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.
- In February, Jeong Sang-un, an 84-year-old former prisoner of war who had fought for South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, was believed to be held in a political prison camp in North Korea after he was forcibly returned by the Chinese authorities. He appears to have been one among thousands of people who left North Korea for China in search of food. Shortly after he arrived in China, he was arrested by authorities in Jilin province, and detained until he was forcibly returned to North Korea in February. At the time of his return, he was very frail, and needed help to walk. Jeong Sang-un did not face any trial in North Korea, and was sent directly to Yodok political prison camp (or kwanliso) in South Hamkyung province.
- In February, Robert Park, a 28-year-old US missionary and human rights activist, was released after 43 days in a detention facility in Pyongyang. He had been arrested after entering North Korea on 25 December 2009 with the apparent intention of highlighting the plight of political prisoners in the country.
- In August, following a visit by former US President Jimmy Carter, 31-year-old Aijalon Gomes, another US national, was freed. A friend of Robert Park, he had entered North Korea illegally in January, and had been sentenced to eight years' hard labour and fined approximately US$600,000.
Freedom of expression, association and movement
The authorities imposed severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, despite constitutional guarantees of these rights. Criticism of the government and its leaders was strictly curtailed, punishable by arrest and incarceration in a prison camp. The government distributed all radio and television sets; citizens were forbidden to alter them to make it possible to receive broadcasts from other nations. Those caught listening to foreign broadcasts were detained and sentenced to long prison terms.
North Korean citizens faced restrictions on travel both within the country and abroad. Thousands of North Korean nationals who fled to China in search of food and employment were often forcibly repatriated to North Korea by the Chinese authorities. They were routinely beaten and sent to detention facilities on return. Those suspected of being in touch with South Korean NGOs or attempting to escape to South Korea were more severely punished.
North Korea continued to carry out executions, some in public and others in secret. At least 60 people were reportedly executed publicly.
- Chong, an armaments factory worker, was reportedly executed publicly in the eastern coastal city of Hamhung in late January. He had been charged with divulging – via an illegal Chinese mobile phone – the price of rice and other information on living conditions to a friend who had defected to South Korea years ago.
In March, North Korea responded to the report arising from the UN Universal Periodic Review's (UPR) 2009 assessment of its human rights record. However, in stating that it had simply "taken note" of recommendations made during the UPR, North Korea became the first country to refuse to expressly accept any of the recommendations emerging from the process. This contradicted earlier state promises to co-operate with the UPR process. In June, Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian national, was appointed as the new UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.