North Korea and its secretive leader Kim Jong-un are back in the headlines after reports of another bizarrely brutal execution.

The hermit state’s defence minister is said to have perished in a hail of fire from an anti-aircraft gun. His apparent crime? To fall asleep in a meeting with Kim.

Some analysts see the story as more evidence of weakness and insecurity from North Korea’s 32-year-old supreme leader, while others are preaching caution about reading too much into what is a lurid but unconfirmed rumour.

Verifiable information about life in North Korea is so hard to come by that it is difficult to say whether the country deserves its reputation as one of the most repressive on earth.

Here’s what we know and what we don’t know about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Handout photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching a men's football match at Kim Il Sung Stadium

Human wrongs

Many countries have unenviable human rights records, but North Korea is out on its own for state-sanctioned cruelty, according to international watchdogs.

Amnesty International says the communist state is “in a category of its own when it comes to human rights violations”, adding: “It is a totalitarian state where tens of thousands of people are enslaved and tortured.”

A commission of inquiry by the United Nations Human Rights Council said North Korea’s violations were “without parallel in the contemporary world” and said the Kim regime was guilty of crimes against humanity.

The UN said Pyongyang had overseen “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.

Satellite Image of Camp 25 in North Korea

Prison population

Much of the UN’s findings rest on testimony from former prisoners in North Korea’s gulags, the locations of which are well known thanks to satellite images.

Inmates describe routine incidents of torture, murder and starvation in the camps. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have died in them over the last 50 years.

Although there are no official figures for how many North Koreans are behind barbed wire, some international estimates put the prison camp population as high as 200,000.

That would give North Korea an incarceration rate of about 800 people per 100,000, one of the highest in the world.

Babies born in the camps often grow up as prisoners according to the principle of “guilt by association”, which means the relatives of “criminals” can be punished too.

The UN commission said the “vast majority” of prison camp inmates have been imprisoned without a fair trial.

Abductions

Stories abound of foreign citizens being kidnapped and brought to North Korea for espionage and propaganda purposes over the years.

It seems scarcely credibly, but we know that it happened. In 2002 Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-Il admitted that Japanese citizens had been abducted by his agents, referring to them as “regrettable incidents”.

North Korea has owned up to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, presumably to teach the Japanese language and culture to spies planning to infiltrate the country.

There are hundreds of reports of South Koreans being kidnapped and spirited across the border.

South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee were snatched in Hong Kong and spent eight years in North Korea making films for the cinephile dictator Kim Jong-il – including a cult Godzilla-like monster movie – before finally escaping.

North Korean children stand after snowfall along the banks of the Yalu River, near the North Korean Sakchu County

Tall stories

The North Korean famine of the mid-1990s – widely blamed on government incompetence, although the official explanation is a series of floods and droughts – is thought to have led to the deaths of around half a million people.

Malnutrition has affected even more people in recent decades, and statistics are often quoted which suggest the average North Korean is several inches shorter than the average South Korean thanks to a poor diet that stunts growth.

Some of the claims about the gap in height have been exaggerated. But there is research that shows significant differences in height and weight between the two populations.

In 2009 economist Daniel Schwekendiek published a comparison of North Korean refugee children immigrating to South Korea from 2000 to 2007 compared to South Korean children.

“In 1997, South Korean pre-school children were found on average to be 6–7 cm (2–3 inches) taller and about 3 kg (6.6 pounds) heavier than their Northern counterparts; in 2002, the average gap was about 8 cm (3 inches) and 3 kg (6.6 pounds), and the BMI gap was about 1.

“North Korean boys and girls escaping to South Korea were also found to be on average about 3–4 cm (1–1.6 in.) shorter and 1 kg (2.2 pounds) lighter than their Southern peers.”

Myths

Bizarre and grotesque stories of life under the Kims are widespread, but not all of them are based on verifiable facts.

Countless western news outlets repeated the claim that Kim Jong-il’s official biography boasted of him scoring an incredible number of holes in one the first time he played golf. But it has proved impossible to track down a credible source for the story.

Another popular story about North Korea claiming to have found evidence of the existence of unicorns proved to be based on an inaccurate translation of a state press release.

Western visitors to North Korea also disproved the fictitious tale that Kim Jong-un had ordered all male students to copy his short-back-and-sides hairstyle.

Arguably, the truth about the extent of the personality cult is stranger than fiction.

A participant wears a badge showing former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il during the opening ceremony of a new dock at the port of Rajin

Adults really were expected to wear a lapel pin featuring the face of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung for many years, although it is unclear whether this is still enforced.

A three-year period of compulsory mourning was enforced after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the year of his birth, 1912, was declared year 1 in the new Juche national calendar introduced in 1997.

Executions

Reports of horrific executions of members of the North Korean elite are also hard to verify independently.

Last year it was widely reported that Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-Thaek had been fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While there is no dispute about Jang’s death – he was executed for “attempting to overthrow the state”  after a very public trial – the only source for the grisly detail about the dogs was a Hong Kong tabloid.

Similarly, a story about an official with ties to Jang being burned alive with a flamethrower relies on anonymous sources quoted by the South Korean media.

South Korea’s spy agency is the source for the claim that Kim’s defence minister Hyon Yong-chol was blown to pieces by an anti-aircraft gun for failing to show enough loyalty to the supreme leader.

The evidence is inconclusive: there are reports of footage of Hyon being shown on North Korean state TV after his supposed death, whereas purged officials are usually airbrushed from history.

On the other hand, an NGO called the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has published an analysis of satellite images which it says back the idea of anti-aircraft machine guns being used in executions.

We know reports of executions sometimes turn out to be wrong. Pop singer Hyon Song-Wol – said to be Kim Jong-un’s girlfriend – was supposed to have been shot over a sex scandal in 2013, only to appear alive and well on state TV months later.

South Korea’s NIS intelligence agency has been quoted as saying Kim has had 70 officials executed since Kim took over after his father’s death in 2011.

Public executions of ordinary citizens are commonplace in North Korea, according to UN investigators, who reported a spike in killings in 2013.

A North Korean boy works in a field of a collective farm in the area damaged by summer floods and typhoons in South Hwanghae province

Ordinary life

If it’s hard to get to the truth of what is going on in Kim Jong-un’s inner circle, it’s not much easier penetrating the private lives of ordinary North Koreans.

Few journalists get travel visas and tourists are not allowed to travel around freely. Minders accompany all foreign travellers and there are restrictions on photography.

Koryo Tours, which organises holidays for westerners to North Korea, says local people can be friendly but are also likely to be “wary of foreigners” and have a “suspicious veneer”.

Talking about politics with ordinary North Koreans “is disrespectful, will breed resentment and cause irritation”, the company warns.

North Korea-watchers say private enterprise has taken off in recent years, with many people supplementing their income by running small businesses, and visitors to Pyonyang reporting a brisk trade in clothes, fast food in electronic goods.

But capitalism is officially forbidden, and the US-based Heritage Foundation ranks North Korea at number 178 out of 178 countries for economic freedom.

The country’s media is entirely state-controlled, although some households can pick up foreign TV stations, and the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, puts North Korea in 179th place out of 180 countries. Only Eritrea is less free.

Ordinary citizens are generally banned from all foreign travel and are likely endure some of the lowest living standards in the world, in stark comparison to its rich southern neighbour, although there is a lack of good economic statistics.

Foreign visitors report that electricity blackouts are commonplace outside the capital, and the World Food Programme, which has a significant presence in the country, says North Korea “continues to face regular, significant food shortages”.

The verdict

There’s a good case to be made for North Korea being the worst place in the world to live, although the lack of information makes it hard to say for sure.

The secrecy that surrounds the country is difficult to penetrate, but reports from defectors paint a picture of a country whose citizens endure miserable living standards, a lack of basic liberties, and the kind of brutal repression that UN investigators have explicitly compared to Nazi Germany.

North Korea’s official English-language website says the country is “a genuine workers’ state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression”.

It adds: “The workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals are the true masters of their destiny and are in a unique position to defend their interests.”

Article topics

,