This post is also available in: Korean

Severe Lack of Freedoms

Inside North Korea, citizens have virtually no freedom of expression, assembly, religion, or even the right to move from place to place, to choose where they live, or leave the country without permission.  The economic sphere is tightly controlled, while the education and health care systems for all but the elite are in shambles.

See The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and North Korea (PDF), prepared by the North Korea Freedom Coalition.

North Korea’s Class System

The government has long divided families into three classes: core, wavering, and hostile.  From birth, a person’s “seongbun” determines how high that person may rise in the society, where the person must live, etc. In general, the less trusted someone is the farther they must live from the capital and the harder their life will be.  Reasons for being distrusted include that one’s grandparent was born in South Korea.

Political Prison Camp System

Going against the government in any way — large or minuscule — or innocently being caught up in others’ power struggles can turn a person’s life upside-down and land them in a political prison camp. Some never learn what “crimes” they have committed.  Estimates are that there are 150,000 or more prisoners in the system.  Most camps cover huge tracts of land in hard-to-reach areas.

A person may be sent to a political prison camp if they:

  • do not properly handle photos of the country’s leaders
  • read a foreign newspaper or listen to a foreign radio broadcast (the regime tightly controls all information in the society)
  • sing a South Korean pop song
  • know something that might compromise a person in a high position
  • are accused of being a spy

The political prison camps involve forced labor in horrible conditions, little food or medical attention, and often no chance of release.  Prisoners are frequently tortured, and some are even used in biological weapons experiments.  Public executions occur often in these camps.

The government’s guilt-by-association policy means that a person’s entire family may be sent to a prison camp for the “crime” of an individual, though it may be a different camp than that of the convicted individual. There is nothing resembling due process or other legal protections in North Korea.  There are even cases of prisoners being born into the camps.

The government denies the existence of these camps, but today everyone can see them for themselves: see North Korea’s Largest Concentration Camps on Google Earth.

Food, Famine, and Politics

In the 1990s, famine struck North Korea.  To hear the government tell the story, it was caused by bad flooding, but the reality is more complicated, and much more tragic.

North Korea is the first industrialized society in the history of the world to suffer from famine.  In 1995, with the famine already in full-swing, the government finally began asking members of the international community for aid.  But at every turn it hindered all attempts to verify that the aid was actually reaching those most in need.  The vast majority of refugees interviewed indicated they never saw any aid, which was delivered in bags marked with the name of the donor country.  Instead, much of the aid is believed to have been diverted to the military or sold on the black market. In addition, as aid came pouring in, the government greatly reduced its imports of food.

Though no one knows for sure how many died due to the famine, conservative estimates are from 600,000 to 1,000,000 — about 3-5% of the population.  One study based on interviews of 771 refugees estimates that 12% died in the hardest-hit province.

According to the UN’s World Food Programme, an estimated 11 million people – or more than 40 percent of the population – are undernourished. One in five children are stunted. It’s not that the North Korean government doesn’t have the money to buy food on the international market; it’s that it chooses to spend the money on weapons under its military first policy.

Most of the facts in this section come from this report: Hunger and Human Rights


As a result of the famine, life in North Korea permanently changed. Since the government doesn’t provide food to much of the population, they have learned to fend for themselves.  Markets have sprung up — some legal, some not.  An increasing number of North Koreans work in these markets, in order to cope with growing hardship and reduced government support.  Many kinds of foods can be found at these markets, as well as clothing, DVDs, and MP3s.  The clothing and media is smuggled in through China.  The government has tried several times to crack down on market activity, but this has proved unsuccessful.  The markets are here to stay.

Street Vagrants

Another result of the famine was the tremendous rise in the number of orphans and street vagrants throughout the country.  Many parents starved themselves to feed their children, and then died and left their children orphans.  Others left their towns and workplaces and wandered the country looking for food.  These orphans and street vagrants are often organized in groups or gangs, and regularly steal from collective farms or market stalls.  Many consider them a nuisance, but these street vagrants also have positive aspects.  They have become carriers of information, spreading domestic and international news to all parts of the country.

Illegal Radio Broadcasts

Thousands of people have defected from North Korea over the years.  Many attribute this to the listening of illegal radio broadcasts from South Korea.  As more and more North Koreans learn the truth about the outside world, they are compelled to leave their country and find freedom elsewhere.  Those who listen to outside broadcasts do so primarily on government-issued radios that have been tampered with or on radios smuggled into the country.  Punishment for those caught doing so is often banishment to a labor camp, but defectors say it is worth the risk.

Latest Developments

While there has been little change in North Korea on the political level, on the “people level” there have been some significant developments.  The increasing availability of outside information through the markets, illegal radio broadcasts, and street vagrants has shifted the people’s perception of their country and its leaders.  Furthermore, the markets have caused the people to depend on themselves, rather than on the government, for their sustenance.  These developments illustrate slow but steady change inside North Korea.

For the latest news on North Korea, see The Daily NK.