The North Korean
People’s Challenges

Life inside the world’s most authoritarian country

North Korea’s threats to the outside world always grab the media’s attention. But it’s the North Korean people who face the biggest threat of all.

“The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” – United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea

In order to maintain control, the North Korean regime has stripped the people of their power and potential through a system of isolation, indoctrination, and brutal repression.

Forced Isolation
From The Rest of Humanity

To protect the power of its propaganda and ideology, the regime attempts to isolate the North Korean people from the outside world.

Physical Isolation

It’s illegal for North Koreans to leave their country without the government’s permission. North Koreans who do attempt to leave the country illegally and are caught can face severe consequences including torture, forced labor, and life-imprisonment in a political prison camp.

Those who are allowed to travel abroad – like diplomats, elite students, recruited workers, and athletes – are monitored closely and must attend special ideological debriefs once they return to North Korea.

"Before we left North Korea, our team was warned not to be swayed by the capitalism we would see in the outside world. And we were told specifically not to meet or talk with South Korean students at the contest." – Jeongyol Kim, competed in the International Math Olympiad before defecting

North Koreans also rarely have a chance to talk with foreigners who travel to North Korea, and even then there is normally  a minder present.

Digital Isolation

“North Korean people are so cut off and disconnected from the outside world that they don’t even know what the word ‘internet’ means” – Kim Min Hyuk, escaped North Korea in 2006

No internet connection to the outside world.
TVs and radios are preset to approved government channels.
North Korean phones cannot make international calls.
Jamming of foreign radio and cell phone signals.

"At night, my father would turn on a small black radio and our family would listen to South Korean radio. We had to keep the volume low so that someone walking by couldn’t hear it. We listened to South Korean radio like this for 10 years, hiding it from our neighbors and friends. In North Korea, listening to foreign radio is considered a crime against the state. If we had been caught, we could have faced years in a political prison camp or even execution."

Ill Yong Joo, escaped North Korea in 2008

The regime has co-opted technological advances in order to continue isolating the North Korean people. Approved North Korean smartphones cannot access the internet. Instead they are connected to the country’s intranet which is severely restricted and controlled by the regime. North Koreans who want to download an approved app to their phone have to go to a physical store.

Relentless Indoctrination

The regime's survival depends on securing the compliance of the North Korean people and massive amounts of resources are spent attempting to shape every person into a loyal citizen.

Extreme Ideologies

The North Korean government’s ideology is a dangerous blend of authoritarianism, nationalism, and militarism that was infused at its founding and still continues over 70 years later.

Cult of Personality

Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, built a cult of personality to consolidate power after purging competing factions in the early 1950s. To justify his authoritarian rule, he rewrote his family’s history and his own accomplishments  –  claiming to have almost single handedly defeated the Japanese to liberate the Korean people.

Throughout his rule he was referred to by grandiose titles like ‘Heavenly Leader’, and statues were erected of him throughout the country. The regime also mandated that every North Korean adult must wear a badge of Kim Il-sung over their heart to show their loyalty – a practice that continues to this day.

The cult of personality, and the exaggerated accomplishments of the Kim family, also served to extend their rule through the ascension of Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il and now his grandson, Kim Jong-un. To this day, the ruling Kim family is portrayed as god-like with mythical stories surrounding their accomplishments. State media inside North Korea has even claimed Kim Jong-un learned how to drive at 3 years old.

The extreme cult of personality has helped justify the need for the entire North Korean system to revolve around the leader and his absolute authority.

The Ten Principles For The Establishment Of The Monolithic Ideological System

These principles are like the 10 commandments of subservience to the Kim family, and serve as the foundational rules of North Korean society.

1. Fight, with all your strength, to make the whole society the Kimilsung-Kimjongilist one.

2. Venerate the Great respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as the Great Leaders of the Party and of the People, as the Eternal Suns of Juche.

3. Make the authority of the respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and of the Party the absolute one. Be ready to defend them.

4. Arm yourself with revolutionary ideas of the Great respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and with the fulfillment of their ideas: the line and the policy of the Party.

5. Defend the principle following unconditionally the commandments of the Great respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as well as Party line and its policy.

6. Reinforce further the ideological willful and revolutionary unity of the whole Party around the figure of its Leader(s).

7. Learn after the Great respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, have a high moral and ethical image, use the revolutionary methods of action and the people’s model of action.

8. Venerate the political aspect of life, bestowed by the Leader and by the Party, respond to it by having a high political consciousness and real successes in doing your job.

9. Establish a strict organizational discipline in a wholehearted movement of the whole Party, whole state and whole army under the Party’s sole leadership.

10. Inherit and fulfill the great deed of the Juche revolution, the great deed of the Songun revolution, started by the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il Sung, and guided by the Great respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which continues from generation to generation.

Nothing To Envy

The North Korean regime relies on propaganda that glorifies the North Korean system and demonizes foreign influences, especially the United States and South Korea. North Koreans are taught that they have nothing to envy and that the rest of the world is racked with corruption, disease, and strife.

Military First

The propaganda machine constantly reminds the North Korean people how important the military is to the survival of the country. The United States and South Korea are portrayed as aggressors that might invade any day which justifies the need for tremendous sacrifices for the sake of the military and the development of nuclear weapons.
North Korean propoganda

Cradle-to-Grave Propaganda

Indoctrination of the regime’s extreme ideologies begins at birth and every North Korean is subject to life-long propaganda efforts by the regime. This includes the dissemination of propaganda in virtually every facet of their lives.

"There were slogans everywhere. They were painted on signs and printed on calendars and said things like ‘North Korea is a utopia’, ‘We have nothing to envy in the world’, and ‘Our dear leader Kim Il Sung will always be with us.’ In North Korea I never questioned these words or doubted the stories. I never wondered why we rarely had electricity or why sometimes there wasn’t enough food. I believed everything the regime told me – I really thought I had nothing to envy."

Noel Kim, escaped North Korea in 2009

Schooling

North Korean children begin learning about the Kim family as early as kindergarten. Students are required to memorize the history of the Kims throughout their schooling and tremendous resources and time are dedicated to the study of the country’s leadership.
North Koreans talk about propaganda as kids

Workplace

Millions of dollars and labor hours are spent glorifying the Kim family at the expense of the North Korean economy and welfare of the North Korean people. This propaganda is reinforced by ideological seminars and self criticism sessions where workers criticize themselves in front of their coworkers.

Home

North Koreans also must belong to a neighborhood unit called the inminban that consists of 20-40 families. The unit is overseen by a local leader whose job it is to assist the authorities in surveilling that neighbourhood.

Portraits of North Korea’s first two dictators, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are mandatory in every home. During routine home inspections by authorities, North Koreans can be punished if the portraits are not adequately clean. There are even reports that North Koreans can face investigations by the secret police for failing to save the portraits from a burning building.

Entertainment

From literature to film, all media must be approved by the state’s propaganda machine. The goal of this media is to indoctrinate the North Korean people to obey and submit to the leadership by praising the dedication of the Kim family and their sacrifices to the country.

North Korean film and television features stories of people sacrificing themselves for the greater cause of the country and the leadership. Even children’s cartoon shows are designed to indoctrinate young North Koreans to remain loyal to the country’s leadership.

"I liked South Korean movies because they were about people's lives, not about the propaganda. North Korean movies are so predictable.” – Yeon Woo, North Korean refugee
Watch An Example of North Korean Propaganda

News

North Korea ranks 180/180 for freedom of the press*. 
Reporters Without Borders 2020 Freedom Index

The regime controls all media outlets which routinely heap daily praise on the country’s leadership and hones in on negative stories from the rest of the world to increase support for the regime. Independent journalism is strictly forbidden and the consequences for reporting and disseminating information are severe.

Brutal Repression

To support its isolation and indoctrination efforts, the regime uses an unparalleled system of repression to maintain its dominance over the North Korean people.

No Freedom

“There are absolutely no human rights in North Korea” – Jo Il, escaped North Korea in 2015

No Freedom of Speech or Expression

“I couldn't say a word about the government. They'd drag me to prison if I did”.
– Yoon Ji, escaped North Korea in 2017

Speaking out against the regime in North Korea is strictly forbidden. The only opinion allowed to be voiced inside the country is the regime’s. Even minor criticism of Kim Jong-un can result in entire families spending the rest of their lives in a political prison camp.

"No one can ever say it out loud, but we all wish Kim Jong-un would spare one percent of what he spends on national defense for the people so we can stop worrying about what to eat the next day." – Se Jung, escaped North Korea in 2017

Even small acts of expression are forbidden. The regime attempts to dictate what kind of hairstyles and clothing is appropriate for North Korean people. North Koreans who push the fashion boundaries, like by wearing blue jeans, risk being stopped on the street and having their clothes cut up so they’re unwearable.
How fashion is policed in North Korea

No Freedom of Religion

“The State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State.” – United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report

People caught practicing or spreading religion in secret are punished extremely harshly, including life sentences in a political prison camp or even public execution. Thousands of Buddhists and Christians have been purged and persecuted since the Kim family came to power.

"A woman in her 40s was caught keeping a Bible in her home… The woman was publicly shot to death at a threshing floor of a farm. I was told by superiors to go and see the public execution…. Guards tied her head, her chest, and her legs to a post, and shot her dead." – Kim, North Korean defector.

There are token churches and temples in North Korea, but they are kept only to give the appearance of religious tolerance to foreign visitors.

No Freedom of Information

Possessing foreign media and information is illegal. The secret police crack down on the consumption of foreign media which is smuggled into the country and shared from person to person via USB. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, the severity of punishment for possessing or distributing has increased.

“I used to hide in my room, close the curtains, and watch foreign movies when I was younger. I can still sing along to some South Korean pop songs. But in the last five years, the government stepped up the crackdowns on foreign media. After witnessing a public execution in 2012, I didn’t dare watch any of the CDs of soap operas I had copied.”
– In Kyung, escaped North Korea in 2017

No Freedom of Movement

Movement within the country is severely restricted. North Koreans who wish to travel to another part of the country are required to have a specific purpose and obtain permission from their work supervisor.

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.

Songbun Political Apartheid System

In North Korea, if your relative is accused of “anti-state” or “anti-socialist” crimes, then you and three generations of your family can be punished for it. Entire families are removed from society to prevent any dissent from emerging in the future. Collective punishment also deters citizens who might sacrifice themselves for a political cause but would not want to sacrifice their whole family.

The regime has invested an incredible amount of time and resources creating the Songbun system, a form of political apartheid that ascribes every North Korean with a level of perceived political loyalty based on their family background. There are 51 songbun levels divided into three classes - loyal, wavering and hostile. Songbun levels can severely restrict a North Korean’s life opportunities. It can determine where they can live, educational opportunities like attending college, Party membership, military service, occupation, and treatment by the criminal justice system. Any perceived political infractions by any family member can lead to the entire family’s Songbun being demoted.

“Before I was born, my father and his friends stole grain from the regime because they were starving. They took it from the military’s food supply, which the regime prioritizes the most. Soon after, he was arrested and sent to a re-education center to do forced labor for 4 years.

After his arrest, our family was marked. In North Korea, there is a system of collective punishment. If a family member commits a crime against the regime, the entire family, including children who are not even born yet, can be punished and ostracized for life. 
Because of my father’s crime, any dreams I would have for my life were already crushed. I would never get the chance to study at a university or pursue my dream of being a singer.”

Ilhyeok Kim, escaped North Korea in 2011

A System of Terror

The regime relies on political prison camps, torture, collective punishment, and public executions to evoke fear and crush even the slightest flicker of political dissent.

“These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea

Torture

Torture is used systematically by the North Korean regime to extract forced confessions during interrogations and to punish both political and non-political prisoners.

Numerous eye-witness accounts from survivors describe the loss of teeth, broken bones and permanent disfigurement from beatings, water torture, being required to sit motionless on their knees for days, weeks spent in cells too small to sit or lie down in, and being hung by handcuffs with their feet off the floor.

North Korean refugees who are arrested in China and repatriated can face horrific consequences for having fled the country illegally. They can be interrogated and tortured for months before being sentenced to years of forced labor or life-sentences in a political prison camp. Pregnant women who are repatriated are sometimes forced to have an abortion if their baby is suspected to be half Chinese.

Learn about our secret rescue routes that help North Korea refugees reach safety.

Political Prison Camps

5 political prison camps imprison 80,000 –120,000 people.

The regime denies the existence of these political prison camps, but multiple survivor testimonies have been corroborated by former guards as well as satellite images. Beatings, executions, and death from starvation are commonplace. Many people imprisoned in political camps were not guilty of any crime but were related to someone who supposedly committed a political crime. These prisoners often have no idea what that crime was, and even their children are raised as prisoners because their ‘blood is guilty’. 

Some of the camps are the size of large cities and have existed 5 times longer than Nazi Concentration Camps and 2 times longer than the Soviet Gulags.

Forced Labor

Re-education through labor is used as punishment for those accused of crimes against the state. It’s also a way for the authorities to take advantage of free labor. Prisoners are forced to work up to 18 hours a day performing dangerous duties like coal mining or logging. Because of the long hours, little sleep, and virtually no regard for the prisoner’s safety, fatal accidents are common.

Even North Koreans who are not detained can be forced to perform unpaid work for weeks at a time on collective farms or infrastructure projects. Instead of attending class, many students are mobilized to help in the fields during the planting and harvest season.

Forced Starvation

Prisoners are intentionally kept close to starvation, sometimes only receiving a few kernels of corn a day. Men serving time in a gyohwaso - a type of detention center a level down from a political prison camp - can lose over 60 pounds during their sentence. Many prisoners must rely on eating insects, rodents, and snakes to survive.

"When we weren’t crammed into our cells, sleeping on a filthy floor, we were forced to work. From 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. we’d go into the mountains to gather firewood. The labor left your hands raw with blisters and the cold bit at your fingers and toes.

We were only fed a quarter of an ear of corn per meal. It was never enough and the hunger clawed at our stomachs. People grew so hungry that the guards had to drag them from the toilets so they wouldn’t eat their own feces. Some mornings I woke up to find one of my cellmates stiff and lifeless. We’d march off to gather firewood and their pale body just laid there, their cheeks hollowed out from the hunger.”

Jo Eun Kim, rescued by LiNK in 2017

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence against women in interrogation and detention is also common. Guards and police officers rape and assault women without repurcussion.

“Rape and violent beatings were rampant at the Chongjin holding center. Every night some woman would be forced to leave with a guard and be raped...Click, click, click was the most horrible sound I ever heard. It was the sound of the key of the cell of our prison room opening. Every night a prison guard would open the cell. I stood still quietly, acting like I didn’t notice, hoping it wouldn’t be me the one to have to follow the guard, hoping it wouldn’t be him.”

Yoon Mi Hwa, escaped North Korea in 2018, Human Rights Watch Report 

The desperate conditions in prisons can also lead to sexual exploitation, with prisoners offering sexual favors to guards in return for more food rations or less arduous labor assignments. Women who become pregnant during detention are often taken away and are assumed by other prisoners to be executed.

Public Executions

318 public execution sites have been identified inside North Korea.
According to a report published in 2019 by the Transitional Justice Working Group

The North Korean regime publicly executes citizens who have been accused of a variety of crimes, including petty theft or distributing foreign media. Whole communities, even young children, are forced to watch these executions. These gruesome public events are designed to instill terror and discourage people from challenging the regime. The regime collects cell phones or cameras before the event in order to prevent anyone from documenting the execution.
Public Executions in North Korea

The Result Of
These Challenges:

Millions of North Koreans living in enforced poverty and facing avoidable humanitarian challenges

Enforced Poverty

North Korea’s poverty is not because of a lack of conditions for economic development. The country has the same potential that transformed South Korea from one of the world’s poorest countries into the dynamic economy it is today.

Instead, North Korea’s poverty is the tragic consequence of the ruling elite’s absolute prioritization of political control, maintained through the micromanagement of society and the economy, and the ruthless repression of alternative views and approaches. This stifles the North Korean people’s potential and the North Korean economy.

GDP North Korea vs. South Korea $1,700 (estimate) vs. $39,500 
Exports North Korea vs. South Korea $1.74 billion vs. $596 billion
Paved Roads North Korea vs. South 435 miles vs. 51,700 miles

Food Insecurity

“When I lived in North Korea, all I worried about was getting food.” – Joseph Kim, escaped North Korea in 2006

Years of mismanagement led to the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s. The Public Distribution System – the system North Koreans relied on for food for decades – was decimated. Prioritizing the elites and those deemed loyal, the regime cut food supplies to less politically favored regions and sections of society first. The resulting famine killed up to one million people in the mid to late 1990s out of a population of about 20 million, making it one of the worst famines of the 20th century.

watch north koreans
talk about the famine

“Back then, if you walked around outside, you’d see dead bodies everywhere, like some kind of battlefield. They were people who’d starved to death."

– Shimon Huh, escaped North Korea in 2013

Although food security has improved since then, many ordinary North Korean people still face regular food shortages caused by the regime’s refusal to open up and liberalize the economy, the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters like flooding, and an inability to purchase necessary agricultural inputs or food imports.

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 higher susceptibility to health problems.

Dismal Public Health

The North Korean 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 like Pyongyang kept functioning. In other parts of the country, health services are only available to those who can afford it. Ordinary North Koreans are susceptible to easily preventable or curable poverty-related diseases, like tuberculosis and cataracts.

“My mom had a liver disease. The kind of disease that I would learn after leaving North Korea was curable if she had been treated. But in North Korea, the regime controls the healthcare system and we didn’t have the money or the right political connections to get her the care she desperately needed. Near the end, I held her hand and begged her to get better. I promised her that if she stayed alive long enough, I would become a doctor and find a cure for her. She died in March 2003, right before my 12th birthday.”

– Jessie Kim, escaped North Korea in 2011

Refugee Crisis

Since the famine, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China in desperate search of food, medicine, and money. Even now, thousands of North Korean refugees are fleeing every year. There are currently an unknown number of North Korean refugees in China and over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it safely to South Korea.

Like mentioned above, the North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave the country without permission. If caught trying to escape or arrested in China and sent back, North Koreans can face extremely harsh punishments, including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and even 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.

The fact that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned qualifies North Korean defectors as refugees sur place. But contrary to their obligations under international law, 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 has cooperated with the Chinese authorities to tighten security on both sides of the border. Recent defectors tell 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 making it all the way to South Korea continues to decrease.

Refugee Exploitation

North Korean refugees in China are often in a desperate situation. They fear harsh punishments and even death if they are caught and sent back to North Korea. But many do not have the resources or connections to get themselves out of China. Their illegal status in China and lack of any kind of protection forces them to work in invisible industries and makes them vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation and labor exploitation.

This is why our secret rescue routes are so important.

Learn how you can help North Korean refugees safely reach freedom

Sex Trafficking

An estimated 60% of North Korean women refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade.

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 chat rooms, or are bought and sold as wives.

North Korean women have been sold for as little as a few hundred dollars in China. One of the most tragic aspects of this is that often the women may even know what is happening to them, but they still see it as a better option than being sent back to North Korea.

“For three days, the broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men gathered to bid on me. The broker finally found a man who was willing to pay enough for me. I was sold for $3,000." – Joy Kim, rescued by LiNK

Stateless Children

Children born to North Korean refugee mothers and Chinese fathers can face difficulties obtaining household registration papers because of their mother’s illegal status. This can leave children stateless, recognized by neither the China nor North Korea. They may be denied basic rights, such as access to education, health services, and other state services. There are estimated to be around 10,000 children born to North Korean refugee mothers in China.

There is Hope

Despite these tremendous challenges, the North Korean people are making significant progress towards their own freedom.

Change is happening in North Korea. See how