North Korea

Last Updated 8 December 2023

The so-called “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” or “DPRK” is often recognized as the world’s most isolated state;1 a fascistic, total suppressor of basic human rights and freedoms, subverting all social, civic and political life to the maintenance of pervasive (but ultimately fragile) illusions of grandeur.2

In 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry stated that:3

“Throughout the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, among the most striking features of the state has been its claim to an absolute information monopoly and total control of organized social life. Based on witness testimonies, the Commission finds that there is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.”

As a result, it is not possible to estimate the country’s religious composition. However, the UN Commission of Inquiry quoted the government’s own statistics that those reporting to adhere to a religious belief has dropped from 24% in 1950 to 0.016% in 2002. Religious groups are thought to include Buddhists, Christians, Cheondoists, and practitioners of Shamanism, among others.

Grave Violations
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

There is no freedom of religion or belief in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“North Korea”). All freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is systematically and severely violated by the North Korean government. Although technically guaranteed by Article 68 of the Constitution,4 the free exercise of one’s freedom of religion or belief is contingent upon religion not being used “as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State and social order.”

The complete denial of freedom of thought is enforced through the regime’s totalitarian control of almost every aspect of life in pursuit of ideological unity.

Citizens are subject to the Ten Principles for Establishing a Monolithic Leadership System.5 Established in 1974, they consist of ten principal clauses with 65 accompanying sub-clauses that establish the specific attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors required of all North Korean citizens. Due to the document’s calls for absolute obedience to the ideas of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, it shapes both the laws and their implementation in practice, and represents the highest authority of law, above even the Constitution.6 The fourth clause states: “Accept the Great Leader Comrade KIM Il Sung’s revolutionary thought as your belief and take the Great Leader’s instructions as your creed.”

National fantasy

The state imposes a compulsory veneration of the ruling Kim family and its ideology of nationalist self-reliance (Juche). The state largely suppresses mainstream global religions, at least their proselytization or mass celebration in public. However, a mythology or ‘cult of personality’ which might be described as quasi-religious attaches to the hereditary Kim rulers.

In 2011 the state news agency KCNA reported that strange phenomena were witnessed and that “nature is in mourning,” following the death of former leader Kim Jong-il. The supposed reports included unusual snow storms, a mysterious glow on a revered mountain top, and the cracking of ice on a famous lake “so loud, it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth.”7; The regime had previously declared Kim Jong-il a “genius.” Similar myths are propagated by the government about his successor King Jong-un.

Submission to the state and its ideology is enforced through an extensive government network of control, including secret surveillance and informants, which intrudes upon virtually every aspect of life in North Korea. Any hint of independent thought—including lack of enthusiasm for the state ideology, complaints, or “wrong thoughts”—is liable to be severely punished. Punishments include life imprisonment in labour camps, torture and death.8 There is complete impunity for crimes perpetrated by the state.9

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea released a detailed report that concluded that:10

“there is no effective freedom of religious belief in the DPRK. Such belief is treated as basically incompatible with, and hostile to, the state‐sponsored personality cult surrounding Kim Il‐sung and his descendants. Countless numbers of persons in the DPRK who attempt to practise their religious beliefs have been severely punished, even unto death.”

In July 2022, the UN Secretary-General confirmed the ongoing relevance of the inquiry’s findings stating, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion [in North Korea] also continues to be denied, with no alternative belief systems tolerated by the authorities.”11

Education and children’s rights

To summarize as clearly as possible: the North Korean regime brainwashes children from an early age to believe in the Kims as godlike leaders, to instil loyalty and commitment to the leader, and hatred towards “enemies” of the nation.

This intention is made plain in Article 43 of the Constitution, which states:

“The State shall put the principles of socialist education into practice and raise the new generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of a new communist type who are knowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy.”

The misuse of educational institutions to promote the national ideology is a key component in sustaining the national ideology. From 1977, in “Theses on Socialist Education”, these words are attributed to Kim Il

“Political and ideological education is the most important part of socialist education. Only through a proper political and ideological education is it possible to rear students as revolutionaries […] And only on the basis of sound political and ideological education will the people’s scientific and technological education and physical culture be successful.”

Students are required to attend classes such as ‘The Childhood of Our Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung’, ‘Revolutionary History of Our Great Leader Kim Jong Il’, ‘Kim Jong-Un’s Revolutionary History’, ‘Socialist Morality’ and ‘Law and Current Government Policy’. The distortion of history, along with idolization of the leadership, constitutes a kind of ideological indoctrination, designed to maintain the;

Students are reportedly taught the “evils” of religious beliefs and their adherents, including reports of textbooks that describe Christians as luring children into churches in order to conduct rituals such as sacrifices and blood-letting.14

Although children receive most of their education through the North Korean school system, it is also mandatory for them to join the Young Pioneer Corps at age nine and then move on to the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League between the age of 14 and

Family, community and society

As a result of the government’s tight control over society, it is widely reported that adherents of religion or belief are forced to keep their beliefs secret, even from those closest to them for fear of state-sponsored retaliation. Such reports are largely derived from defectors’ witness testimony. Reports indicate that such retaliation can include forced labor and imprisonment, violence and other degrading treatment, and in some cases execution.16;

The 2014 UN COI makes plain that those who exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief are deemed to be subversive influences in society, and will likely be subject to crimes against humanity; the country’s Christian community is particularly noted as vulnerable.

The Criminal Code17 renders “superstitious activities” punishable by forced labor for up to five years in cases of grave violations (Article 267). While anyone deemed to have encouraged another to engage in such activities may face up to seven years of forced labor (Article 268).

Caste-based Discrimination

Contrary to Article 65 of the Constitution which guarantees equal rights to all, North Korea uses songbun, a socio-political classification system that groups people into “loyal,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes based on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government, and justifies discriminating against lower classes of people in employment, residence, or schooling.18 Religious adherents are reportedly categorized to belong in the “hostile” classes.19

According to Human Rights Watch, “[a] 1995 article in the government outlet Rodong Sinmun explained the contortion neatly. ‘Socialist human rights are not supra-class human rights that grant freedom and rights to hostile elements,’ it stated.”20

Rights of Women

The Constitution makes clear that the consolidation of the family as the basic unit of society is of the utmost importance to the state (Article 78).

According to Human Rights Watch:21

“Traditional Confucian patriarchal values remain deeply embedded in North Korea. Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system that is strictly hierarchical and values social harmony. In such a society, a woman’s position in society is lower than a man’s and her reputation depends largely on maintaining an image of “sexual purity” before marriage and obeying the men in her family.”

As a result, discrimination against women and girls is accepted as an inevitable part of everyday life, with constant exposure to stereotyped gender roles beginning in infancy. Women and girls therefore suffer a range of sexual and gender-based abuses that the authorities fail to take seriously.

Abortion is reportedly banned in order to reverse the country’s falling birth rate.22

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

With no freedom of expression, and no independent press or access to the internet, ordinary North Koreans are denied any opportunity to explore ideas or news from outside government sources, while the outside world is largely (apart from the reports of occasional “defectors”) denied access to opinions and news from any individuals or non-government sources in North Korea.23

In 2014, a UN General Assembly committee approved a resolution condemning the North Korean leadership for decades for crimes against humanity, which paved the way for Kim Jong Un to be referred to the international criminal court. This referral stems from numerous human rights abuses that include brainwashing, torture, deliberate starvation, executions and infanticide.24

As freedom of assembly is not respected, associations or organizations other than those created by the state are illicit or extremely limited in their independence. Strikes, and other labor activities are


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