North Korea

By Lisa Sargent

North Korean Flag


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, is acknowledged throughout the international arena as one of the most repressive countries of the present time. It is one of the few Stalinist governments that exists post-Cold War. The North Korean government maintains an information blockade that restricts speech and press rights to ensure citizens do not become dissuaded with its national ideology. According to the Reports Without Borders Freedom Index, North Korea has been consistently ranked last until 2007, moving up one spot to the 178th. This shift is due to a devastating flood in August 2007, the worst flood North Korea has experienced since the 1970s, which left at least 200,000 citizens displaced, wounded, and killed. Realizing they needed international aid, North Korea reluctantly opened its door to the outside world.


North Korea is located in Eastern Asia on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. It is relatively similar in size to Mississippi and is strategically, but rather dangerously, placed surrounded by its neighbors China, Russia, and South Korea.

Throughout its history, the Korean peninsula has suffered invasions both great and small. In 1905, Japan invaded and took complete control of the isthmus by 1910. Korea remained a Japanese colony for the next 30 years until the defeat of Japan during World War II in 1945. The Soviet Union also invaded the peninsula, sending troops to the northern half while the United States occupied the southern half. Both countries tried developing a plan that would reunite the Korean peninsula but inevitably failed and turned the issue over to the United Nations (UN). The UN wanted to facilitate the electoral process to ensure that Korea chose one government, but the Soviet Union prevented UN representatives from entering the northern half.

In 1948, the northern and southern halves of Korea became two independent governments, separated by a military demarcation line, which inevitably allowed North Korea to officially become its own government. From 1950 to 1953, both North and South Korea clashed in the Korean War. Since there was no decisive victory, the north and south engage in small conflicts to this very day. Kim Jong-un became dictator of the highly militaristic regime in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il.

After the separation of the Korean governments, North Korea adopted communism as its national ideology. Its constitution has been amended six times since its original establishment in 1948.

The Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, recently amended in 2012, guarantees the basic rights such as those of freedom of speech and press.

Article 67 of the North Korean constitution guarantees the same rights to citizens that very much mirror those of the United States and other democratic governments:

Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association. The State shall guarantee conditions for the free activity of democratic political parties and social organizations.

Contrary to its constitution, however, the promise of these rights are just an illusion created by the North Korean government. The Korean Worker’s Party (KWP), North Korea’s only political party, holds the true power. The KWP adamantly goes to great lengths to suppress these very rights of nearly 25 million citizens, requiring that citizens demonstrate loyalty to the government.

All speech that criticizes the North Korean government is considered treacherous and is therefore considered illegal. Those who are caught are subjected to extreme punishments such as heavy fines, political hangings and executions, and relocation to political prison camps. Additionally, in efforts to stop any future opposition, the immediate and extended families of those guilty are punished for the next three generations by performing hard labor in political prison camps. These extreme measures are to ensure that citizens are not aware of the outside world, therefore preserving the form of government put in place.


In the nearly 70 years of North Korea’s existence, little information has been known about the country until the great famine (also known as Arduous March) of 1995. Yet even with that, all of the current knowledge we have obtained on North Korea is not provided by the government but comes largely from North Korean defectors and South Korean advocates. Though any information on speech restrictions in the country before Arduous March is extremely difficult to find, there have been several recent incidents of governmental suppression.

In 1989, Kim Young Soon, now a North Korean defector, was sent to Yoduk, one of North Korea’s political prisons, after claiming Sung Hae Rim was the mistress of Kim John-Il and had his child. Though her statements were true, the government charged her with spreading rumors, claiming that doing so was defamation of the government.

In 2009, Korean-American missionary Robert Park was imprisoned for illegally entering North Korea to draw attention to the country’s human rights issues. Park was released in February 2010 and sent back to America. Though he remains silent about the incident, it’s been reported that he was brutally tortured.

In January 2010, the the public execution of North Korean factory worker  arose after he called someone in South Korea to discuss North Korean rice prices.

Following the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, North Korean citizens were required to mourn. Those who failed to display sadness were punished by the government. North Korea denied the allegations.

Such punishments and radical restrictions such as these are exceedingly common. However, even those who have defected from North Korea are subject to the country’s strict grip. In 2009, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-level ranking North Korean official to ever defect to South Korea, was the target of an assassination attempt by two North Korean spies pretending to be defectors. Despite the high risk of being severely reprimanded for speaking out against the government or for obtaining outside information, 98 percent of North Koreans have received information not available in the North Korean market through word of mouth from trusted family and friends.


Because Kim Jong-un controls the media, there is no free press in North Korea. Correspondence traveling in and out of the country is strictly monitored, access to cell phones is restricted to internal networks, and radios and televisions come pre-tuned to North Korean stations. In addition to the pre-tuning, foreign broadcasts are jammed to prohibit any potential outside communication. Only the elite and border residents are allowed accessibility to the Internet. Repercussions from the government could result in extensive imprisonments, forced labor, suppression of workers’ rights, public executions, and starvation.

Like free speech issues, historical incidents involving press suppression are virtually nonexistent. There are more recent cases, however, that provide insight into North Korea’s handling of such issues.

Two North Korean journalists died in Yoduk prison camp in 2001 for being the first ro criticize the dictatorial regime. In October 2006, the North Korean media threatened both South Korean and American independent radio stations that were broadcasting messages to North Korean citizens. Reporters Without Borders called on the international community for support in condemning these threats.

On May 11, 2007, North Korea jammed dissenting and independent radio stations. In October 2007, a factory worker made international calls from phones he installed in the factory basement. He was executed by a firing squad in front of 150,000 witnesses.

On Aug 5, 2009, two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were charged with “serious crimes” and defamation of the regime and were arrested and sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp.

On Jan 3, 2011, two North Koreans were publicly executed for being in possession of propaganda brochures passed across the border from South Korea.

Remarkably, North Korean citizens and human rights advocates are finding loopholes in which to exchange news. After the Arduous March of 1997, used radios became the most accessible source of media. DVDs, TVs, and even USBs are increasing in popularity. Media outlets such as FreeNK, Radio Free Chosun, Free North Korean Radio, Radio Free Asia, and Open Radio for North Korea strive to communicate with North Korean citizens  and break the information blockade imposed by the regime.


While the North Korean constitution guarantees virtually the same press and speech freedoms as that of the United States, the only difference is that North Korea’s freedoms are meticulously calculated illusions created by the Kim Jong-un regime. In episodes involving free speech suppression  in North Korea, most were issues advocating the improvement of human rights, the high prices of rice, and alleged defamation of the regime. Any and all speech criticizing the government and its leadership is restricted. Unlike North Korea, however, the United States protects nearly all speech afforded by the First Amendment, no matter how offensive , unless it incites violence and/or jeopardizes national security. Being charged with defamation of a government official (as was Kim Young Soon’s case) would be protected by New York Times v. Sullivan, which states that public officials suing for defamation are required to prove that any statements in question are false and maliciously intended.

The main issues of press suppression in North Korea involve criticism of the regime, citizens making international calls (or any calls outside of North Korea), radio stations attempting communication with North Korea, and propaganda. Because censorship seems to be the primary method of halting opposing views in North Korea, the government’s technique would be incompatible with that of the United States’, which doesn’t condone censorship due to Near v. Minnesota.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota:

The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only the free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.


Even though North Korea engages in absolute censorship and unjust speech and press suppressions, the country is improving at a slow pace. Despite this progression, it seems like change is not coming fast enough. It is evident that the United States’ freedoms of speech and of press reign superior to those of North Korea in every aspect. Hopefully, international advocates and North Korean insiders will continue to press on in trying to make North Korea a freer country where citizens can freely express themselves without fear of persecution.

Printed Sources

  • Chʻoe, Chin. Framing North Korea: how do American and South Korean newspapers frame North Korea?. Seoul: CommunicationBooks, 2009. Print.
  • Human rights in North Korea: challenges and opportunities : hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, first session, September 20. Washington: U.S. G.P.O. :, 2011. Print.
  • Kwon, Heonik, and Byung Chung. North Korea: beyond charismatic politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.
  • North Korea communications. 2nd ed. Petaluma, Calif.: World Trade Press, 2011. Print.
  •  Worden, Robert L.. North Korea: a country study. 5th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. G.P.O. :, 2008. Print.

(This post was last updated on April 30, 2013)


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