Civil Society Spotlight Report 2021: A Human Rights-based Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals in North Korea

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

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Executive Summary of NDI's CSO Spotlight Report 2021: A Human Rights-based Approach to the SDGs in the DPRK


The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has committed to present its first Voluntary National Report (VNR) at the HLPF on July 13, 2021. While this commitment to the active implementation of the SDGs is significant, actual accountability on the ground in the country is not guaranteed when the flow of information into, out of and within the DPRK is tightly controlled. With almost no space for a civil society that is capable of independently reporting on the country’s situation to the outside world, it is technically impossible for its VNR to be held accountable by its own citizens. To fill this critical gap, several South Korean CSOs advocating for human rights in the DPRK pooled their research to spotlight the voices of the North Korean people, especially those belonging to the most vulnerable groups. 

This report also aims to raise key issues affecting these groups that must be addressed to ensure meaningful progress towards SDGs in the DPRK. Recognizing that protecting human rights and achieving the SDGs are mutually reinforcing, this report takes a human rights-based approach to analyze the state of SDG implementation in the DPRK, by comparing relevant SDG targets against the recommendations accepted by the UN human rights mechanisms and domestic laws pertaining to the rights of vulnerable groups. The research in this report draws on interviews and surveys with North Korean people who recently left North Korea, which were cross-checked with other reliable sources of information about North Korea. Information was also gathered from data made available by the DPRK Government itself, to assess the DPRK’s understanding of its own progress towards completing the SDGs and to identify any gaps in their efforts. Though more research is needed, this work provides an important baseline to better understand the actual lived experiences of North Korean citizens. 17 SDGs and North Korea.

17 SDGs and North Korea. The first section of this report charts the DPRK’s overall progress on the 17 SDGs, which has been severely compromised by the outbreak of COVID-19. Though the effect of the pandemic on the North Korean population, and vulnerable groups in particular, is difficult to estimate—particularly because the DPRK Government has continued to claim that there are no COVID-19 cases in the country—the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the existing, considerable challenges facing the DPRK in terms of social and economic development, especially in terms of addressing the needs of vulnerable groups.

SDGs and Vulnerable Groups of People. The next section of the report explores the specific challenges and human rights violations experienced by persons with disabilities, women and children. First, while it is noteworthy that the DPRK ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2016, more work is needed to secure the right to family life, the right to freedom of movement, the right to health and the right to survival, the right to education, and gender equality for persons with disabilities (PWD). Each of these rights are threatened under the current implementation (or lack thereof) of the DPRK’s national legal frameworks for PWD. Though the rights of people living with disabilities are protected in theory, in practice they face considerable social isolation and restrictions on their bodily autonomy.

As with PWD, there is a disconnect between the protections enshrined in DPRK national law and their actual implementation when it comes to women’s rights. On the whole, North Korean women simultaneously face limited opportunities for education and formal employment as well as the added societal expectation that they should shoulder the burden of caregivers for their families. These factors explain women’s over-representation in the informal, private market, which leave them vulnerable to sexual assault and poor working conditions. Women’s health issues are also severely under-addressed in the country, particularly when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

Finally, children in the DPRK regularly experience violence at home and at school, as well as forced labor and consistent interruptions to their education stemming from their participation in agriculture mobilizations and the difficulty of paying school bribes. As a result, children’s rights to food and health are severely threatened by the impact of exploitative government policies as well as widespread poverty in the country. As with PWD and women, children’s lived experiences in the country stands in stark contrast to their legislative protections on paper.

Ending Exploitation and Corruption. The final analysis section reviews the roots of exploitation and corruption in the DPRK, as well as the ways in which it serves as a barrier to achieving the SDGs, to contextualize the broader environment in which vulnerable groups’ rights are violated. Critically, new policies from the DPRK Government to curb exploitation and corruption have mainly led to restrictions on people’s cultural and economic lives, as well as further limitations to their freedom of expression and thought, rather than addressing the roots of exploitation and corruption. Forced labor, expectations of gift-giving to the political elite around holidays, and the mobilization of children to cooperative farms are only a few examples of how exploitation and corruption not only threaten the well-being and human rights of North Korean citizens, but also the DPRK’s economic and social development as a whole. The SDGs are a transformative roadmap for development that relies on the commitment and partnership from both the DPRK Government and other stakeholders to achieve the goals in the country. With this in mind, this report concludes with recommendations for the DPRK government, the Republic of Korea Government, CSOs and INGOs working in the DPRK, and the international community. Above all, a commitment to transparency and accountability from the DPRK, and the centering of aid to DPRK in a rights-based approach from external stakeholders, are critical to ensuring that no one is left behind.



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