An Analysis of Human Rights Violations in North Korea Based on the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR)
Chadwick International School
Seojin Ahn, Yewon Kim, Eojin Park
According to the Human Rights Watch, North Korea is “one of the most repressive”
countries in the world. It is common knowledge that over the course of its different regimes, the North Korean government has curtailed basic liberties. These include freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. In this speech, we will outline the ways in which these freedoms have been violated in North Korea to think about possible solutions to these issues.
One of the defining features of North Korea is the limitations to its citizens’ freedom of
movement both in and out of the country. The first sentence of article 13 from the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and
residence within the borders of each State.” In other words, one should have the right to travel or reside anywhere within the country without restrictions. And in fact, North Korea does have a law providing “freedom to reside in or travel to any place.” However, in practice, the North Korean government does not respect this fundamental right. The government continues to control and monitor internal travel, criminalizing movement across provinces without prior approval from the government. The government also enhanced restrictions on domestic travel due to Covid-19 with increased road checkpoints and blocked inter-district movements. The regime furthermore set up border buffer zones in 2020 and ordered “shoot on sight” for anyone who attempts to enter restricted border zones. In so doing, the government limited people’s accessibility to foods or essential goods, essentially infringing the right to acquire the fundamental necessities for human sustenance. Such measures led to the unfortunate incident in which the North Korean authorities executed a citizen for violating quarantine measures by bringing goods through customs in the border city of Sinuiju.
The second sentence of article 13 from the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” However, the North Korean
legal system violates this article by stating that leaving the country without permission is a crime of treachery against the nation, punishable by death. In recent years, the authorities have employed stricter domestic control to arrest defectors. In 2011, more than 2,700 defectors arrived in South Korea. By 2019, the annual number had dropped to just over 1,000, and in 2020, only 229 were reported. The declining number of successful escapes implies that there are more people getting caught in their attempts to escape, or even killed in the process. The increased numbers of random checks and surveillance in recent years have been a major obstacle for activist networks in China and South Korea that help North Koreans flee. Many North Koreans in China reside in safehouses for months, hiding from the Chinese government that detains North Korean refugees and returns them to North Korea. As a matter of fact, China forcibly returned nearly 50 North Koreans in July 2021. And repatriated refugees face severe punishments, including imprisonment, forced labor inb reeducation centers, or capital punishment. These measures reinforce the fact that North Korea is violating one of the fundamental human rights of entering or leaving a country freely as one wishes. Such oppression of its own citizens should cease at any rate.
Violations of religious freedom are also an ongoing issue within North Korea, even
though it is protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the status
quo, the North Korean government’s official stance on religion is seemingly one of acceptance, and the North Korean Constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of faith. Three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and one Russian Orthodox church technically exist. However, this is merely a state-controlled illusion. “Religious” organizations in North
Korea are not religious entities and are actually state-sponsored organizations that effectively
curb religious freedom. In fact, these churches and sites are part of the North Korean
government’s attempts to deceive outsiders into believing religious freedom exists in North
In addition, according to the United States Commission on International Religious
Freedom, conditions of freedom in North Korea have “remained among the worst in the world” in 2021. Religious practitioners are classified as enemies of the state, while authorities “actively and systematically target and persecute religious groups and adherents”. These observations make it evident that religious freedom is in fact actively prohibited through the North Korean government’s inhumane interference in its citizens’ religious freedom.
Severe repercussions are enforced to prevent freedom of expression in North Korea.
These repercussions include incarceration in the North Korean prison system, which features
over twenty prison labor camps modeled on Soviet gulags. In these camps, between 80,000 and 120,000 people are currently imprisoned for actions that are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The prisoners are often held in these prison camps for two main reasons: participating in “political offenses” or religious activities. The government uses arbitrary standards when it comes to arresting and punishing these purported criminals, and it does not shy away from using torture, forced labor, and executions when the criminals are under its custody, out of fear of a potential new crackdown in preparation for a possible succession in leadership.
Article 18 of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion,” and that right includes being able to “manifest his or her religion or
belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” However, it is clear that even at this
moment, the North Korean government is compromising and violating the fundamental civil
liberties and rights of North Korea’s citizens. It is vital that the North Korean government
rectifies the abuses made against citizens with religious beliefs and that the persecution of
religious adherents ceases immediately.
Another important issue is how mass media and freedom of press is strictly controlled in
North Korea, violating Article 19 of the UDHR that clearly states that “everyone has the right to
freedom of opinion and expression” which includes the freedom to “receive and impart
information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. On the surface, North Korea’s constitution also protects the freedom of speech and press as well. However, in practice, the press is controlled strictly by the state, and the government only allows speech that supports it and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. As a matter of fact, North Korea occupied the very last place on Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index in 2020.
Freedom of press is controlled by the North Korean state through enforcing newspapers
to be one-sided and having a strict selection process in choosing their national journalist. In The Great Teacher of Journalist, the former Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il indicates that newspapers should only “carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader,” discarding the possibility of any news item that may criticize or point out the flaws of his government. Moreover, candidates for journalism school need to prove themselves “ideologically clean,” and their family heritage is also examined to prove that their background is “politically reliable.” If the journalists do not follow these regulations, they are punished by hard labor or imprisonment. To make matters worse, North Korean citizens are only allowed access to domestic media and are also not allowed to read stories by foreign media and are punished if they do so.
This issue is significant because it undercuts the possibility of North Korea's democratization. Democracy is a core value of the United Nations, "democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of people is exercised." It is a political system in which" people have a say in decisions and can hold decision-makers to account" and where "women and men have equal rights, and all people are free from discrimination". As a governance model, democracy allows people to exercise their fundamental human rights to the fullest extent.
However, without a free press, it is nearly impossible for democracy to exist. The strength of democracy rests in the hands of the people, which means that they have to be educated and informed to make the right decisions within the political system. Notably, such access to information must include citizens having a clear picture of how the election process works. That is nevertheless not the case with North Korea, where nominal elections are held every four-to-five years for the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the country's national legislature, but with a 100% approval rating for the ruling party. A free, independent press is the first step towards democracy as it delivers necessary information to the voters and plays the function of a watchdog. It plays an essential role in criticizing and pointing out the government's flaws by reporting on issues such as corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement within the government. In doing so, such journalistic accounts spark discussion by creating opportunities for citizens to share their viewpoints and understand each other. The more discussion there exists, the more informed citizens become closer to achieving true democracy in which everyone is guaranteed their fundamental human rights and makes informed choices. Indeed, there is no democratic election to begin in North Korea, but the absence of a free press exacerbates the situation by forcing the citizens to be uninformed of the problems of the nation's governments.
We have discussed the freedom of movement, religion, and expression in North Korea concerning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The North Korean regime curtails its people's fundamental rights and liberties to maintain its authority as a totalitarian government. With constant surveillance and repression, the citizens also lack other rights beyond today's topic of discussion. Isolated from the rest of the world, most North Korean citizens live in fear, unaware of what "freedom" truly is. Not only are these human rights violations morally wrong, but also it is detrimental to North Korea itself. The continued oppression of the people may lead to rebellions and disturbances in North Korea; it is inevitable to suppress the people forever. Internal conflicts, or even civil war, may be triggered due to prolonged human rights violations. Indeed, to prevent these consequences and because human rights violations cannot be justified, North Korea should take action. Since North Korea used oppression for decades to control its citizens, significant time and effort should be taken to ensure human rights and liberty for the citizens.
A possible solution for promoting human rights in North Korea includes strengthening sanctions on human rights against North Korea. The current sanctions in North Korea, imposed by the United States, are placed on individuals, including Kim Jong Un and other high-level officials, prohibiting these people from engaging in business with US institutions. Also, in 2016, Congress passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which designated people responsible for human rights abuses. These sanctions should not be lifted unless North Korea takes action to implement mechanisms to promote human rights. Other human rights-related sanctions should be imposed on North Korea to engage the authority on the human rights violation in its country. We can also take action by ourselves. Continuing our investigation and raising awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea will take North Korea closer to a country with rights and freedom.