North Korea’s recent strides towards building nuclear weapons has brought the hermit nation into sharp international focus.
The state’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, was photographed earlier this month relishing his nation’s progress developing a hydrogen bomb at a lavish celebration, even as the continued tests brought new United Nations sanctions and an increasing threat of war.
The reclusive state is seen as one of the last Stalinist regimes and is ideologically committed to cutting itself off from the international community in pursuit of its doctrine of national self reliance.
It has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since 1948 after the Soviet Union took control of the north of the Korean peninsula from Japan after the Second World War, and then installed Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, in power.
The intervening decades have seen North Korea morph into an isolated and paranoid nation that tightly controls what the outside world sees. As such, reports on life inside the secretive nation are difficult to independently verify.
Yet behind the displays of military pomp lies an impoverished state, which thousands of desperate refugees attempt to flee every year.
Those defectors describe a nation where most people struggle for basics such as food and medicine and face brutal reprisals for breaking the regime's draconian laws.
Three generations rule
One of the country's most brutal laws is the ‘three generations of punishment’ rule. If one person is convicted of a serious crime and sent to a prison camp their immediate family can also be sent with them. Then the next two generations born in the camps can also remain there. The edict was introduced in 1972 by Kim Il-sung and said up to three generations had to be punished to wipe out the 'seed' of class enemies.
Crimes for which North Koreans can find themselves sent to a prison camp can allegedly include failure to wipe dust off portraits of Kim Il-sung and having contact with South Koreans. Conditions in the country's prison and labour camps are notoriously harsh. Survivors have described prisoners becoming stunted and deformed from carrying out hard labour for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Clothing and food are said to be so scarce inmates are forced to survive on any animals they can capture such as rats.
Access to non-state-controlled media
Although North Korea’s constitution theoretically guarantees freedom of speech, all domestic media outlets are owned by the one-party state and no reporting is allowed that isn't sanctioned by the government.
The regime goes to great lengths to stop any outside media reaching its population. The NGO, Freedom House, reports that listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts, watching foreign TV shows and possessing dissident publications are considered “crimes against the state”. Those caught face execution or being sent to labour camps.
North Korea does have a state-run version of the internet that is open to all citizens. However government permission is needed to own a computer, which cost as much as three months average salary. External websites are occasionally made available on request, although these are censored and hosted locally after being downloaded.
Freedom of movement
It is a criminal offence for North Koreans to leave the country without government permission. That doesn’t stop thousands making highly treacherous journeys in attempts to escape every year.
Most try to cross the Yalu and Tumen Rivers on North Korea’s border with China and some even attempt to make it across the heavily-mined demiliterised zone (DMZ) into South Korea. Those who are caught face time in labour camps or execution. Even those who successfully make it out of the North can still be pursued by government agents and there are reports of defector's families being punished in their absence.
According to Human Rights Watch, Kim Jong-un has significantly beefed up border controls since ascending to power in 2011. South Korea's Ministry of Unification this week reported the number of successful defections from the North fell in the first eight months of 2017.
Although the North Korean constitution officially allows freedom of religion, the practice is very different. The state has a hostile approach to religions, particularly to those it sees as western faiths such as Christianity. The nation’s official ideology is Juche, a fusion of Marxism and Korean nationalism created by Kim Il-sung, and the regime views any practices outside this doctrine with deep suspicion.
Those discovered practising Christianity face arrest and being sent to a labour camp. As such Christians are forced to worship in secret and some don’t initiate their children into their religion due to the risks.
Historically Korea had a large Christian population. Missionaries were active throughout the Korean peninsula when it was a Japanese colony prior to the Second World War and around a fifth of its population was believed to be Christian. As many as 500,000 of North Korea’s current 2.5 million population are estimated to still be Christian today.
North Korea – pictures show life behind the headlines
The North Korean regime takes a dim view of interracial relationships due to its Juche ideology, which preaches Korean exceptionalism, and recent reports have exposed the inhumane lengths authorities are willing to take its policies. In a letter to Parliament the charity, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, cited reported incidents of repatriated female defectors being forced to have abortions after becoming pregnant in China.
The report said many of these women had been captured by Chinese men posing as helpers when they crossed the border. It also relayed the account of one witness who described seeing a repatriated prisoner giving birth to a baby, which was then smothered by nurses.
Private enterprise of any kind is officially banned in North Korea. Those caught face arbitrary punishment even though the black market remains one of the only ways for people to get the food, medicine and other necessities the government often fails to provide. In reality officials will often turn a blind eye in return for bribes.
In recent years Kim Jong-un has reportedly allowed an increasing amount of unofficial private enterprise in areas such as mining, but any operations are still the property of the state.
This unofficial economic liberalisation has helped North Korea’s GDP grow - although it remains only around two per cent that of the South Korea's.
At a glance | North Korea’s human rights record