Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - North Korea


The authorities continued to impose severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to information. Widespread and systematic controls over the daily lives of people and frequent pressing of the public into labour mobilizations severely affected the enjoyment of human rights. Foreign media reported several public executions. People in detention experienced torture and other ill-treatment and harsh conditions. The government continued to expand engagement with the international community including participating in the third UN Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record.[1] However, authorities have still not allowed the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to visit.[2]


In his New Year's address, Kim Jong-un reiterated the importance of “self-reliance” and socialism but also discussed de-nuclearization and the peace process. Nuclear negotiations continued, including summits with China, the USA and South Korea, but little progress was made. Human rights received scant attention during the negotiations.[3] From May to December, tensions rose as North Korea fired over 20 missiles in at least 13 different tests.

Economic sanctions by the UN and individual states remained in place. According to foreign media, they negatively impacted the nation’s economy and the standard of living for large numbers of people. North Korean workers returned from abroad as a result of sanctions. The economy experienced negative growth. In July, authorities rejected 50,000 tons of rice offered by South Korea despite the significant decline in agricultural productivity and the livestock industry.

Death penalty

Foreign media reported public executions, including for the alleged offences of sexual assault, drug crimes and “superstitious behaviour”. The authorities had previously halted most public executions starting in 2012, to improve its image and in response to continued calls to improve its human rights record. During the Universal Periodic Review in May, a North Korean official explained that public executions only take place when the victim’s family and other people concerned make a request to be present.

Arbitrary arrests and detention

The government continued to operate, and to deny the existence of, four known political prison camps. Up to 120,000 detainees in the camps were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, forced labour, and harsh conditions including inadequate food. Many of them had not been convicted of any internationally recognizable criminal offence and were arbitrarily detained without fair trial just for exercising their rights, such as the freedom to leave their own country. They had no access to lawyers and family. Others faced forced seclusion in remote mountainous areas solely for being related to prisoners deemed a threat to the state or for “guilt-by-association”.

The authorities detained Australian student Alek Sigley for one week before deporting him, allegedly for committing “anti-DPRK incitement”. In 2018, the government released three US citizens as nuclear negotiations began. However, six South Koreans remained in custody – three missionaries and three naturalized citizens originally from North Korea.

Enforced disappearances

The government failed to provide accurate information regarding the fate of prisoners from the Korean War. They also did not provide information about victims of abductions, including individuals from South Korea, Japan and other countries. The fate of Hwang Won, who was not allowed to return to South Korea, his home country, after arriving involuntarily in North Korea on a hijacked plane in 1969, remained unknown.[4]

Freedom of movement

The authorities continued to severely restrict freedom of movement. It remained illegal to leave the country without prior approval. People told Amnesty International that even when moving to another province they were required to pay bribes to government officials, including policemen. Foreign media reported that in January the government issued new identification cards to closely monitor people’s movements. Individuals no longer present at their registered domicile and therefore without new identification cards were treated as having left the country illegally. People living near borders, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and major military facilities remained under close surveillance.

During the first nine months of 2019, the South Korean Ministry of Unification reported the arrival of 771 North Koreans, including two fishermen accused of having committed murder and who were returned by the South Korean government to North Korean in November. Many others lived in China without documentation and were at risk of being forcibly returned to North Korea. The authorities tightened controls at border crossing points between North Korea and China. The military had put in place physical obstacles, such as barbed-wire fences, and increased monitoring of people in these areas.

Foreign media reported that police in China also stepped up their searches for people who had left North Korea without approval, checking identification documents and inspecting mobile phones. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent four urgent appeals to China detailing concerns about the detention of 23 North Koreans at risk of being forcibly returned.

Women and girls leaving North Korea remained at risk of trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation in China, including forced marriage with Chinese men.

Freedom of expression

The authorities strictly controlled people’s information exchanges with the rest of the world. All communications were under the total control of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Apart from a select few in the ruling elite, the general population had no access to the internet nor to international mobile phone services.

Possession and distribution of foreign publications, videos and other media materials were serious crimes and were publishable by “reform through labour”. South Korean media materials were particularly targeted, and offenders were at risk of detention in political prison camps or of being sentenced to death.

The authorities continued its heavy surveillance of imported mobile phones and employed jamming technology to control all external communications. Many North Koreans who lived close to the Chinese border accessed smuggled mobile phones from China that were connected to Chinese mobile networks to remain in touch with their family members in South Korea and other countries.

Right to food

In May, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that due to the worst harvest in 10 years, 10.1 million people, approximately 40% of the population, suffered from temporary but severe food shortages. People told Amnesty International that some reforms were introduced, but there were no fundamental changes in the agricultural production system. Only some people working for the Worker’s Party of Korea, the government, the military and Pyongyang residents benefitted from the public distribution system. Vulnerable groups, including the elderly, people with disabilities and orphans were at particular risk of food insecurity.

[1] Amnesty International, “We will never stop.” The North Korean activists fighting for human rights back home, (Blog, 8 August 2019)

[2] Amnesty International, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Gestures are not enough – Amnesty International Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review 33rd Session of the UPR Working Group, May 2019 (ASA 24/9712/2019)

[3] Amnesty International, Hanoi Summit Cannot Gloss Over Human Rights Atrocities in North Korea, (Press release, 25 February 2019)

[4] Amnesty International, South Korea: TV Producer held in North Korea for 50 years: Hwang Won, 29 January 2019, (ASA 25/9751/2019)