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Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.

Freedom of Expression: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government.

The constitution provides for the right to petition, but the government did not respect this right. For example, when individuals submitted anonymous petitions or complaints about state administration, the Ministries of People’s Security and State Security sought to identify the authors and subject them to investigation and punishment.

Press and Media Freedom: The government sought to control virtually all information; independent media does not exist. The government tightly controlled print media, broadcast media, book publishing, and online media through the Propaganda and Agitation Department. Within the department, the Publication and Broadcasting Department controls all media content, including content used on television, in newspapers, and on the radio. The government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists. More than 100 foreign journalists visited the DPRK in September to report on celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK, but the government strictly limited their access. Media reported that the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Unification, under pressure from North Korea, prevented a North Korean defector journalist from covering high-level inter-Korean talks at Panmunjon in October.

Violence and Harassment: Domestic journalists had no freedom to investigate stories or report freely. During visits by foreign leaders, authorities permitted groups of foreign journalists to accompany official delegations and file reports. In all cases, the state strictly monitored journalists. Government officials generally prevented journalists from talking to officials or to persons on the street. Dozens of foreign journalists attended the DPRK’s 70th anniversary celebrations. DPRK officials reportedly provided them with a document warning against “distorting the realities” of the country or reporting falsely out of hostile intentions. The penalty for infractions was five to 10 years of “reform through labor.” In September 2017 North Korea’s central court sentenced four South Korean journalists to death for giving positive reviews to a book that the court considered insulting to North Korea.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Strict enforcement of domestic media censorship continued, with no toleration for deviation from the official government line. The government prohibited listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators were subjected to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, are set to receive only domestic programming; officials similarly altered radios obtained from abroad. Elite citizens and facilities for foreigners, such as hotels, had access to international television broadcasts via satellite. The government continued attempts to jam all foreign radio broadcasts. Officials imprisoned and punished citizens for listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts and, in some cases, for simply owning radio or television sets able to receive nongovernment broadcasts.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Internet access for citizens was limited to high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including selected university students. The Korea Computer Center, which acts as the North Korean gatekeeper to the internet, granted access only to information it deemed acceptable, and employees constantly monitored users’ screens.

According to media reports, in July 2018 satellite imagery showed the completion of a new Internet Communication Bureau headquarters in Pyongyang. Media speculated that the bureau would be responsible for managing internet traffic between North Korea and the global internet.

A tightly controlled and regulated “intranet” was reportedly available to a slightly larger group of users, including an elite grade school; selected research institutions, universities, and factories; and a few individuals. The NGO Reporters Without Borders reported some email access existed through this internal network. Government employees sometimes had closely monitored access to the internet and had limited, closely monitored access to email accounts. While the North Korean cell phone network is 3G-capable, most users’ data access is limited to a few state sanctioned functions through North Korea’s intranet, such as reading the government newspaper.

Media and civil society continued to report extensive cyber hacking by North Korea, particularly by North Koreans overseas.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted academic freedom and controlled artistic works. Curriculum was highly controlled by the state. The government severely restricted academic travel. The primary function of plays, movies, operas, children’s performances, and books was to buttress the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and support the regime.

Foreign government and NGO workers in the DPRK reported the reintroduction of the Mass Games and preparation for the 70th Anniversary of DPRK’s founding celebrations had resulted in large numbers of youth preparing for long hours, under heightened incidents of personal injury and exhaustion, with no medical attention.

The state carried out systematic indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations. Indoctrination continued to involve mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.

The government continued its attempt to limit foreign influence on its citizens. Listening to foreign radio and watching foreign films are illegal. Individuals accused of viewing or possessing foreign films were reportedly subjected to imprisonment and possibly execution. According to the 2016 KINU white paper, a 2015 survey revealed that defectors witnessed proclamations posted indicating that that those caught watching South Korean movies or listening to South Korean music would be sentenced to death, in accordance with instructions announced by the regime in 2013. According to the 2017 KINU white paper, the number of people executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content increased during the last few years.

Based on defector interviews conducted in 2015, InterMedia estimated as many as 29 percent of defectors listened to foreign radio broadcasts while inside North Korea and that approximately 92 percent of defectors interviewed had seen foreign DVDs in North Korea.

The government intensified its focus on preventing the import of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas. According to media and NGO reports, in enforcing restrictions on foreign films, authorities authorized police to search homes for contraband DVDs. According to InterMedia, the government added a software-based censorship program known as the “signature system” to all domestic mobile phones. This system makes it impossible to view foreign media on the phones. Mobile phones are randomly inspected physically for illegal media, and a history of all activity on the device is available for export upon inspection through monitoring software called “TraceViewer.” Daily NK reported that Kim Jong Un created a special police unit to restrict and control the flow of outside information into the country.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for the “freedom to reside in or travel to any place”; however, the government did not respect this right. The government continued to control internal travel carefully. The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, forcibly returned refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons.

In-country Movement: The government continued to restrict freedom of movement for those lawfully within the state. Under the law, individuals who violate travel regulations were subject to warnings, fines, or forced labor. Only members of a very small elite class and those with access to remittances from overseas reportedly had access to personal vehicles. A lack of infrastructure hampered movement, as did security checkpoints on main roads at entry and exit points from every town. The 2018 KINU White Paper reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province as the use of bribery as a means to avoid punishment became more widespread.

The government strictly controlled permission to reside in, or even to enter, Pyongyang, where food availability, housing, health, and general living conditions were much better than in the rest of the country. Foreign officials visiting the country observed checkpoints on the highway leading into Pyongyang.

Foreign Travel: The government also restricted foreign travel. The government limited issuance of exit visas for foreign travel to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers. Short-term exit papers were available on a very limited basis for some residents to visit with relatives, undertake short-term work opportunities, or to engage in small-scale trade.

Exile: The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens. In the past, it forcibly resettled tens of thousands of persons from Pyongyang to the countryside. Sometimes this occurred as punishment for offenses and included those judged to be politically unreliable based on the social status of their family members.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Refoulement: The government did not allow emigration, and reports stated that it continued to increase its severe, tight security on the border, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols and surveillance of residents of border areas and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes.

The government maintained orders to shoot to kill those attempting to leave without official permission. The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in a third country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases, the state subjects asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. Many would-be refugees returned involuntarily from foreign states received imprisonment under harsh conditions. Some sources indicated authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.

On November 13, 2017, a North Korean soldier was shot five times by North Korean border guards as he crossed over the DMZ and defected to South Korea.

Media reported in April that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors in order to encourage them to return home. Defectors reported family members back in North Korea contacting them and urging their return, apparently under pressure from North Korean officials. According to the Ministry of Unification, 1,127 North Koreans defected to South Korea in 2017. Through the end of July 2018, 703 North Korean defectors entered South Korea, a 9.7 percent drop from the same period the previous year.

Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced only to a few months of forced labor or in some cases merely issued a warning), and persons who crossed repeatedly for “political” purposes (who were sometimes sentenced to harsher punishment, including death), including those who had alleged contact with religious organizations based near the Chinese border. The law stipulates a sentence of up to two years of “labor correction” for the crime of illegally crossing the border.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection for refugees. The government did not grant refugee status or asylum. The government had no known policy or provision for refugees or asylees and did not participate in international refugee fora.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future