Applying john stuart mill’s “harm principle” to North Korea

Is the world as free as we’d like to think? Not according to the 2016 Freedom of the Press report, which found that only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys the benefits of a free press in 2016.

And nowhere is this lack of freedom of speech more evident than in North Korea, where three BBC journalists were detained and later expelled for “speaking very ill of the system and the leadership of the country” during coverage of the country’s party congress this week.

Things aren’t much better for foreign journalists who are still allowed to report on proceedings from within the country, either. They rely on reports from state media and are restricted to taking carefully-engineered press trips that shield them from seeing the lives of average North Koreans. North Koreans themselves live without the freedom of expression that most of the Western world takes for granted.

But how could John Stuart Mill, author of “the most passionate treatise on human freedom ever written,” 1 help us put freedom of speech in North Korea into context? We applied one of Mill’s most famous philosophical principles, the “harm principle”, to North Korean policies to find out.


John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in brief: what is the “harm principle”?

In On Liberty, Mill argued that personal freedom leads to new and improved tastes, ideas, and ways of life. He sets out to define the exact “nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”

Mill aimed to clarify the nature and use of power, especially when it threatens our freedom to live as we choose. He does this by applying his “harm principle” to themes of freedom of speech and action, the tyranny of the majority, the value of individuality, and the need to limit government interference.

Mill explains his principle as follows: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant [for state interference].”


Applying the “harm principle” to freedom of speech in North Korea

Central to Mill’s classical liberal approach is freedom of speech: the idea that we should be able to express any of our opinions in public without being censored by the government. Seen through the lens of the “harm principle,” neither upsetting, offending, or angering someone, nor causing self-harm, is sufficient reason to curb freedom of speech: people should be allowed to say what they like. Only speech that directly causes harm should be banned (for example, shouting “fire” in a crowded theater).

Mill’s argument for this is simple. Open discussion means that ideas are subject to reasoned criticism and so improve over time. Mill argues for freedom of action with the more radical claim that free expression of ideas cannot be separated from freedom to turn them into action.

It’s not difficult to make the connection between what Mill describes and the situation for the North Korean people, particularly his assertion that only speech that causes harm to others should be banned. The North Korean state does its best to oppress any free expression of ideas, let alone the freedom to turn them into action: even if you are one of the lucky few to have internet access, foreign websites are blocked, and there is only one TV channel available, which is controlled by the state.

North Korean people live in a cultural bubble where the sharing of ideas with other cultures, and the expression of opposition to the regime, is enough to make you “disappear” from society to a political prison camp where starvation is a common control tactic. It is hard to imagine a North Korea which would have to deal with new forms of mass media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (all used to great effect by modern journalists outside of North Korea), which can very quickly mobilize mass approval or disapproval.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, North Koreans are reluctant to say what they think—about this or anything else. Ishimaru Jiro, a citizen journalist reporting on the lives of North Korean people, recently told The Independent that “most North Koreans won’t easily divulge their opinions, and particularly not to a foreigner. The most they may hint at is “being open to reform”, and “a desire to live freely”.”

These themes of state oppression of freedom of expression go against everything that John Stuart Mill so passionately advocated. A strong theme running through On Libertyis that individuality is supremely valuable, both to personal happiness and by allowing progress toward the wisdom that can lead us, collectively, to a better society: a concept that has been violently rejected (or, at the very least, ignored) by the North Korean state.

However, the “harm principle” that Mill coined could also be used to explore the oppression that the North Korean state goes to such lengths to maintain. Could oppression and the censorship of views be the state’s attempt to prevent what they see as harm to their way of life? One of the problems with the “harm principle” is deciding what constitutes harm or agreeing on a definition of harm. While the systematic violation of human rights as a way to maintain this status quo is a difficult concept for us to assess in detail, it might go some way to explaining why it happens.


Conclusion: applying John Stuart Mill’s philosophy to North Korea

On Liberty is a passionate plea for a tolerant society in which everyone is free to live as they wish within a safe, ethical, and orderly community. As one journalist puts it: “Mill’s ideas are everywhere. Appeal to them was made frequently in the debate over the permissibility of publishing cartoons offensive to Islam and the jailing in Austria of Holocaust denier David Irving… Recent discussions of happiness and the difficulty inherent in its pursuit cannot avoid appealing to his authority.”

In a world of seven billion people, in which nations and regions are endlessly combining or splintering, there are many powerful and competing definitions of freedom. In particular, works such as Hobbes’ Leviathan, Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Robert Dahl’s Democracy and its Critics can all give us different definitions of what it means to be free.

As the world copes with a new era of revolution and social upheaval, and as much as 87 percent of the world’s press is deemed “partly free” or “not free,” it is useful to understand Mill’s defense of a certain dominant view of freedom, compare it with other views of freedom from the great thinkers—and to decide how it applies to countries such as North Korea, where the government is anything but “grateful” for attacks on its “most cherished opinions.”


Get a deeper understanding of John Stuart Mill’s ideas


  1. Christopher Clausen, “John Stuart Mill’s ‘Very Simple Principle,”’ The Wilson Quarterly 33.2 (2009), 40.