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Human Rights in North Korea: Amnesty International Media Briefing


Amnesty International has monitored the human rights situation in North Korea for many years; we have received reports of torture, executions, and the denial of fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression, movement, and access to information. Amnesty International is also particularly concerned about the food crisis in North Korea and its impact on human rights.

Torture and ill-treatment

Reports suggest that torture and ill-treatment are widespread in prisons, labour camps, as well as in detention centres where North Koreans who have been forcibly returned from China are held for interrogation pending transfer to other places.

Surveillance and checking for 'illegal' North Koreans in China has intensified since 2001. The number of North Koreans in China has fallen considerably following the forcible repatriation of tens of thousands of North Koreans by the Chinese authorities since 2002. All of these people were detained and interrogated for long periods during which torture and ill-treatment were widespread.

Conditions in prisons and labour camps are reported to be extremely harsh. Inmates are made to work from early morning to late at night in farms or factories and minor infractions of rules can be met with severe beatings. According to some reports, there have been many deaths of detainees caused by lack of food, harsh prison conditions and lack of medical care while in detention.

Freedom of expression

Opposition of any kind is not tolerated in North Korea. According to reports, any person who expresses an opinion contrary to the position of the ruling party faces severe punishment. In many cases whole families (often a number of generations) are subjected to punishment. Very few people have access to information from the outside world and the media is strictly censored.

Any unauthorised assembly or association is regarded as a 'collective disturbance' which is punishable. Religious freedom, although guaranteed by the constitution, is in practice sharply curtailed. There are reports of severe repression of people involved in public and private religious activities, through imprisonment, torture and executions. Many Christians are reportedly being held in labour camps.


Amnesty International has received reports of public executions carried out in front of large crowds, with advance notice given to schools, enterprises and farms. Some prisoners have reportedly been executed in front of their families. Executions are carried out by hanging or firing-squad. Children's rights were witness to these public executions.

There are vaguely defined provisions in the North Korean Criminal Code that provide for the death penalty. In 2001 the UN Human Rights Committee remained “seriously concerned that, of those five offences (which carried the death penalty)... four are essentially political offences (articles 44, 45, 47 and 52 of the Criminal Code), couched in terms so broad that the imposition of the death penalty may be subject to essentially subjective criteria.”

The food crisis

The people of North Korea have suffered from famine and acute food shortages for more than a decade. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and many millions more have suffered from chronic malnutrition. According to official sources, infant mortality increased from 27 per thousand in 1993 to 48 per thousand in 1999. According to a FAO/WFP Special Report issued in October 2003, malnutrition levels remain “alarmingly high” as 42 per cent of Children's rights continue to suffer from chronic malnutrition.

The North Korean government has failed in its duty to respect and protect the right to food. Rather, its actions have exacerbated the effects of the famine and the subsequent food crisis.

The famine and food crisis have been largely invisible due to political controls, such as restrictions on the movement of both North Koreans and staff of international humanitarian agencies and the near-total suppression of freedom of expression, information and association. About 20 percent of North Korea’s land-mass, where some 13 percent of the population resides, is not accessible to international humanitarian agencies. There is no information about the food situation of people living in the non-accessible counties, thus there is a concern that some very vulnerable people are left without assistance.

The food crisis in North Korea has led to a further deterioration of human rights. There are reports that people have been executed in public for famine-related crimes such as stealing crops or livestock. Acute food shortages have forced tens of thousands of people to cross the border “illegally” into China’s north-eastern provinces. North Koreans residing “illegally” in China live in appalling conditions and are vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual exploitation. If caught in China, North Koreans are generally forcibly repatriated to North Korea where they are sent to labour camps, spending between three months and three years performing forced labour.


The denial of access to independent human rights monitors by the North Korean authorities means that many human rights violations remain hidden. Amnesty International does not have direct regular access to North Korea. We have visited North Korea twice (in 1991 and 1995): however, Amnesty International was not able to conduct independent research due to severe restrictions such as being accompanied by ‘official minders’ throughout the visits; not being allowed to directly interview victims of human rights violations (in fact, not given access to ordinary North Korean citizens), and not being allowed to travel freely or have independent access to detention centres. We also do not have direct access to the border regions of China where many North Koreans have fled to largely because of the acute food shortages in North Korea. Our information is based on a number of sources, such as testimonies from North Koreans who have fled the country and sought refuge in South Korea or Japan, inter-governmental organizations, NGOs, academics and experts who have access to or are involved in issues relating to human rights in North Korea.


Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the North Korean government to take measures to increase respect for human rights in the country.

As human rights violations have increased as a result of the food crisis, Amnesty International believes that guaranteeing equitable distribution of food, to all, without discrimination is a key priority which the North Korean government must address urgently, with appropriate assistance from the international community.

The government must also immediately put an end to other serious human rights abuses such as torture and executions and implement its obligations under the human rights instruments to which it is a party, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

More information

Amnesty International published a report on human rights concerns within the context of the food crisis in North Korea earlier this year.

  • Read the report: 'Starved of Rights: Human Rights and the Food Crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)' ...

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