Light Through the

Improving the human condition in
North Korea. Defining a new path forward.

North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive countries. Satellite images show the country – close to 47,000 square miles in size – sitting in virtual darkness. More than 24 million North Koreans live under tyranny. They are subjected to widespread human rights violations and denied fundamental rights like free expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Over the past two decades, the United States and other free societies have focused growing attention on the plight of the people in North Korea, but more must be done. Beginning in 2014, the Human Freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute convened unprecedented awareness raising and consensus building meetings, commissioned original research, and helped break new ground in our understanding of one of the worst human tragedies of our time.

The result is a call to action for governments, the private sector, and civil society to work together to improve the human condition in North Korea. This includes advocating for a new U.S. policy that integrates the call for human freedom with denuclearization, and supporting North Korean escapees who are building new lives in freedom in the United States.

President George W. Bush

Improving the Human Condition in North Korea

Life in North Korea

A Nation Without Freedom

North Korea Today: The Status Quo

North Korea is ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of "Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party" and "Eternal President."

The government of North Korea controls all aspects of the lives of its citizens. It determines where each citizen will live, their education, and what their profession will be. Travel within the country is strictly limited. Access to information is restricted by the state. All media outlets are owned and controlled by the government. Radio and television sets can receive only government frequencies. Receiving radio or television signals from outside North Korea is an offense punishable by prison.

"Every aspect of life [in a political prison camp] is the worst you could imagine for a human being." North Korean escapee Kang Chol-hwan

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed.

The government operates a network of forced labor camps for as many as 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely.

Punishment is extended to three generations. Offenders' parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform.

Offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Learn More

In-Depth Resources on North Korea

Moving Forward: A New Policy Landscape

It is critical to recognize that the international community’s mobilization over the human rights issue since 2014 has fundamentally changed the policy landscape.

We advocate for a new U.S. policy that integrates the call for human freedom with denuclearization in our engagement and diplomacy with North Korea.

Freedom depends on solid national security and human rights.

How Did We Get Here?

Over the past decade, a policy of “strategic patience,” left the United States waiting for the cumulative effect of sanctions pressure to convince the North Korean regime to denuclearize.

The unfortunate reality is that North Korea will present a top national security and human rights issue for the incoming Trump administration. Its unprecedented and accelerating tempo of missile tests and nuclear detonations – 64 between 2009 and 2016 – shows no signs of abating.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not serious about joining the international community as a peaceful member, has been disrespectful of the UN Charter and disregards the well-being of its own citizens.

What Are Our National Security Interests?

By the end of this decade, by any estimate, North Korea will have scores of nuclear weapons, mated to ballistic missiles for delivery to targets regionally and intercontinentally. One of the few things that observers of North Korea seem to agree upon is that the regime’s first goal is its own survival. This means that the government’s actions may predictably bring enormous hardship, humanitarian, and human rights abuses to its own people. The regime’s policies will likely continue to be driven by the strategic objective of eventual reunification of the Korean people under its authority.

Most directly threatening to the United States is the emerging reality that America’s West Coast cities will be targetable by North Korean nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Perhaps the most dangerous activity that the North has pursued over the last couple of decades has been the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and ballistic missiles to other countries.

Recommendations for Guiding Security Principles

These recommendations lay out core principles of national security strategy for North Korea, and embed actionable items that both establish and integrate human rights in a new policy approach. We believe a strong national security strategy will:

Sustain deterrence and reassure allies
Continue visible security consultations and exercises with friends and allies in the region.

Heighten diplomatic coordination
Continue cabinet or sub-cabinet level diplomatic coordination among the allies on a quarterly basis as part of maintaining defense and deterrence.

Integrate non-proliferation and human rights sanctions
Strengthen a sanctions strategy aimed at isolating and weakening North Korea, including the designation of political and military leaders for proliferation-financing, illicit activities, and human rights abuses.

View China as a part of the solution, but not the total solution
Remind Beijing of its responsibility to use its influence with its clients in Pyongyang to avoid provocations but resist the temptation to subcontract the most urgent security issue in Northeast Asia to China.

Remain open to diplomacy
Avoid making the goals of any negotiations with the DPRK preconditions for entering those negotiations but be wary of entering protracted negotiations where the North may continue to advance their nuclear or ballistic capability.

Avoid preconceived notions of the modality for negotiations
Six party talks may be dead – or not – but the essential participants will be the United States and North Korea, whatever the formal structure may be.

Maintain denuclearization goals
While remaining open to diplomatic options, we must insist that the outcome of negotiations include the eventual re-entry of the North into the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.

Stop horizontal proliferation
Unambiguously warn the North Koreans at the highest level that the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to another state or non-national actor cannot and will not be tolerated by the United States: drawing a genuine red line.

Commit to unification
Take prudent steps with our allies to prepare for the realization of our ultimate goal of a unified Korea, whether through the slow transformation of the North Korean state, or its sudden collapse.

The Intersection of Human Rights and Security

Even as these threats mount, the United States’ approach to North Korea can no longer be one-dimensional, focusing solely on security. The threat posed by North Korea to the United States and its allies stems not just from the nuclear and missile threats, but from a government, in possession of such weapons, which is capable of a level of abuse of its own citizens unprecedented in modern human history.

These two issues are tied in unprecedented ways:

First, new data shows that revenues from North Korean human rights abuses, including the export of slave labor as well as from trading companies engaged in such abuses, are suspected to be used to fund nuclear proliferation activities. In addition, well-established North Korean practices with regard to food distribution, mass labor mobilization, and prison camp labor all favor the regime and its proliferation practices over the rights of the citizens of the country.

Second, the international community’s galvanized attention on the human rights abuses has permanently changed the playing field for future U.S. diplomatic action with the North, making accountability for human rights abuses a requisite element of any new U.S. strategy.

Third, inclusion of human rights is not only foremost a moral imperative in its own right but also a source of leverage and pressure on North Korea for the nuclear issue. We know from their reaction to the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that the North Korean leadership is sensitive to criticism on this score, which might cause the regime to try to deflect pressure with concessions or progress on the nuclear front.

Recommendations for Actions on Human Rights

Implement a proactive human rights agenda
Declare that the days of isolating nuclear negotiations from human rights issues and a broader political settlement are over.

Benchmark human rights early
The new U.S. president should make an early statement that denuclearization and human rights are inseparable elements of a policy to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Employ the full toolkit
In addition to nonproliferation sanctions, the new administration should remain open to exercising the widespread authorities afforded it from congressional legislation and Executive Orders to advance the human rights agenda.

Prioritize information flows
The new administration should increase the volume of information to the North Korean people as we believe access to outside information is a basic human right. Infographic: Breaking North Korea's Information Barriers

Focus on “slave labor” exports
New and existing authorities for sanctions should target North Korea’s overseas labor exports as a source of revenue that could be diverted to the nuclear program.

Consider humanitarian assistance
We should remain open to incorporating humanitarian assistance in a way that helps North Korea’s most vulnerable citizens.

Mobilize the international community
We should prioritize international engagement as part of a broad effort to implement the UN COI on Human Rights in the DPRK recommendations:

Encourage Chinese action
Adopt a new orientation toward China that pressures Beijing on nuclear and human rights issues in North Korea.

Create opportunities
The next administration must embrace the chance to empower North Korean refugees in the United States, many of whom send money and information to their families back home.

Support North Korean Escapees in the United States

Few Americans are aware that a small, but growing community of North Korean escapees has resettled in the United States. Groundbreaking studies by the Bush Institute show that while most escapees have adapted well to life in America and are giving back to the communities that welcomed them in, they face particular challenges in coming from such a repressive society.

Many work in low-level, unskilled jobs, because they lack the education and skills to advance. Others are enrolling at top-tier universities, but face significant challenges in financing their education.

North Korean Escapees

Support and Learn More

Learn more about scholarships that benefit North Korean escapees

While most refugees are quickly able to find work and earn enough to cover their basic expenses, few are able to save for the future. Many also worry that insufficient time and resources to learn English or acquire an education could be hurting their long-term prospects.

Working closely with leaders in the Korean-American community and others, the Bush Institute is facilitating the creation of a scholarship and mentoring program to benefit North Korean escapees and help them build productive, prosperous lives as new Americans. These scholarships will enable escapees to pursue a range of educational opportunities—from English language and vocational training to higher education– and help them to realize their potential.

Journey to Freedom

The Story of North Korean Escapees

Act and #ExposeNK

In the end, the North Korean regime faces an inescapable dilemma. The will for freedom cannot be forever tamped down; North Korean society is changing and growing more independent, despite a government that’s even more attracted to its hardline instruments of control and deceit.

In an increasingly global society, the human condition of others matters to free people around the world. Those who live in freedom have a responsibility to raise their voices and lend their support in advancing the universal right of all men and women to be free. The world cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights atrocities happening today in North Korea.

Help the people of North Korea, and shine the light of freedom into one of the darkest, most repressive places on earth.


Download the Bush Institute Reports

Latest Reports

Toward a New Policy and Strategy for North Korea
November 2016
by Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci

Education and Employment Among U.S.-Based North Koreans: Challenges and Opportunities
November 2016

Previous Reports

North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
July - August 2014

North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
October 2014

U.S.-Based North Korea Refugees: A Qualitative Study
October 2014

Light through the Darkness: A Call to Action Paper
January 2015
by Victor Cha


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This report is dedicated to the people of North Korea and to the many brave North Korean refugees who have shared their stories.

Produced by the George W. Bush Institute

This publication was made possible by the John Templeton Foundation.

Lead photograph: Photo via NASA. Astronaut photograph ISS038-E-38300 was acquired on January 30, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 24 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 38 crew.



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The Hidden Gulags of North Korea


North Korea's Refugees


Breaking North Korea's Information Barriers


Life in the North Korean Gulags

Former North Korean political prisoners Shin Dong-hyuk and Kang Chol-hwan describe life in North Korea’s gulags.


Raise Global Awareness

Greg Scarlatoiu (Committee for Human Rights in North Korea), Hannah Song (Liberty in North Korea) and Michael Kirby (United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea) discuss the importance of raising global awareness on North Korean human rights.


Make Human Rights a Priority for Governments

Victor Cha (Center for Strategic and International Studies & George W. Bush Institute), Ambassador Jung-hoon Lee (Republic of Korea) and Melanie Kirkpatrick (author of Escape from North Korea) talk about governments putting North Korean human rights front and center.


Support and Empower Refugees

Refugees Joseph Kim and Ji Seong-ho express their desire to help those still in North Korea and explain the importance of empowering North Korean refugees.


Break Information Barriers

Carl Gershman (National Endowment for Democracy) outlines the next phase of satiating North Koreans’ information appetite.