Head of state: Kim Jong-il
Head of government: Choe Yong-rim (replaced Kim Yong-il in June)
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 24 million
Life expectancy: 67.7 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 63/63 per 1,000
Widespread violations of human rights continued, including severe restrictions on freedom of association, expression and movement, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment resulting in death, and executions. The authorities quashed dissent of any kind; the media was strictly controlled. Detainees were subjected to forced labour and dire conditions. A combination of poor economic policies and management, adverse weather conditions, and reduced international aid left millions of people without sufficient access to food. Essential medicines remained beyond the reach of millions of people. Thousands crossed the border into China in search of food and economic opportunity; many were arrested by the Chinese authorities and forcibly repatriated to North Korea where they faced detention, interrogation and torture.
North Korea appeared to be preparing for a leadership change: Kim Jong-un, the third son of leader Kim Jong-il, was made a four-star general in September, suggesting that he was the anointed successor.
The Korean peninsula witnessed heightened tension after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island near the disputed sea border known as the Northern Limit Line in November. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed; it was the first time civilians had been killed as a result of cross-border military hostilities since the 1950-53 Korean War. In March, South Korea accused North Korea of sinking a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, resulting in the death of 46 naval personnel. In December, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced that he had opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes by North Korea linked to its recent clashes with South Korea.
Food crisis, malnutrition and health
In July, Amnesty International reported that the government's delayed and inadequate response to the continuing food crisis was having a devastating impact on the population's health. It called on the government to seek international humanitarian assistance and not impede its effective distribution. Donor governments were urged to provide assistance through the UN on the basis of need, not political considerations.
UNICEF said that each year some 40,000 children under five became "acutely malnourished" in North Korea, with 25,000 needing hospital treatment. A survey carried out by the government with UN support showed that about one third of the population suffered from stunting - below normal body growth. In some regions the figure was 45 per cent.
In October, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern "that the acute humanitarian needs" of at least 3.5 million women and children in North Korea would worsen because of food shortages.
The government operated at least six facilities housing thousands of political prisoners. People were arbitrarily detained, or held for indeterminate periods without charge or trial. Detainees faced serious, systematic and sustained violations of their human rights, including extrajudicial executions, torture and other ill-treatment and forced labour. Torture appeared to be widespread in prison camps. Many detainees died due to strenuous, and often hazardous, forced labour with little rest and inadequate access to food or medical care. Many were executed for minor infractions and others were forced to witness the public executions.