The Challenges of the North Korean People (2023)

physical isolation

It is illegal for North Koreans to leave their country without government permission. North Koreans who attempt to leave the country illegally and are caught face dire consequences, including torture, hard labor and life imprisonment in a political prison camp.

Those allowed to travel abroad, such as diplomats, elite students, enlisted workers and athletes, are closely monitored and must attend special ideological briefings upon their return to North Korea.

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

North Koreans rarely get a chance to speak with foreigners traveling to North Korea, and even then, a caretaker is usually present.

digital isolation

"People in North Korea are so isolated and disconnected from the outside world that they don't even know what the word 'internet' means."– Kim Min Hyuk, fled 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.
Interference with foreign cell phones and radio 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 someone passing by couldn't hear. We listened to a South Korean radio like this for 10 years to hide it from our neighbors and friends. In North Korea, listening to foreign radio stations is considered a crime against the state. If we were caught, we could face years in a political prison camp or even execution."

Illyong Ju, fled North Korea in 2008

The regime co-opted technological advancesto further isolate the North Korean people. Licensed North Korean smartphones cannot access the Internet. Instead, they are connected to the country's intranet, which is heavily restricted and controlled by the regime. North Koreans who want to download an approved app on their phoneyou have to go to a physical store.

extreme ideologies

The North Korean government's ideology is a dangerous mix of authoritarianism, nationalism and militarism that was ubiquitous in its early days and still persists more than 70 years later.

personality cult

Kim Il-sung, North Korea's first leader, built a personality cult to consolidate power after eliminating rival factions in the early 1950s. To justify his authoritarian rule, he rewrote his family history and his own achievements, claiming to have almost single-handedly defeated the Japanese to free the Korean people.

Throughout his reign, he was referred to with grand titles such as "Celestial Leader", and statues of him were erected across the country. The regime also ordered all North Korean adults to wear a Kim Il-sung badge over their heart to show their loyalty, a practice that continues to this day.

The Kim family's personality cult and over-the-top accomplishments also served to expand its dominance through the rise 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 divine, with mythical stories surrounding their conquests. North Korean state media even claimed that Kim Jong-un learned to drive when he was 3 years old.

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

The Ten Principles for Establishing the Monolithic Ideological System

These principles are like the Kim family's 10 commandments of obedience and serve as the ground rules of North Korean society.

1. Strive with all your might to make the whole society a Kimilsung Kimjongilist society.

2. To revere the great and respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as the great leaders of the Party and the people, the eternal suns of Juche.

3. Making the authority of respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the Party absolute. Prepare to defend them.

4. Arm yourself with the revolutionary ideas of the great and respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the realization of their ideas: the Party's line and policy.

5. Uphold the principle of unconditional fulfillment of the commandments of highly respected comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as the Party's line and policy.

6. Further strengthen the ideological, idiosyncratic and revolutionary unity of the entire party around the figure of its leader(s).

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

8. Honor the political aspect of life given by the leader and the party, respond with high political awareness and real achievements in carrying out your work.

9. Establish strict organizational discipline in an unconditional movement of the entire Party, the entire state and the entire army under the sole leadership of the Party.

10. Inherit and carry out the great feat of the Juche Revolution, the great feat of the Songun Revolution initiated by the great leader, respected Comrade Kim Il Sung and led by the great and 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, particularly the United States and South Korea. North Koreans are taught that they have nothing to envy and that the rest of the world is plagued by corruption, disease and conflict.

military first

The propaganda machine constantly reminds the North Korean people of the importance of the military to the country's survival. The United States and South Korea are portrayed as aggressors that could invade at any time, justifying the need for heavy military casualties and the development of nuclear weapons.

The Challenges of the North Korean People (1)

north korean propaganda

Cradle to Grave Advertising

Indoctrination with the regime's extreme ideologies begins at birth, and all North Koreans face lifelong regime propaganda efforts. This includes spreading propaganda into virtually every facet of their lives.

“Slogans were everywhere. They were painted on billboards and printed on calendars and said things like 'North Korea is a utopia', 'We have nothing in the world to envy' and 'Our beloved leader Kim Il Sung will always be with us'. I never questioned these things. words or doubted the stories. I never wondered why we rarely have electricity or why sometimes there isn't enough food. I believed everything the regime told me, I really thought I would have nothing to envy."

Noel Kim fled North Korea in 2009


North Korean children learn about the Kim family from kindergarten. Students are required to memorize the history of the Kims throughout their school years, and tremendous resources and time are devoted to the study of the country's leadership.

North Koreans talk about advertising when they are kids


Millions of dollars and man-hours are being spent to glorify the Kim family at the expense of the North Korean economy and the well-being of the North Korean people. This propaganda is reinforced by ideological seminars and self-criticism sessions, where workers criticize themselves in front of their colleagues.

get married

North Koreans must also belong to a neighborhood entity called Theminban consisting of 20-40 families. The unit is headed by a local chief whose job it is to help the authorities police this neighborhood.

Portraits of North Korea's first two dictators, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are a must-have in every home. During routine home inspections by authorities, North Koreans can be fined if portraits are not clean enough. There are even reports that North Koreans may be at risk of being investigated by the secret police.for not being able to save the picturesof a burning building.


From literature to cinema, all media must be approved by the state's propaganda machine. The purpose of this medium is to indoctrinate the North Korean people to obey and submit to the leadership, praising the efforts and sacrifices of the Kim family for the country.

North Korean movies and television shows feature stories of people sacrificing themselves for the country's great cause and leadership. Even children's cartoons are said 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 propaganda. North Korean movies are so predictable."– Yeon Woo, North Korean refugee

See an example of North Korean propaganda


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

The regime controls all the media, which daily praise the country's leaders and cover negative stories from the rest of the world to increase support for the regime. Independent journalism is strictly prohibited and the consequences of reporting and disclosing information are severe.

no freedom

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

No freedom of expression or opinion

“I couldn't say a word about the government. They would drag me to prison if I did that.".
– Yoon Ji, fled North Korea in 2017

It is strictly forbidden to speak against the North Korean regime. The only opinion that can be expressed within the country is that of the regime. 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 say it out loud, but we all wish Kim Jong-un would spend 1% of his defense spending on people so we don't have to worry about what to eat the next day."– Se Jung, fled North Korea in 2017

Even small comments are prohibited.The regime triesto dictate what kind of hairstyle and clothing are appropriate for North Koreans. North Koreans who push the boundaries of fashion, for example by wearing jeans, risk being stopped in the street and having their clothes cut so that they cannot be worn.

How fashion is policed ​​in North Korea

no freedom of religion

"The state views the spread of Christianity as a particularly serious threat because it ideologically challenges the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the state."– Report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry

People caught practicing or spreading religion in secret face extremely severe punishment, including life imprisonment 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 40-year-old woman was caught keeping a Bible at home… The woman was shot dead in public on a farm threshing floor. The superiors sent me to see the public execution... the guards tied his head to his chest and his legs to a pole and shot him."– Kim, defector from North Korea.

There are symbolic churches and temples in North Korea, but they are only maintained to give foreign visitors a semblance of religious tolerance.

No freedom of information

Possession of foreign media and information is illegal. The secret police are cracking down on consumption of foreign media, which is smuggled into the country and shared person-to-person via USB. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, the severity of punishment for possession or distribution has increased.

"When I was younger, I would hide in my room, close the curtains and watch foreign movies. I can still sing a few South Korean pop songs. But in the past five years, the government has stepped up its crackdown on foreign media. After After witnessing a public execution in 2012, I didn't dare look at any of the soap opera CDs I copied”.
– In Kyung, fled North Korea in 2017

no freedom of movement

Freedom of movement within the country is severely restricted. North Koreans who wish to travel to another part of the country must 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 political punishment and persecution.

Songbun's political apartheid system

If your relative in North Korea is accused of "anti-state" or "socialist" crimes, you and three generations of your family could be punished. Entire families are removed from society to prevent dissent from arising in the future. Collective punishment also deters citizens who can sacrifice for a political cause but don't want to sacrifice their entire family.

The regime has invested an incredible amount of time and resources into creating the songbun system, a form of political apartheid that grants every North Korean a certain level of perceived political loyalty based on his or her family background. There are 51 levels of Songbun divided into three classes: loyal, faltering, and hostile. Songbun levels can severely limit a North Korean's life chances. It can determine where they can live, educational opportunities like going to college, party affiliation, military service, occupation, and treatment by the criminal justice system. Any perceived political infraction by a family member could result in Songbun's demotion from the entire family.

“Before I was born, my father and his friends stole grain from the regime because they were hungry. They took food from the military, which is what the regime prioritizes the most. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and sent to a reform school, where he was forced to work for four years.

After his arrest, our family was branded. North Korea has a collective punishment system. If one family member commits a crime against the regime, the entire family, including the unborn, can be punished and ostracized for life.
Due to my father's crime, all the dreams I had for my life have already been shattered. I would never have the chance to go to college or pursue my dream of becoming a singer.”

Ilhyeok Kim, fled North Korea in 2011

a system of terror

The regime relies on political prison camps, torture, collective punishment and public executions to instill fear and repress even the slightest sign of political dissent.

“These crimes against humanity include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, displacement of populations, enforced disappearances and inhumane acts that intentionally cause prolonged hunger.”

Report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea


The North Korean regime routinely uses torture to extract confessions under duress during interrogation and to punish political and non-political prisoners.

Numerous eyewitness accounts of survivorsthey describe missing teeth, broken bones and permanent disfigurement from beatings, torture with water, sitting immobile on their knees for days, weeks in cells too small to sit or lie down, and hanging by shackles with their feet on the floor.

North Korean refugees arrested and deported in China face dire consequences for illegally fleeing the country. They can be interrogated and tortured for months before being sentenced to years of hard labor or life imprisonment in a political prison camp. Repatriated pregnant women 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 Korean refugees safely escape.

political prison camps

5 political prison camps accommodate 80,000 to 120,000 people.

The regime denies the existence of these camps for political prisoners,but several testimonies of survivorsthey were confirmed by former guards and satellite imagery. Beatings, executions and starvation are the order of the day. Many people incarcerated in political camps were not guilty of any crime, but were related to someone who allegedly 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 exist five times as large as Nazi concentration camps and twice as many as Soviet gulags.

forced labour

Re-education through work is used as a punishment for those accused of crimes against the state. It is also a way for authorities to take advantage of free work. Prisoners are forced to work up to 18 hours a day, performing dangerous tasks such as coal mining or logging. Fatal accidents are common due to long working hours, little sleep and virtually no regard for the safety of prisoners.

Even North Koreans who are not in jail can be forced to do unpaid work on collective farms or infrastructure projects for weeks. Instead of attending classes, many students are mobilized to help in the fields during planting and harvesting.

forced starvation

Deliberately kept close to starvation, prisoners are sometimes given just a few grains of corn a day. Men serving sentences in agyohwaso-a kind of internment camp one floor below a camp for political prisoners- can lose more than 30 kilos during detention. Many prisoners have to eat insects, rodents and snakes to survive.

“When we weren't crammed into our cells and sleeping on the dirty floor, they made us work. From 5:00 am to 11:00 pm we would go to the mountains to get firewood and pieces of cold on our fingers and toes.

We only have a quarter of an ear for food. It was never enough and hunger gnawed at our stomachs. People were so hungry that guards had to drag them out of the toilets so they wouldn't eat their own feces. Some mornings I would wake up to find one of my cellmates rigid and lifeless. We marched to collect firewood, and their pale bodies lay there, their cheeks hollowed with hunger.

Jo Eun Kim rescued by LiNK in 2017

Read more about Jo Eun's story

sexual violence

Sexual violence against women during interrogations and detention is also widespread. Guards and police rape and attack women without countermeasures.

“Rape and brutal beatings were common in the Chongjin Detention Center. Every night a woman was forced to walk with a guard and be raped... click click click was the most horrible sound I have ever heard. It was the sound of the cell key unlocking our prison. Every night a prison guard opened the cell. I stood there, pretending not to notice, hoping it wasn't me who had to follow the guard, hoping it wasn't him."

Yoon Mi Hwa, who fled North Korea in 2018,

Human Rights Watch-Bericht

Poor prison conditions can also lead to sexual exploitation, when prisoners offer sexual favors to guards in exchange for more food rations or less strenuous work tasks. Women who become pregnant during detention areoften taken and held by other prisoners for execution.

public executions

318 public execution sites have been identified in North Korea.
According to a report published in 2019 byTransitional Justice Task Force

The North Korean regime publicly executes citizens accused of a wide range of crimes, including petty theft and foreign media reporting. Entire communities, including young children, are forced to witness these executions. These horrific public events are designed to spread terror and discourage people from challenging the regime. The regime collects cell phones or cameras before the event to prevent anyone from documenting the execution.

Public executions in North Korea

enforced poverty

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

The Challenges of the North Korean People (3)

Rather, North Korea's poverty is the tragic consequence of the ruling elite's absolute prioritization of political control, maintained through social and economic micromanagement and the ruthless suppression of alternative views and approaches. This is stifling the potential of the North Korean people and the North Korean economy.

North Korea GDP vs. South Korea $1,700 (estimated) vs. $39,500
North Korea Exports vs. South Korea $1.74 billion vs. $596 billion

food insecurity

"When I lived in North Korea, all I cared about was getting food."Joseph Kim, fled North Korea in 2006

Years of mismanagement led to the collapse of the state's socialist economy in the 1990s. The public distribution system, the system that North Koreans have relied on for decades, has been decimated. The regime prioritized the elites and those considered loyal, first cutting off the food supply in politically disadvantaged regions and sectors of society. The resulting famine killed up to a million people out of a population of around 20 million in the mid-1990s, making it one of the worst famines of the 20th century.

north korean watches
talk about hunger

"At that time, if you went out, you would see dead bodies everywhere, like on a battlefield. These were people who died of starvation."

– Shimon Huh, fled North Korea in 2013

While food security has since improved, many ordinary North Koreans still face periodic food shortages caused by the regime's refusal to open up and liberalize the economy, the country's vulnerability to natural disasters such as floods, and the inability to provide agricultural supplies. basic. inputs or buy food, imports are caused.

Millions of malnourished children and babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers are now bearing the brunt of the shortage. This has left a generation of North Koreans stunted and more susceptible to health problems.

bad public health

The North Korean regime claims to provide universal healthcare to its people. In reality, most of the public health system collapsed in the 1990s, with only priority hospitals in areas like Pyongyang continuing to function. In other parts of the country, health services are available only to those who can afford them. Ordinary North Koreans are vulnerable to easily preventable or curable diseases related to poverty, such as tuberculosis and cataracts.

“My mother had liver disease. The type of illness he would experience after leaving North Korea was curable if treated. But in North Korea, the regime controls the health care system, and we didn't have the right money or political connections to get him the care he desperately needed. In the end, I took her hand and asked her to get better. I promised her that if she lived long enough I would become a doctor and find a cure for her. He died in March 2003, just before my 12th birthday.

– Jessie Kim, fled North Korea in 2011

refugee crisis

Since the famine, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China in a desperate search for food, medicine and money. Thousands of North Korean refugees are already fleeing the country every year. An unknown number of North Korean refugees are currently in China, and over 33,000 North Korean refugees have safely arrived in South Korea.

As mentioned above, the North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave the country without permission. If North Koreans are caught trying to escape or are arrested in China and deported, they face extremely severe punishment, including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture and even detention in a political prison camp. Those suspected of having had contact with South Koreans or Christians in China are punished more severely.

The fact that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return qualifies North Korean defectors as refugees sur place. But contrary to its obligations under international law, the Chinese government prioritizes its political ties with Pyongyang and does not recognize them as refugees. Instead, they label them "economic migrants" to justify the forced repatriation of thousands of North Korean refugees every year.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, he has worked with Chinese authorities to increase security on both sides of the border. Recent defectors tell us about increased physical security at the border, increased risk related to bribing border guards, and increased penalties for people who try to flee. As a result, the number of refugees arriving in South Korea continues to decline.

exploitation of refugees

North Korean refugees in China often find themselves in dire straits. They fear severe penalties and even death if caught and sent back to North Korea. But many lack the resources or connections to leave 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 and labor exploitation.

That's why our secret escape routes are so important.

Find out 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.

The lack of marriageable women in China, particularly in rural areas of the northeastern provinces, creates a demand for North Korean women who risk being forced to work in brothels or online chat rooms, or being bought and sold. sold as wives.

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

“For three days the broker took me through villages in northern China, and crowds of men gathered to bid for me. The agent finally found a man willing to pay enough for me. They sold it to me for $3,000."– Joy Kim, saved by LiNK

I heard about these women

stateless children

Children of North Korean refugee mothers and Chinese fathers may have difficulty obtaining family registration documents due to their mothers' illegal status. This allows children to become stateless, something neither China nor North Korea recognizes. Basic rights such as access to education, health care and other government services may be denied. It is estimated that around 10,000 children are born to North Korean refugee mothers in China.


How are the people treated in North Korea? ›

including the violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of ...

Why is North Korea so difficult? ›

Do not travel to North Korea due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals. Exercise increased caution to North Korea due to the critical threat of wrongful detention.

What can North Korean citizens not do? ›

North Korea has strict laws about what you can bring into the country. It's illegal to bring in religious, pornographic or political items. Declare all published material and electronic devices when you arrive. It's also illegal to knowingly or unknowingly possess items that breach North Korean law.

Can North Korean citizens use Internet? ›

As of 2022, ordinary citizens with mobile devices do not have access to the global internet. Instead, these individuals are only able to access Kwangmyong, that is operated by the country. In terms of global internet access, this privilege is only granted to a small number of North Korean elites.

Why does North Korea have no Internet? ›

Nearly all of North Korea's Internet traffic is routed through China. Since February 2013, foreigners have been able to access the Internet using the 3G telecommunications network provided by Koryolink. Permission to access the Internet remains tightly restricted.

What are the living conditions for the citizens in North Korea? ›

The country is culturally and economically isolated as many suffer from malnutrition and live in extreme poverty. Many North Koreans go to work every day on farms, in factories, and in the capital of Pyongyang.

How are North Koreans treated in South? ›

North Koreans living in South Korea are often mistreated at schools, denied employment, and are subject to other kinds of ethnic issues due to their being from North Korea.

How does North Korea punish criminals? ›

Executions are mostly carried out by a firing squad, hanging or decapitation. Allegedly, executions take place in public, which, if true, makes North Korea one of the last four countries to still perform public executions, the other three being Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

Is North Korea friendly to us? ›

Relations between North Korea and the United States have been historically tense and hostile, as both countries have no diplomatic relations.

Are Americans not allowed in North Korea? ›

Most Western travelers cannot enter North Korea with a passport alone. For example, an American passport needs special validation from the U.S. State Department.

Why Can North Koreans not travel? ›

The North Korean government does not countenance its citizens going abroad without its permission. The elite are no exception to this rule. In some cases, being elite can make it harder to go abroad. Top cadres in the Workers' Party of Korea face restrictions on overseas travel.

Why would people leave North Korea? ›

Most North Korean refugees reportedly leave the country due to economic reasons. Based on a study of North Korean defectors, women make up the majority of defections.

What are the problems in South Korea? ›

But South Korea faces unparalleled challenges too, including the demographic fallout of having the world's lowest fertility rate and being one of the planet's fastest-aging societies, all-around economic competition from China, vulnerable supply chains, and much lower growth rates.


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