War II, Japanese-occupied Korea was divided in two: North Korea, a newly communist government under the supervision of the Soviet Union, and South Korea, under the supervision of the United States. The North Korean Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was granted independence in 1948 ​and is now one of the few remaining communist nations. The population of North Korea is approximately 25 million, with an estimated annual per capita income of about $1,800.

The State of Human Rights in North Korea

North Korea is in all likelihood the most oppressive regime on Earth. Although human rights monitors are generally banned from the country, as are radio communications between citizens and outsiders, some journalists and human rights monitors have been successful in uncovering details about the secretive government's policies. The government is essentially a dynastic dictatorship, first operated by Kim Il-sung, then by his son Kim Jong-il, and now by his grandson Kim Jong-un.

The Cult of the Supreme Leader

Although North Korea is generally described as a communist government, it could also be characterized as a theocracy. The North Korean government operates 450,000 "Revolutionary Research Centers" for weekly indoctrination sessions, where attendees are taught that Kim Jong-il was a deity figure whose story began with a miraculous birth atop a legendary Korean mountain (Jong-il was actually born in the former Soviet Union). Kim Jong-un, now known (as his father and grandfather once were) as "Dear Leader," is similarly described in these Revolutionary Research Centers as a supreme moral entity with supernatural powers.

The North Korean government divides its citizens into three castes based on their perceived loyalty to Dear Leader: "core" (haeksim kyechung), "wavering" (tongyo kyechung), and "hostile" (joktae kyechung). Most of the wealth is concentrated among the "core," while the "hostile"—a category that includes all members of minority faiths, as well as descendants of perceived enemies of the state—are denied employment and subject to starvation.

Enforcing Patriotism

The North Korean government enforces loyalty and obedience through its Ministry of People's Security, which requires citizens to spy on each other, including family members. Anyone who is overheard saying anything perceived as critical to the government is subject to a reduced loyalty group rating, torture, execution, or imprisonment in one of North Korea's 10 brutal concentration camps.

All radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines, and church sermons are government-controlled and focus on praise of the Dear Leader. Anyone who makes contact with foreigners in any way or listens to foreign radio stations (some of which are accessible in North Korea) is in danger of any of the penalties described above. Traveling outside of North Korea is also forbidden and can carry a penalty of death.

A Military State

Despite its small population and dismal budget, the North Korean government is heavily militarized—claiming to have an army of 1.3 million soldiers (the fifth-largest in the world), and a thriving military research program that includes the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. North Korea also maintains rows of massive artillery batteries on its border with South Korea, designed to inflict heavy casualties on Seoul in the event of international conflict.

Mass Famine and Global Blackmail

During the 1990s, as many as 3.5 million North Koreans died of starvation. Sanctions are not imposed on North Korea primarily because they would block grain donations, resulting in the deaths of millions more, a possibility that does not appear to concern the Dear Leader. Malnutrition is almost universal except among the ruling class; the average North Korean 7-year-old is eight inches shorter than the average South Korean child of the same age.

No Rule of Law

The North Korean government maintains 10 concentration camps, with a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners contained therein. Conditions in the camps are terrible, and the annual casualty rate has been estimated as high as 25%. The North Korean government has no due process system, imprisoning, torturing, and executing prisoners at will. Public executions, in particular, are a common sight in North Korea.


By most accounts, the North Korean human rights situation cannot presently be solved by international action. The U.N. Human Rights Committee has condemned the North Korean human rights record on three different occasions in recent years, to no avail.

  • Strict sanctions are of limited usefulness because the North Korean government has already demonstrated that it is willing to allow millions of its citizens to starve.
  • Military action is not feasible, primarily because the artillery batteries maintained by the North Korean government along the demilitarized zone could literally result in millions of South Korean casualties. North Korean leaders have promised an "annihilating strike" in the event of a U.S. invasion.
  • North Korea maintains a stockpile of chemical weapons and may also possess biological weapons.
  • North Korea has augmented this threat with nuclear weapons development.
  • North Korean missiles delivering chemical, biological, or nuclear munitions can reach South Korea, can almost certainly reach Japan, and are presently being tested for potential launch against the U.S. west coast.
  • The North Korean government regularly breaks treaties, reducing the value of diplomacy as a human rights strategy.

The best hope for North Korean human rights progress is internal—and this is not a futile hope.

  • Many North Korean citizens have gained access to foreign media and foreign radio stations, giving them​ a reason to question national propaganda.
  • Some North Korean citizens are even distributing revolutionary literature with apparent impunity—as the government's loyalty enforcement system, fearsome though it is, is too bloated to function efficiently.
  • The death of Kim Jong-il in 2012 introduced a new generation of leadership under Kim Jung Un. In 2018, Kim declared the North's nuclear weapons development complete, announced economic development as a political priority, and increased diplomatic engagement. He met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.

Sources and Further Information

  • "North Korea." World Factbook. U.S. Central Intelligence Company, 2019.
  • Cha, Victor D. and David C. Kang. "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies." New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 
  • Cumings, Bruce. "North Korea: Another Country." New York: The New Press, 2003. 
  • Sigal, Leon V. "Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea." Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
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Head, Tom. "Human Rights Violations in North Korea." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Head, Tom. (2023, April 5). Human Rights Violations in North Korea. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Human Rights Violations in North Korea." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).