It is illegal for the North Korean people to leave their country without the regime’s permission, and the regime attempts to restrict the people’s movement even inside their own country. If you wish to travel to another part of the country, you are supposed to have a specific purpose and obtain permission from your work unit. If you do not live in Pyongyang, the showcase capital where most resources are concentrated, you will likely be denied access. The regime has also forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to less favorable parts of the country as a form of punishment and political persecution.
Criticism of the regime or the leadership in North Korea, if reported, is enough to make you and your family ‘disappear’ from society and end up in a political prison camp. It goes without saying that there is no free media inside the country. The only opinion allowed to be voiced inside the country is the regime’s.
No Freedom of Information
Knowing the threat that outside information poses to their propaganda and ideology, and ultimately its control over the people, the regime has invested massive resources in trying to maintain an information blockade and keep its monopoly as the only source of information and ideas to the North Korean people. It is illegal to own a tunable radio in North Korea, there is no access to the Internet (except for a few hand-picked and monitored officials), and North Korean landlines and mobile phones cannot make international calls.
The regime forces the people to participate in the maintenance of personality cults around the Kim leaders that have ruled the country for over 60 years. Propaganda starts in nursery school and a large proportion of the curriculum for all students—even at university—is dedicated to memorizing the ‘history’ of the Kim family. State media provides a constant stream of myths about the Kims and lauds the sacrifices they supposedly make for the people. Millions of labor-hours that could be used developing the economy have to be spent idolizing the leaders instead.
No Religious Freedom
Organized religion is seen as a potential threat to the regime and therefore nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed. Thousands of Buddhists and Christians have been purged and persecuted throughout the history of North Korea. People caught practicing or spreading religion in secret are punished extremely harshly, including by public execution or being sent to political prison camps.
Chronic Food Shortages
The regime’s refusal to effectively reform its failed agricultural policies, combined with susceptibility to adverse climate conditions (made worse by environmental mismanagement), and an inability to purchase necessary agricultural inputs or food imports mean that the North Korean people have faced food shortages ever since the 1990s. Millions of malnourished children and babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers bear the brunt of the shortages today. This has left an entire generation of North Koreans with stunted growth and a higher susceptibility to health problems.
The regime claims that it provides universal health care to its people. In reality, the majority of the public healthcare system collapsed in the 1990s, with only prioritized hospitals in areas such as Pyongyang kept functioning. Elsewhere, health services and medicine are only available to those that can afford it. Ordinary North Koreans are therefore afflicted by easily preventable or curable poverty-related diseases, such as tuberculosis and cataracts.
Songbun Political Apartheid System
The North Korean regime has invested an incredible amount of time and resources creating the songbun system, a form of political apartheid that ascribes you with a level of perceived political loyalty based on your family background. Your particular songbun level (there are 51 of them) can then restrict your life opportunities, including where you can live, educational opportunities, Party membership, military service, occupation, and treatment by the criminal justice system. Any perceived political infractions by your family will lead to your songbun being demoted.
Five political prison camps hold an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people. Some of them are the size of cities, and they have existed five times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulags. Many people imprisoned in these camps were not guilty of any crime, but were related to someone who supposedly committed a political crime. Often they have no idea what that crime was, and even children who are born in the camps are raised as prisoners because their ‘blood is guilty’. Forced labor, brutal beatings, and death are commonplace. The regime denies the existence of these camps, but multiple survivor testimonies have been corroborated by former guards as well as satellite images.
In North Korea, if your relative is persecuted for “anti-state” or “anti-socialist” crimes, then you and three generations of your family can be punished for it. The aim is to remove from society the whole family unit to prevent any dissent from emerging in the future, and also to deter martyrs who might sacrifice themselves for a political cause but would not want to sacrifice their whole family.
The North Korean regime publicly executes citizens who have been accused of a variety of crimes, including petty theft. Whole communities, including children, are brought out to watch these executions, which are designed to instill fear amongst the people of doing anything that could be seen as against the regime’s wishes.
The North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave the country without state permission, but every year thousands of North Koreans still risk their lives to escape a combination of a lack of freedoms and economic hardship; in North Korea these are inextricably linked. If caught trying to escape, or if caught in China and sent back, they are at risk of harsh punishments including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and internment in a political prison camp. Those suspected of having had contact with South Koreans or Christians while in China receive the most severe punishments.
North Korean refugees’ well-founded fear of persecution if repatriated means that they should be protected under international refugee law. However, the Chinese government prioritizes its political relationship with Pyongyang and does not recognize them as refugees. Instead they label them as “economic migrants” in an attempt to justify the forcible repatriation of thousands of North Korean refugees every year.
Since coming to power, the Kim Jong-un leadership has cooperated with the Chinese authorities to tighten border security. Recent defectors have told us of increased physical border security, increased risk associated with bribing border guards, and heightened punishments for people trying to escape. As a result, the number of refugees managing to arrive in South Korea has decreased by almost half.
North Korean refugees in China live in a precarious and sometimes desperate situation. They fear harsh punishment or even death if they are caught and sent back to North Korea, but many do not have the resources or contacts to get themselves out of China. Their illegal status forces them to work in invisible industries and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and sex traffickers, as they have no recourse to any authorities.
Many North Korean women who escape North Korea become victims of sex trafficking. China’s lack of marriageable women, especially in the rural areas of its Northeast provinces, creates a demand for North Korean women who are at risk of being forced to work in brothels or online sex chatrooms, or are bought and sold as wives. North Korean women have been sold for as little as a few hundred to a few thousands dollars in China.
Children born to North Korean refugee mothers and Chinese fathers can face difficulties obtaining hukou (household registration papers) because of their mother’s illegal status. This can leave the children stateless, recognized by neither the Chinese or North Korean governments, and denied basic rights such as access to education and other state services. There are estimated to be around 10,000 children born to North Korean refugee mothers in China.