North Korea

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NORTH KOREA 2021

Freedom of movement, both internationally and domestically, was almost completely curtailed by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Widespread shortages of medicine and food negatively affected the right to health. Other fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, remained severely limited. The government increased its participation in international forums by sending representatives to global events, particularly those concerning economic, social and cultural rights.

Background

North Korea remained effectively cut off from the rest of the world after ever more draconian restrictions were imposed, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The country did not participate in the Olympic Games in Japan due to the pandemic.

Despite ongoing strict economic sanctions and UN prohibitions, North Korea continued to test missiles, firing a long-range cruise missile in September and submarine-launched ballistic missiles in October. Relations with South Korea remained tense.

Serious flooding in South Hamgyong province in August and unusually high temperatures in July compounded an already precarious food security situation. Malnutrition remained a concern.

Freedom of movement

North Korea remained effectively sealed off from the outside world throughout 2021, the second consecutive year in which the government closed borders to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The train service between North Korea and China was suspended both for passengers and freight.

Security on North Korea’s long land border with China remained tight. An order allowing security forces to “unconditionally” shoot anyone attempting to cross the border without authorization remained in effect.

By the end of the year, at least 63 North Koreans (23 women, 40 men) had defected to South Korea, the lowest number since 2003 when official records were first made public.

Domestic travel became increasingly difficult due to Covid-19; in addition to pre-existing restrictions, special permits were required for travelling between provinces.

Right to health

Regular statistics provided by the government to the WHO indicated that there were no Covid-19 infections and no deaths during the year. However, this was contradicted by unofficial sources who reported high numbers of infections and deaths, and cremations taking place before the cause of death could be determined. The true situation remained unclear.

The COVAX initiative made repeated offers to provide vaccine assistance. An initial offer in March of 2 million doses was turned down, apparently for fear of possible side effects. The North Korean leadership also suggested that other countries had a greater need. In November, a further offer of more than 4 million doses was made. According to the WHO, as of November North Korea was one of only two countries globally with no vaccination programme in operation.

Restrictions imposed by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19 led to families being quarantined at home for several weeks with no support from the authorities to ensure adequate food supply.1

Medicines became more scarce than usual due to border closures and sanctions. The WHO and UNICEF were permitted to ship some medicines into North Korea.

The national healthcare system remained fragile and unable to meet people’s medical needs.2 Despite government warnings of punishment, there were reports of people using illicit drugs such as methamphetamine and opium to deal with chronic pain.3

Rights to food, water and sanitation

Food insecurity remained a serious problem, exacerbated by closed borders and extreme weather events.4 In June, leader Kim Jong-un acknowledged difficulties meeting grain production targets.

After border closures and the cutting of all train links with China, food imports reportedly disappeared, both through government-controlled trading and the unofficial “grey” market. Prices for staples such as rice, corn and oil tripled in some areas.

According to UNICEF’s 2021 child nutrition report, almost one in five North Korean children suffered from moderate to severe growth stunting. While this was an improvement on previous years, concerns remained that food insecurity would reverse this trend.

Repression of dissent

Freedom of expression, including open criticism of the authorities or leadership, was non-existent.5 In October, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea reported on a “widespread awareness that anyone believed to be a political threat to the current political system and the leadership… continues to be sent to Kwanliso [political prison camps].”

Severe punishments, including years of “reform through labour”, were imposed on those who broke the Reactionary Thought and Culture Denunciation Law, issued in December 2020. The law criminalized those who “encountered illegal foreign culture”, including South Korean dramas, films and songs. Unconfirmed reports indicated that several people were executed after viewing and distributing films and other culture from abroad, and that death sentences continued to be imposed and executions carried out widely.

Mobile phone subscribers increased to 6 million (out of a population of about 25 million). Surveillance also increased, particularly in border areas, to identify those accessing international mobile phone services including China’s communication networks to make international calls, including to South Korea. Internet access remained restricted to a very small ruling elite.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Despite several reports that human rights violations had partially reduced in some detention facilities, treatment of detainees still appeared to be harsh.6

Beatings and other torture or ill-treatment during investigations continued to be reported in detention facilities under the Ministry of State Security. Conditions in detention facilities under the Ministry of Social Security remained poor, with reports of forced labour, inadequate food and medical care, and verbal abuse.

Kwanliso

Four Kwanliso were known to remain in operation although their existence was denied by the authorities. Up to 120,000 detainees were believed to be held and subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Workers’ rights

Wages in state-run factories remained very low. Some workers in state-run factories and other enterprises, where the pay is significantly lower than the cost of living, resorted to bribing officials in an effort to exchange their designated working hours for better paid work elsewhere, including in the grey economy.7

Right to free choice of employment

The “Songbun” system of “ascribed status” remained in place, dictating educational, political and professional mobility for all North Koreans. Children of farmers were often obliged to take over their parents’ jobs. Some parents reportedly resorted to bribery or powerful contacts to give their children the opportunity to change careers.

Child/forced labour

State media claimed that orphans “volunteered” en masse to take jobs in unpopular and dangerous manual labour professions, including mining.

International engagement

North Korea participated in several international forums related to economic, social and cultural rights. In July, it participated in the UN High-level Political Forum and presented a Voluntary National Review for the first time, effectively agreeing to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. In November, North Korea participated in the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.


  1. “Isolation and human rights violations in North Korea’s response to infectious diseases”, (Korean only), 31 May
  2. “Recent health care in North Korea”, (Korean only), 30 September
  3. Drugs have become a part of everyday life in North Korea” (Korean only), 31 October
  4. North Korea’s food shortage and the right to food”, (Korean only), 30 July
  5. “Silent society – Suppressed freedom of political expression in North Korea”, (Korean only), 31 December
  6. “Blind spots for human rights, detention facilities in North Korea”, (Korean only), 30 June
  7. Poor labour rights in North Korea”, (Korean only), 10 February