Freedom in the World 2008


After testing ballistic missiles and a nuclear device in 2006, North Korea was more cooperative with its neighbors in 2007. In February, the regime agreed to denuclearize in three phases, and in October it pledged to disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year in return for fuel aid and other concessions. However, the disablement was not completed on schedule and continued at a slow pace. The regime cited “technical reasons” for the delay. Also in October, North Korea hosted South Korea’s president for a three-day summit; the two sides agreed in principle to work toward a formal peace treaty and approved several joint development projects. The human rights problem was not seriously addressed at any of the year’s international meetings, and North Korea made no progress on its own. The December election of a conservative opposition candidate, Lee Myung-bak, to the South Korean presidency increased the likelihood of a greater emphasis on human rights in inter-Korean relations. Meanwhile, severe floods hit North Korea during the summer, raising expectations of additional food shortages in the country.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) was established in 1948 after three years of post–World War II Soviet occupation. The Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese resistance fighter, as the new country’s leader. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunify the peninsula under Communist rule. Drawing in the United States and then China, the ensuing three-year conflict killed at least 2.5 million people and ended with a ceasefire rather than a full peace treaty. Since then, the two Koreas have been on a continuous war footing, and the border remains one of the most heavily militarized places in the world.

Kim Il-sung solidified his control after the war, purging rivals, throwing thousands of political prisoners into labor camps, and fostering an extreme personality cult that promoted him as North Korea’s messianic, superhuman “Great Leader.” For over four decades, Kim Il-sung perfected his totalitarian state by reviving old social and political institutions as well as inventing modern ones. These included self-isolation, a hereditary class structure, extensive slave-labor, metaphysical Neo-Confucianism, emperor worship, and collective punishment for political dissent. Marxism was eventually replaced by the DPRK’s “Juche ideology” (translated as self-reliance), which combined extreme nationalism, xenophobia, and the use of state terror. After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, he was proclaimed “Eternal President,” but power passed to his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.

The end of the Cold War and its associated Soviet and Chinese subsidies led to the collapse of North Korea’s command economy. Although the severe floods of 1995 and 1996 compounded the problem, the famine of the 1990s, which killed at least a million people, was caused by decades of severe economic mismanagement. As many as 300,000 North Koreans fled to China in search of food, despite a legal ban on leaving the DPRK. In 1995, North Korea allowed the United Nations and private humanitarian aid organizations from Europe, North America, and South Korea to undertake one of the world’s largest famine-relief operations. Despite continuing food shortages over the next decade, the DPRK in 2005 instructed the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to either switch from humanitarian relief to development assistance or leave North Korea. The DPRK continues to force the international community to bear the burden of feeding its citizens while it devotes its resources to its military-first policy.

The economic breakdown prompted the emergence of black markets to deal with the extreme shortages. The degraded state turned a blind eye, allowing illicit trade to flourish. Meanwhile, the regime instituted halting economic reforms in 2002, which included easing price controls, raising wages, devaluing the currency, and giving factory managers more autonomy. More extensive changes, which could ultimately undermine the dictatorship’s grip on power, were rejected.

Kim Jong-il’s regime was kept afloat by Chinese and South Korean aid, as both neighbors feared that a state collapse could lead to massive refugee outflows, military disorder, the emergence of criminal gangs and regional warlords, and a loss of state control over nuclear weapons.

The DPRK had withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and it raised alarm in the region by testing ballistic missiles and a nuclear device in 2006. However, the country was more cooperative in 2007. In February, it reentered the Six-Party Talks with its neighbors and the United States, having boycotted the nuclear negotiations since September 2005. The resulting “February 13 Agreement” sought to denuclearize North Korea in three phases, with a reward for the DPRK at the completion of each phase. In one early concession that spring, the U.S. Treasury Department allowed Macao’s Banco Delta Asia to return $25 million in North Korean assets to the DPRK; the funds had been frozen because of North Korea’s currency-counterfeiting and other illicit activities. In October, North Korea announced that it would disable its nuclear facilities and disclose all of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. In return, it would receive one million tons of fuel oil or its equivalent in aid. At year’s end, however, the DPRK stalled the completion of the disabling and disclosure process, citing delays in the delivery of economic aid and other concessions by the other five countries. Also in October, Kim Jong-il hosted South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun for a three-day summit. The two Koreas concluded plans for a number of a joint development projects, and agreed in principle to work toward a formal peace treaty. Whether the agreements would be sustained by Lee Myung-bak, a conservative leader who was elected as South Korea’s new president in December, remained to be seen. Lee had been critical of North Korea’s lack of reciprocity. Separately, severe floods hit North Korea again in the summer of 2007, raising expectations of more acute food shortages.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

North Korea is not an electoral democracy. Kim Jong-il has led the DPRK since the 1994 death of his father, founding leader Kim Il-sung. He has many titles but rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the “highest office of state” since the office of president was permanently dedicated to Kim Il-sung in a 1998 constitutional revision. North Korea’s parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, is a rubber-stamp institution elected to five-year terms; the latest elections were held in August 2003. The body meets irregularly for only a few days each year. It last elected Kim Jong-il as National Defense Commission chairman in September 2003. All candidates for office, who run unopposed, are preselected by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party and two subordinate minor parties.

North Korea was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, though corruption is believed to be endemic at every level of the state and economy.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, but in practice these rights are nonexistent. All media outlets are run by the state. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels, and all publications are subject to strict supervision and censorship. Internet access is restricted to a few thousand people with state approval, and foreign websites are blocked. Still, the emergence of black markets has provided alternative information sources. Some entrepreneurs carry cellular telephones, and a significant portion of North Koreans have access to pirated videotapes and DVDs from China.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it does not exist in practice. State-sanctioned churches maintain a token presence in Pyongyang, and some North Koreans living near the Chinese border are known to practice their faiths furtively. However, intense state indoctrination and repression preclude free exercise of religion as well as academic freedom. Nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informers. Freedom of assembly is not recognized, and there are no known associations or organizations other than those created by the state. Strikes, collective bargaining, and other organized-labor activities are illegal.

North Korea does not have an independent judiciary. The UN General Assembly has recognized and condemned severe DPRK human rights violations including the use of torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, and forced labor; the absence of due process and the rule of law; death sentences for political offenses; and a large number of prison camps.

The regime subjects thousands of political prisoners to brutal conditions, and collective or familial punishment for suspected dissent by an individual is also a common practice. The government operates a semihereditary system of social discrimination whereby all citizens are classified into 53 subgroups under overall security ratings—“core,” “wavering,” and “hostile”—based on their family’s perceived loyalty to the regime. This rating determines virtually every facet of a person’s life, including employment and educational opportunities, place of residence, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores.

Freedom of movement does not exist, and forced internal resettlement is routine. Access to Pyongyang, where the availability of food, housing, and health care is somewhat better than in the rest of the country, is tightly restricted. Emigration is illegal, but many North Koreans, especially women, have escaped to China or engaged in cross-border trade. Among them, there have been widespread reports of trafficked women and girls. Ignoring international objections, the Chinese government continues to return defectors to North Korea, where they are subject to torture, harsh imprisonment, or execution. The UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly have also noted the use of forced abortions and infanticide against pregnant women who are forcibly repatriated.

The economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged. Corruption is rampant, and the military garners over a third of the state budget. Development is also hobbled by a lack of infrastructure, a scarcity of energy and raw materials, and an inability to borrow on world markets or from multilateral banks because of sanctions, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolationism. Ironically, the degradation of the state has provided a very narrow opening for North Korean citizens to participate in the underground economy. This proliferation of black-market trade has given many North Korean citizens a field of activity that is largely free from government control.

2008 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)