UPDATE: Overview of the North Korean Legal System and Legal Research

By Patricia Goedde

Updated by Patricia Goedde and Martin Weiser

Patricia Goedde is Associate Professor at Sungkyunkwan University School of Law, in Seoul, South Korea. She received a J.D. and Ph.D. (Asian and Comparative Law) from the University of Washington, School of Law. Her latest publication on North Korea can be accessed here: Human Rights Diffusion in North Korea: The Impact of Transnational Legal Mobilization, 5 Asian J. Law & Society 175 (2018). It also appeared in North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks (D. Chubb & A. Yeo eds., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018) publication.

Martin Weiser received an MA in political science at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea. His recent article on North Korean law can be accessed here: Unseen Laws: A Qualitative Approach to Developments in North Korea’s Legal System, 17 European J. of Korean Studies 22 (Spring 2018). Martin Weiser focuses his research on North Korea and developed and runs the North Korean Information Project, which collects and organizes information about and the laws of North Korea.

Published May 2019

(Previously updated in March 2011)

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1. Legal History

Many forces shaped the legal character of the North Korean State (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) before its birth in 1948: Japanese colonialism, Soviet auspices, and to some extent, the traditional Korean legal code. The Japanese dominated the legal structure in Korea during the colonial period of 1910-1945 primarily through laws, Japanese or Japanese-trained jurists, and police surveillance. Although Japan exerted pervasive control over the Korean population via law and police power, it did not impose Japanese law completely. The Korean legal system retained many provisions not related to the maintenance of public order, for example on issues related to kinship and succession.

Upon liberation of Korea in 1945, the North Korean leadership abrogated all existing Japanese laws but had to reinstate the same laws to maintain public order until new laws could be promulgated. The new law code of 1946 included revised Japanese provisions and a Soviet-based judicial structure. Soviet advisors in North Korea had a heavy role in drafting the 1948 DPRK Constitution along with numerous reform laws and ordinances. As leaders in the Soviet Civil Administration, these consultants were sensitive to North Korean aspirations, using a populist tone and emphasizing land reform in the Constitution. North Korean judicial practice started to follow a Soviet pattern in terms of court structure and the procuracy. For example, the courts exercised not only punitive powers but also had the duty to educate criminals and the public about being faithful to the law and the party. Similar to other Communist States, ordinary citizens served as people’s assessors on the bench alongside the judge.

Apart from Soviet legal practice, socialist theory had a significant impact on the North Korean legal system. North Korea initially adopted Marxist-Leninist principles in the name of socialism. Briefly, Marxist-Leninist ideology claims that law is a tool of the ruling bourgeois class, and that socialist law, an altogether different species of law, is the instrument of the proletariat dictatorship. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung preferred the Stalinist interpretation of law as a weapon to implement state policy. Kim Il Sung criticized domestic legal reformists who wanted to follow the de-Stalinization campaign of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Reformists wanted to prioritize equal application of the law, thereby subordinating party policy. Kim Il Sung purged the reformists from the courts, procuracy. and the Korean Workers’ Party for being tainted with a bourgeois legal consciousness.

Although Marxist-Leninist ideology was the primary doctrine for the early North Korean state and society, this changed formally in 1972 when Juche philosophy, “a creative application of Marxist-Leninism to our own country’s reality,” was introduced in the Constitution. Juche is often translated simply as self-reliance or self-determination, but the concept is essentially a nationalist ideology of “North Korea first.” In 1992, references to Marxism-Leninism and the “proletariat” in the DPRK Constitution were deleted, while an article on the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party was introduced. The revision in 2009 deleted all references to communism.

2. Politico-Legal Structure

The DPRK Constitution sets out the basic organization of the Party apparatus and reflects organizational changes throughout the years. The political structure of the North Korean State, as reflected in the Constitution, is set out in the following order:

The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) is the superstructure over all of these bodies and screens all candidates before election at national and local levels. Kim Jong Un is the General Secretary of the KWP and also the Chair of the State Affairs Commission. Under the Constitution, the Chair of the State Affairs Commission is “the supreme leader” of the DPRK. The SAC replaces the National Defence Commission that Kim Jong Il had instituted and chaired during his reign. Since a revision in 1955, the power to issue orders in the Constitution has always been limited to the supreme leader, starting with Kim Il Sung from the cabinet to the presidency in 1972 and subsequently to the chair of the National Defence Commission and the State Affairs Commission.

The SPA Presidium holds more power than the SPA and exercises law making powers between sessions of the SPA. Only a small number of laws has been adopted by the SPA itself. Historically, party officials of the SPA Presidium held higher rank than SPA chairmen. A reading of the Constitution demonstrates that the SPA Presidium’s prerogatives exceed those of the SPA. For example, the SPA Presidium convenes SPA sessions, interprets the Constitution and laws, issues decrees, and can create or liquidate Cabinet organizations. Meanwhile, the chair and vice chair of the SPA Presidium hold concurrent positions in the SPA.

The procuracies and courts are accountable to the SPA Presidium or to the SPA in session. The SPA Presidium has the authority to elect or transfer Central Court judges and lay judges, while the SPA can appoint or remove the Procurator-General and can elect or transfer the Chief Justice. The procuracy structure includes a Central Procuracy, provincial and county procuracies, and a separate military procuracy. Although procuracies investigate and prosecute crimes, procuracy offices also have the unique function of auditing other State organs and can try civil, divorce and mediation cases uncovered in the administrative process.

The court system consists of a Central Court, twelve provincial courts, and approximately 100 people’s county courts. In addition, the Law on the Organization of Courts adopted in 2011 lists three types of special courts: military courts, railway courts, and “military industry courts.” The latter was added through revision of the law in 2009 or 2011, but the 2009 text is not available yet. Judges and lay judges are elected at their respective levels. Lower courts usually have one judge and two lay judges, while appeal courts have three judges. Depending on the nature of the crime, criminal cases may be appealed once at most.

Judges and court personnel belong to the national jurist association, while lawyers belong to the national bar association (see Section 6 below of available sources for civil law and procedure, criminal law and procedure, and other legislation).

The procuracy, courts, and lawyers do not alone assume the legal role of educating, disciplining and punishing citizens. Local people’s committees, work units, and fellow compatriots have the same function. In particular, socialist law-abiding committees, established in 1977, instituted in people’s committees at all levels are powerful legal actors since they oversee the procuracy, police, and the State inspection agencies. Specifically, they check officials’ abuse of power, comment on laws, disseminate legal information, supervise work units and citizens in general, apply legal sanctions or delegate some of these functions to law-enforcement agencies at their discretion. For those who want to file complaints and petitions against any State agency wrongdoings, an administrative process exists where the relevant institutions can decide appropriate punitive actions against officials guilty of any transgression. Furthermore, the concerned agency, enterprise or local party committee can organize a peer tribunal system to handle minor offenses and mete out punishments like fines, reprimands, or temporary suspensions of salary. The Law on Petitions and Complaints additionally stipulates that the SPA Presidium can review any complaints or petitions dealing with human rights violations directly.

3. Rights Framework

The DPRK Constitution enumerates rights and duties for citizens. In 2009, the Constitution added that the State shall “respect and protect human rights” (art. 8). However, duties generally precede rights, mainly to safeguard ideological unity, the solidarity of the people, and the security of the State. Citizens are expected to comply foremost with the Ten Great Principles of the Unitary Ideology System, a set of commandments pledging loyalty to the supreme leader and socialist nationalism.

The DPRK has acceded to six international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The DPRK attempted to withdraw from the ICCPR in 1997, but the Human Rights Committee issued General Comment No. 26 stating that withdrawal was not possible.

As a member state to the United Nations, the DPRK participates in the Universal Periodic Review process to ensure its laws and practices comply with international human rights standards. However, a UN Commission of Inquiry report in 2014 found human rights violations tantamount to crimes against humanity. The DPRK counteracted with its own report and published a booklet on human rights, explaining that human rights standards are observed in North Korea.

4. Foreign Investment Laws and Regulations

The DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly promulgated the first Joint Venture Law in 1984, which was patterned loosely after China’s joint venture law, in an effort to resuscitate its economy by inducing foreign investment. Thereafter, North Korea established the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone (now called Rason Economic and Trade Zone) in 1991, amended the Constitution in 1992 to specify that foreign investment would be permitted in special economic zones, and enacted the Foreign Investment Law, the Law of the DPRK on Contractual Joint Ventures, and Law of the DPRK on Equity Joint Ventures. In 2002, North Korea enacted the Basic Law of Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, the Law of the DPRK on the Mt. Geumgang Tourist Zone, and the Law of the DPRK on the Gaesong Industrial Complex.

Each zone has a different legal personality and structure for foreign investment (i.e., economic and trade zone, special administrative region, tourist zone, and industrial complex), which demonstrates that North Korea at that time did not have an overall cohesive legal regime for foreign investment purposes. For example, most of the foreign investment laws and regulations enacted during the 1990s relate to investment in Rason ETZ only, but Rason has not been able to lure investors due in part to its location and poor infrastructure. The Shinuiju SAR was modeled after the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with significant powers reserved to the SPA Presidium to interpret and amend the Shinuiju Basic Law, but it too has failed to transpire as a viable economic center. Meanwhile, both the Mt. Geumgang Tourist Zone and the Gaesong Industrial Complex were specially negotiated between the DPRK government and the South Korean Hyundai conglomerate with the consent of the South Korean government. While Rason and Shinuiju have failed to attract the projected amount of foreign investment, the latter two have had relative success in garnering income for North Korea. Gaesong Industrial Complex has had the most success in terms of attracting South Korean enterprises and manufacturing output, but its access and operation sometimes fall hostage to political relations between the two Koreas.

The South Korean government halted work at the Gaesong Industrial Complex in February 2016 and the zone has remained operationally closed since. In 2011, North Korea designated the two islets Hwanggŭmp’yŏng and Wihwa-Do on the border to China as a fourth special economic zone. In 2013, a Law on Economic Development Parks was adopted which led to the establishment of a range of additional, smaller SEZs across the country. The law explicitly excluded the SEZs established before from its scope.

5. Access to DPRK Legislation

Access to recent DPRK legislation is still very limited largely due to governmental secrecy but also due to severe inconsistencies in how information is released. DPRK reports to the United Nations human rights system have, for example, frequently included references to domestic legislation that cannot be accessed and that was not mentioned in accessible domestic publications either. North Korean museums also display a large amount of legislation not released through other channels. Additionally, limited support for domestic institutions like the North Korean Legal Publisher, tasked with distributing and selling legal information, has led to another bottleneck in accessing published legislation. Economic legislation has been quicker to be released and was also easier to access since the 1980s, while general legal collections have been published only since 2004, less frequently, and at times with a lower number of prints, making them harder to locate. An earlier practice of issuing regular updates to the general legal collection every two years ended in 2008, and the first update to the subsequent 2012 legal collection only appeared in 2016.

Those general legal collections only cover laws adopted by the SPA and its Presidium, excluding regulations adopted by the Presidium or lower-level institutions like the Cabinet. In 2004 and 2006, these collections were still published with the subtitle “for public use,” underlining that several texts were excluded. Several of those excluded laws have been published in South Korean collections, including, for example, the Law on Administrative Penalties, the Law on Monitoring of the Prosecution, or an addendum to the penal code. The official collections sometimes give incomplete information on previous revisions implying that the Legal Publisher is not allowed direct access to government legislation.

Some legislation including several presidential orders of Kim Il Sung have been published in his Completed Works. The Collection of Cabinet Regulations quoted in domestic publications is not yet available. DPRK websites like the Maritime Administration or the Financial Intelligence Agency have released legislation before it became available in print. In contrast to the limited number of legal collections available outside of North Korea, domestic publications reference a diverse range of legislation ranging from laws to lower-level regulations.

6. Sources

Most of the legal collections listed below are available at the North Korea Information Center, National Library of Korea, in Seoul, Republic of Korea.

Online Databases:

Available North Korean Legal Collections:

South Korean Collections: