North Korea

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North Korea 2023

Freedom of expression, already severely restricted, was further curtailed by a new law that carried severe punishments for using or disseminating “South Korean-style” language. Forced labour, including by children, continued to be reported. Government policies contributed to ongoing food insecurity and healthcare provision was inadequate. Arbitrary detention of government critics in appalling conditions persisted and there was concern about the fate of North Koreans forcibly returned from China.


North Korea’s borders, closed since January 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, partially reopened with the resumption of passenger train services, buses and flights to and from China in August. However, the authorities reportedly further fortified the border and authorized border guards to use lethal force against anyone attempting to cross it.

The movement of cargo between North Korea and Russia was observed, including of military equipment and ammunition which was sent to Russia ahead of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the Russian president in September. There were also reports of possible Russian shipments of military supplies to North Korea. A constitutional amendment was adopted which enshrined North Korea’s policy on nuclear force to ensure its “right to existence” and “deter war”.

Freedom of expression

The government continued to enforce draconian laws that prevented any form of freedom of expression. It monitored and controlled communication channels and information flows both in and out of the country.1

Harsh penalties were imposed on individuals accused of engaging in “reactionary ideology and culture”. Those caught viewing, reading or listening to content deemed to be “reactionary”, including films, books and songs, faced several years in prison, while those involved in distribution risked life imprisonment or the death penalty.

On 18 January, the government adopted a new law to “eliminate” “South Korean-style” speech (referred to as “puppet language”). The Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Law imposes severe punishments for using or disseminating “South Korean-style” language. Under article 58 of the law, “any person found to be speaking, writing, sending messages, or exchanging emails in the puppet language or creating printed materials, video recordings, compilations, pictures, photographs, or scrolls using the puppet language’s writing style” is liable to a minimum of six years’ reform through labour. If the crime is considered severe, the sentence is increased to a life term of reform through labour or the death penalty.

Parents are also liable to punishment under the law by being publicly shamed if their children are found accessing South Korean content or imitating “South Korean-style” speech. The law requires relevant authorities to make use of public arrests, trials and public executions to “break the spirit” of those “polluted” by South Korean language and culture.

There were reports of the arrest of two teenage boys in March for watching South Korean films, and concerns that they may face execution.

Forced labour

Reports of the widespread use of forced labour continued. According to the UN human rights office, OHCHR, state institutions continued to rely on the forced mobilization of men and women to maintain operations in construction, mining, agriculture and other key sectors of the economy. Forced labourers worked with minimal compensation.

There were also continued reports of the use of forced child labour including on construction sites and in mines. According to the UN, forced mobilizations of children for labour took place at schools and in youth organizations such as the Youth League, in which membership is mandatory.

Workers were also sent to foreign countries such as China and Russia to generate revenue for the state. Former overseas workers interviewed by the UN described conditions that amounted to forced labour, including tight restrictions on freedom of movement and low pay, with most of their wages taken by the North Korean state. They also reported being subjected to extensive surveillance, being required to undertake physically demanding and sometimes dangerous work, a lack of health and safety measures and long working hours without breaks or days off.

Right to food

South Korea-based research institutions reported that crop production in North Korea increased in 2023. Nevertheless, food insecurity was a persistent problem. In March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that a significant proportion of the population suffered from inadequate food consumption and poor dietary diversity. The causes of food insecurity were rooted in government economic policies, regular crop failures and possibly also related to international sanctions. The situation was further exacerbated by the government’s privileging of military spending over ensuring that food and other basic needs of the population were met, and its reluctance to cooperate with the international community.2

Strict border controls made smuggling of food difficult with the result that food and other essential supplies were less available in unofficial markets, where a significant proportion of North Koreans shop.

Right to health

The right to health was severely compromised. The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic remained highly inadequate and healthcare treatment and essential medicines were often unavailable.

Childhood vaccines remained in short supply, although following the temporary resumption of railway freight operations between China and North Korea in late 2022, vaccines were delivered. UNICEF reported that over 350,000 children and 150,000 pregnant women received vaccinations in March in a “catch-up immunization campaign”. This followed the reported failure in 2022 to make available the third dose of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis-containing vaccine, necessary for full immunization against these diseases, due to country-wide lack of stock.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Although the constitution, penal code and other laws contain explicit prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, in practice the right to liberty and security of the person and the right to a fair trial were routinely violated. There was a pervasive fear of falling foul of the authorities and of being denounced by fellow citizens, and the government frequently used arbitrary arrest and detention as a means of suppressing opposition or perceived dissent.3

Political prison camps (kwanliso) were believed to remain in operation, although the authorities continued to deny their existence. Those detained in the camps included thousands of people who had expressed dissenting views or otherwise criticized the government. Prisoners in the camps were subjected to forced labour and inhumane conditions.

There were serious concerns about the fate of hundreds of people, mainly women, who the Chinese authorities reportedly forcibly returned to North Korea in October. North Korean authorities regard anyone who escapes the country as “criminals” or “traitors” for “illegally” crossing the border. In the past, returnees have been arbitrarily detained and subjected to torture and other ill-treatment (see China entry).

  1. “North Korea: Deteriorating human rights situation calls for international attention”, 7 February
  2. “North Korea: UN Security Council meeting must refocus attention on neglected human rights situation”, 17 March
  3. North Korea, 60+ Voices – Reflecting on Everyday Lives in North Korea, revised edition, 11 October