Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

31 August 2023
Risk Level: Current Crisis

Crimes against humanity continue to be committed by state authorities against North Korean civilians.


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, is one of the most authoritarian and repressive countries in the world, severely restricting the universal human rights of its people in a widespread manner. In a report issued in February 2014 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on DPRK established responsibility at the highest level of government for ongoing crimes against humanity, as well as other systematic and widespread human rights violations committed by the government against its people.

The CoI’s report detailed harrowing abuses committed by the DPRK government, including 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. The CoI reported that persons accused of political crimes have been subject to execution without trial and that the DPRK government has abducted and disappeared non-nationals. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) continues to gather information that is consistent with the CoI’s findings, according to a January 2023 report. Several reports by the UN Secretary-General have also documented pervasive torture and forced labor among the country’s large detainee population, which includes labor camps, prisons and other detention centers. The government targets perceived political opponents, often sending them to political prison camps where they engage in forced labor.

Since 2020 – under the pretext of preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic – the DPRK government has enforced repressive and unnecessary measures on basic freedoms that have compounded the country’s humanitarian crisis. These prolonged measures, have severely restricted access to food, medicines, healthcare and livelihoods. According to the World Food Programme, at least 10.7 million people are undernourished.

For decades the DPRK government has attempted to insulate itself from international scrutiny. To date the DPRK government has refused to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms and offices, including the OHCHR office in Seoul – which was established in 2015 to monitor and document abuses in the DPRK – and has denied entry to the former and current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

Prior to 2014, the UN Security Council (UNSC) engaged with the DPRK almost exclusively in the context of nuclear non-proliferation and had never directly addressed ongoing human rights abuses. In response to the CoI’s findings, in December 2014 the human rights situation in DPRK was added as a separate UNSC agenda item. In March 2023 the UNSC held a closed Arria-Formula meeting on the human rights situation in the country and its impact on international peace and security.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) has considered the human rights situation in DPRK for over a decade, including passing resolutions on DPRK annually for the past 18 years. Many of those resolutions have called upon the UNSC to “continue its consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations” of the CoI, including through referring the situation in DPRK to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Some resolutions have also recalled DPRK’s responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity and expressed deep concern about “the pervasive culture of impunity and the lack of accountability for human rights violations.”

Summits and other high-level engagements between DPRK and other countries, such as the 2018 and 2019 meetings with the United States government in Singapore and Vietnam, as well as meetings with the leaders of the Republic of Korea, China and Russia – failed to address ongoing human rights abuses. These high-profile political engagements were primarily directed toward addressing the country’s nuclear program.


In October 2022 the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Elizabeth Salmón, reported to the General Assembly that enforced disappearances continue to be a serious crime in the country and expressed concern that crimes against humanity committed by the DPRK government continue. The Special Rapporteur stressed the need for the UN and the international community to take decisive action to bring justice and accountability for serious human rights violations, including crimes against humanity. In a report dated 27 February 2023, the Special Rapporteur warned that domestic and sexual violence are widespread and normalized in the DPRK. Women and girls who are in detention facilities, who attempt to escape the DPRK, particularly when crossing the border into China, or who work in the jangmadang (or informal markets) are vulnerable to gendered power imbalances that can exacerbate the harm caused by violations and abuses. On 27 March OHCHR published a report examining enforced disappearances and abductions from 1950 to 2016, including arbitrary detentions inside DPRK.

A 2022 report from the International Bar Association and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea determined that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and other high-level officials are likely responsible for crimes against humanity committed in detention centers in the DPRK. The investigation found evidence of 10 of the 11 crimes against humanity outlined in the Rome Statute of the ICC, including murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, imprisonment or severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts.

In accordance with the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016, the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea published its first report on 30 March, which found that the DPRK authorities continued to impose severe restrictions on fundamental rights between 2017-2022, including freedom of movement and expression, as well as the right to privacy through broad surveillance measures. The report details numerous cases of arbitrary deprivation of life, including summary executions as a COVID-19 quarantine measure at the border, infanticide and the widespread use of the death penalty.


Despite international engagements focused on denuclearization and other security issues, the human rights and humanitarian situation in the DPRK remains dire.

The country’s human rights record is intimately linked to its weapons program, which benefits from forced labor and contributes to widespread poverty and hunger. With no civil society, free elections or political space for open debate, there is little opportunity for reform of North Korea’s human rights practices. Meaningful engagement between DPRK and most of the international community remains minimal.


    • The absence of any checks on the power of the DPRK leadership.
    • Impunity for past and ongoing atrocity crimes enjoyed by the DPRK government.
    • Record of serious violations of international human rights and customary international law.
    • Economic instability, poverty and famine, all of which are exacerbated by government policies.
    • Significant capacity to commit atrocities, especially against vulnerable populations, including detainees, women, persons with disabilities and children.


It is essential for governments to focus not only on the country’s nuclear program but also on its egregious human rights record. Any negotiations on rapprochement with the DPRK should aim to address ongoing human rights abuses, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity. It is imperative that the UNGA, HRC and UNSC continue to focus attention on the threat the DPRK government poses to the universal human rights of its own population. The UNSC should refer the situation in the DPRK to the ICC.

The DPRK government should fully cooperate with OHCHR, allow entry to Special Rapporteur Salmón and fulfill its Universal Periodic Review commitments.

Access constraints have prohibited updated monitoring of DPRK.


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