The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a dynastic, totalitarian state where tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained, enslaved, tortured, abducted, and executed.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) concluded in its February 2014 report that crimes against humanity had been committed by actors at the highest level of the state with complete impunity, for decades. [1]


The DPRK was founded in 1945 at the end of World War II. In the wake of Japan’s surrender, its colonial administration of Korea collapsed. The Soviet Union and the United States divided the Korean peninsula into two zones of influence at the 38th parallel, with a US-occupied Republic of Korea in the south and a Soviet-occupied DPRK in the north, both governments claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. [2] 

The Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung as the leader of the DPRK, and he ruled the country until his death in 1994. In 1949, Kim Il-sung secured his designation as Suryong, Supreme Leader and continued to consolidate his power. To eliminate any opposition to his rule, he established a system of governance built on an elaborate guiding ideology, a single mass party led by a single person, a centrally-planned economy, a monopoly on the means of communication, and a system of security that employed violence and a political police. [3] This marked the beginning of the DPRK’s state security apparatus.

On June 25th 1950, Kim Il-sung initiated the three-year Korean War by sending approximately 90,000 soldiers of the Korean People’s Army over the 38th parallel with the aim of taking over the entire peninsula. During this time, more bombs were dropped on the DPRK than had been deployed in the entire Pacific theatre during World War II. [4] The devastation caused to all parts of the Korean peninsula was enormous. [5] A ceasefire was signed in 1953 bringing to an end this armed conflict.

Persecution of political and ideological opponents intensified during the Korean War, and after the war concluded, Kim Il-sung began a series of purges targeting rival factions. Kim Il-sung subsequently launched the Songbun system, categorizing citizens of the DPRK into three broad classes based on their ancestors’ perceived loyalty to the regime: core, wavering, and hostile.[6] Under the Songbun system, one’s class is inherited, and upward mobility is severely limited. The Songbun system provides a basis upon which the government provides discriminatory access to education, employment, food rations, and even medical treatment. Those in the core class receive better state services, while those in the hostile class are subject to state-imposed persecution. The Songbun system contributes to the vast numbers of families being purged from society and forced into political prison camps. [7]

The son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il came to power after the death of his father in 1994 and, following a three-year mourning period, Kim Jong-il was formally elected leader by the Supreme People’s Assembly in 1998. [8]

The seasonal arrival of extreme rains in the summer of 1995 compounded by soil erosion and river silting led to floods that destroyed the harvest and contributed to the period of great famine known as the “Arduous March”. Between 1996 and 1999, between 450,000 and 2 million people starved to death. Although several factors contributed to the steep death rate, the Songbun system was the most significant. When the food supply began decreasing, the regime sacrificed citizens classified as “hostile” under the Songbun system, cutting them off from the food distribution system and international humanitarian assistance. [9]

Under the leadership of Kim Jong-il, and in keeping with the Songun system, the DPRK embarked on a quest to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Reportedly, the DPRK has one of the world’s largest stocks of chemical weapons. In addition to destabilizing security in the region and further isolating the DPRK, the drive to be a nuclear state has had profound consequences on resource allocation in the DPRK and with particularly profound impact on those parts of the population already reported to be food insecure. [10]

Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father in 2011 and was given the title of “Supreme Commander”. The early years of Kim Jong-Un’s reign were characterized by a ruthless consolidation of power and the sharp acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.[11] In December 2013, Kim executed his uncle Jang Song-Thaek who was widely considered to be second-in-command within the DPRK power structure. [12] Kim Jong-Un’s government has continued to restrict all civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It also prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions. [13]

The government routinely employs arbitrary detentions, custodial torture, sexual violence, and summary executions to maintain fear and control over the population. The government and security agencies systematically extract forced, unpaid labor from DPRK citizens to build infrastructure, implement projects, and carry out activities and events extolling the ruling Kim family and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). [14]

The North Korean government has used and continues to use brutal means of repression of its population. Thousands and thousands of people have been put in jail every year without due process of law guarantees such as notification of charges or fair trial rights. Further, applying the Songbun guilt-by-association system, the authorities often imprison not only an alleged offender but three generations of an accused person’s family, including young children. Harsh labor conditions, minimal food rations, denial of medical assistance, and torture serve as tools of oppression and extermination in massive detention camps. Torture is rampant throughout North Korea’s vast system of detention facilities. [15]

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[1] Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [hereafter “COI Report”], Off. Doc. HRC, twenty-fifth session, Doc. UN A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, para. 1160.

[2] Id. para. 95-97.

[3] Id. para. 111.  

[4] Id. para. 104. 

[5] Bruce Cummings. Divided Korea: Unified Future? Headlines Series, No. 306, New York, Foreign Policy Association (1995), p. 35. 

[6] COI Report, supra, note 1, para. 117.

[7] Citizens’ Alliance for North Korea Human Rights, Caste-system-Songbun, available at

[8] COI Report, supra, note 1, para. 136.

[9] Citizens’ Alliance for North Korea Human Rights, Starvation, available at

[10] COI Report, supra, note 1, para. 137.

[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Kim Jong-Un, available at

[12] COI Report, supra, note 1, para. 157.

[13] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019 : North Korea, [online]

[14] Id.

[15] Citizens’ Alliance for North Korea Human Rights, Political prison camps and other forms of detention, available at