Amid the denuclearisation talks in Vietnam between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February 2019, the authorities increased restrictions. In recent months the North Korea authorities have cracked down on foreign media content and increased video surveillance at the China border.
North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive states and civic space is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and religion. It prohibits all organised political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions.
Amid the denuclearisation talks in Vietnam between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February 2019, the authorities launched a massive operation in the country. The People’s Security Agency in Pyongsong halted any movement of people and conducted heavy night-time, unit-based patrols. The local police in Pyongsong organised five-member “laborer patrol units” to monitor specific areas, 24 hours a day. If individuals of unknown identity were found during the patrols, they were detained immediately and released only once their identities were confirmed.
Factories, enterprises, and farms were required to have daily attendance reports to monitor the movement of visitors and to monitor and supervise employees. Many were not allowed to leave work and asked to protect regime symbols like statues.
Asia Press, a North Korea-focused news outlet in Japan, reported through sources in North Korea that the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and police officers were patrolling residential areas around the clock and that local district officials and government cadres were conducting surprise visits to the houses of ordinary people every night.
In recent months the North Korea authorities have cracked down on foreign media content and increased video surveillance at the border with China.
According to a report by online news outlet Daily NK, six students at Jungdok Senior Middle School, including a child of a high official of Pyongsong People’s Committee were detained on 3rd January 2019 for watching South Korean TV dramas. The outlet reported that this case was particularly surprising because the children involved in this case were sent to the local Ministry of State Security (MSS) unit immediately, despite the parent’s politically high status,. A source in North Pyongan Province stated that "this is an indication of rising efforts of North Korean authorities to prevent its young people from obtaining and spreading foreign information and media content that might be contrary to the North Korean regime’s ruling ideology".
On 4th January 2019, it was reported that in North Hamgyong Province a photographer and his assistant were arrested and sent to the Ministry of State Security unit for distributing foreign media sources such as movies and TV shows, in early December 2018. According to the news report, the two were selling media content from countries like South Korea, United States and Hong Kong in forms of discs and USBs. As the investigation is underway, the authority confiscated the list of their clients that bought the shows, which included workers, university students, and soldiers.
According to news reports, members of the “anti-socialist task force” (tasked with searching and punishing behaviors considered contrary to socialism) affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS) conducted a raid on house of a former soldier in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in February 2019. During the raid, the 23-year-old son of the provincial Historical Site Management Office Elementary Party chairman and six of his friends from middle school were caught watching a Chinese movie and were arrested. The task force also discovered a USB filled with South Korean music and dramas.
Freedom of movement around the country or across borders is heavily restricted in North Korea. In December 2018, the DailyNK news reported that North Korean authorities announced it will be expanding its video surveillance network along the China-North Korea border. According to a source in North Hamgyong Province, surveillance cameras have been installed along the 17km-long border area. The purpose of increasing the installation of these surveillance posts is to deter people from defecting and other forms of illegal border-crossing, such as smuggling, through instilling fear among the residents near the region.
The Daily NK reports that the Kim Jong Un era has seen an increase in surveillance and control around the country’s border with China, including wiretapping to identify users of smuggled Chinese mobile phones placing international calls. There have also been significant deployments of joint inspection teams to investigate and implement measures to prevent border-crossings and defections.
According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) constitution, the freedom of association is guaranteed, however independent civil society groups do not exist.
According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) constitution, the freedom of association is guaranteed, however independent civil society groups do not exist. The few civic groups that do exist are organised and controlled by the government. Given the dire situation for associational freedoms, all independent North Korean human rights groups operate from abroad. The pervasive social control by the authorities over the private lives of North Korean citizens makes a vibrant and independent civil society impossible. No political opposition to the ruling party exists. Furthermore, there are no labour unions within the country. Organised labour activities such as strikes and collective bargaining are illegal in North Korea. There is no concept of homosexuality in North Korean society, and LGBTI people are forced to hide their sexual orientation or defect to South Korea.
Other than state organised assemblies honouring the supreme leader on special occasions, independent gatherings are prohibited – despite constitutional guarantees.
Other than state organised assemblies honouring the supreme leader on special occasions, independent gatherings are prohibited – despite constitutional guarantees. In theory gatherings must receive approval from the authorities but in practice they are non-existent. The movements and activities of the people of North Korea are strictly monitored and all acts that denounce the supreme leader or the state party result in political imprisonment and/or public execution. International groups estimate that 1,382 people have been publicly executed in North Korea in the period 2000 - 2014. An extensive network of community spies provides information to the regime on the loyalty of North Korean families, making community or issue-based organising virtually impossible.
All media is state-controlled within North Korea and there is no independent journalism; all content is pre-verified by the government.
All media is state-controlled within North Korea and there is no independent journalism; all content is pre-verified by the government. Journalists face the risk of dismissal, detention or imprisonment by the government if they dare to exercise their right to freedom of expression. People in North Korea are prohibited from having access to foreign media. Smuggled mobile phones and USB sticks can offer North Korean citizens a small glimpse of independent media. There is no open Internet access, while online content is only available through a state controlled intranet. The Korea Computer Centre only permits government authorised sites to be accessed through the intranet. Even this is not available to all people in North Korea. Full internet access is only available to some governmental officials and elites.