38 North, U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS

Human Rights: A Means of Engaging North Korea

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in 38 North, a website devoted to the analysis of North Korea and produced by the U.S.- Korea Insitute at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

That North Korea has one of the world’s worst human rights records is not in dispute. Every report about the country demonstrates its denial of the most elementary economic, social, and civil and political rights.[1] In fact, the name North Korea conjures up not only nuclear weapons but a country where people go hungry because of government policies and where a hidden “gulag” brutally incarcerates an estimated 150,000 to 200,000[2] political prisoners and their families. Among the “crimes” North Koreans can be arrested for are political dissent, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, reading a South Korean book, seeking asylum abroad, distributing Bibles, and trading in private markets. To Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, the situation is “harrowing and horrific.”[3]

Yet it has become fashionable in some circles in the United States to recommend setting aside human rights when it comes to North Korea. The “name and shame approach,” argues John Feffer, will not work because North Korea regards it as interference in its “sovereignty.” A human rights approach will also fail because it treats North Korea as “a client” suffering “from various pathologies” in need of “social work intervention,” says Feffer. Such an unequal relationship, he maintains, will not enable North Korea to “take responsibility” for reform.

Feffer also rejects the humanitarian approach (providing food and medicine) because it creates dependency not befitting “of a self reliant nation.” He proposes instead a “human security” approach built on an “empathetic” relationship with North Korea that focuses on the “economic betterment” of its people through “development assistance,” “educational exchanges” and joint economic projects. Such an approach will further economic and social rights without being weighed down by concerns about “the inmates of the labor camps” (to whom there is “no access”) or wishful thinking about the desire of civil society for political freedoms. It will help North Korea evolve into a country that can meet the needs of its citizens and eventually lead to civil and political freedoms.

Proposing development assistance for North Korea, however, assumes that the North Korean government is committed to the economic betterment of its population and that the aid will advance this goal. Evidently Feffer does not see, or chooses to overlook, that North Korea’s rigid political and ideological controls regularly get in the way of economic reform. In recent years, the government has been cracking down on private markets and arresting and harassing ordinary people for showing the economic initiative and independence they need to survive. The government has also reportedly wiped out the meager savings of countless North Koreans through misguided currency reforms.

This is a government to which one can provide development assistance only while wearing ideological blinders. Although a few NGOs (e.g. World Vision) have managed to jointly fund with the regime several small food and water programs that reportedly help local people with agricultural development,[4] questions arise about the extent to which these programs reinforce the government. In fact, the organization had to fund, at government insistence, a fertilizer plant even though it would have preferred to finance a program that directly helped children.[5] Whether anything can stop the government from using dual use plants (fertilizer factories can be used for making explosives) for other purposes is not known. When asked: “Aren’t you merely propping up a dictatorial regime?” World Vision’s country director responded: “I would say that in some ways that is true… But how can we help children unless we work with this regime?”[6]

No real assurances exist, however, that development aid in any substantial form extended to this government will be used in constructive purposes and benefit people beyond the favored elite. Kim Jong Il, according to many reports, diverts large amounts of state funds each year into private accounts to support his lifestyle and buy party loyalty.[7] The widely respected UN Special Rapporteur found that “the resources of the country are misspent, misallocated, and misused on the elite and the ‘military first’ policy to the detriment of the populace.”[8]

A human rights approach can offer a sound basis for dealing with countries like North Korea. Feffer describes human rights as a “punitive” tool designed to “hasten-the-collapse” of the North Korean government, but its goal is to hold the government accountable for protecting the security and well being of its population. Since the end of World War II, the international community has developed international standards applicable to all states. After joining the United Nations, North Korea ratified five of the major international human rights treaties. Although Feffer would excuse Pyongyang from having to observe civil and political rights (first “satisfy the survival requirements of average North Koreans”), Pyongyang on its own volition ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and committed itself to adhere to international standards on detention, imprisonment and the treatment of prisoners as well as basic political freedoms. It also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Genocide Convention. Not only is North Korea bound to comply with the provisions in all of these treaties, but other states are bound to hold Pyongyang accountable as well. Feffer, nonetheless, would side with North Korea in accusing those trying to hold it to account as being “politically motivated.”

Treating North Korea differently, as Feffer proposes, and looking away when Pyongyang violates human rights standards it has freely accepted seems an odd privilege to extend to any country, particularly to one whose violations are so egregious. Human rights treaties do not contain escape clauses that excuse violations on the grounds that the country is not yet ready to assume its obligations. Making North Korea into a human rights exception will create the patronizing relationship that Feffer, with his social work sensitivities, so deplores, and undermine the goals of the international human rights system. 

That North Korea is entirely impervious to international human rights norms and structures is another mistaken assumption. Holding the North to account has produced some results, admittedly meager, but it is important to encourage and build upon them rather than dismiss them. For example, the government revised its Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to shorten pre-trial detention and restrict night time interrogations.[9] It also reformed some of its laws on children, family law and disabilities; it has engaged foreign NGOs to help reform institutions housing persons with disabilities; and it has developed national strategies for reproductive health and primary healthcare in cooperation with UNICEF and other international organizations.[10] If any of these reforms have helped even one prisoner, one person, or one family, the process has been worthwhile.

Because of Pyongyang’s participation, a small but growing number of North Koreans have become familiar with international human rights standards and UN procedures. North Korean officials have had to review their country’s laws in light of human rights treaties as called for by the UN, to propose revisions to these laws in light of comments received by UN bodies, to prepare North Korea’s reports on compliance with treaties, and to publicly answer questions. This development could lead to a cadre of North Koreans with expertise in human rights who might quietly begin to measure their government’s performance by international standards. In the former Soviet Union, establishment scientists like Dr. Andrei Sakharov surprised everyone in the 1960s and 1970s by studying the texts of international human rights agreements and measuring their government’s performance, ultimately leading to profound change. In China, where for decades it was assumed that human rights advocates didn’t exist, voices emerged in the late 1970s, both inside and outside the government, in support of democracy and greater political freedoms. North Koreans should not be written off as nameless, faceless people who have no aspirations. There are some 18,000 defectors in South Korea, some of whom are actively organizing on behalf of the human rights of their compatriots. Those inside North Korea will surely take comfort one day from knowing that people outside did not give up on them.

In 2009, the North Korean government added the words, human rights, to its constitution[11] and in 2010, participated in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record. Pyongyang sent a high level delegation to the proceedings and although it denied abuses and was evasive, it evidently considered it important enough to be involved in discussions with other states about its human rights record. Its delegate showed that at least theoretically North Korea’s position had evolved on how to distribute international food aid. North Korea acknowledged that “the principle of ‘no access, no aid’ is a commonly recognized universal principle in cooperation activities of the international organizations.”[12] Its delegate also said that North Korea would consider “technical assistance” from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights under certain conditions and it did not reject all the recommendations made by states (e.g. the creation of a national human rights institution, proposed by the United States; the ratification of additional human rights treaties, including on child labor and disabilities; joining the ILO and accepting labor standards for workers; providing access to the UN human rights system; providing assurances that food aid reaches the most vulnerable). It is now up to the Office of the UN Secretary-General and to foreign governments to work together with North Korea to see that it carries out these recommendations.  

A human rights approach, to be effective, need not be confrontational.[13] It does, however, require dialogue and engagement and should be linked to a broad range of issues, including the provision of economic development and energy assistance (to be extended in the framework of reforms[14]). Indeed, any move in the future toward normalization of relations between North Korea and the United States will necessarily involve human rights dialogue and agreements. Similarly, any resumption of the Six Party Talks is expected to include some form of human rights discussion, according to Obama Administration officials.[15] At the United Nations, discussions with North Korea should also have a human rights component.

For the moment, political tensions between North and South Korea, and the U.S. and North Korea, make positive movement on most fronts unlikely. That, however, should not prevent the U.S. and others from identifying the human rights issues where progress might be achievable. Families separated by the Korean War and more recently, by famine, extreme poverty or political persecution could be a starting point, with the International Committee of the Red Cross brought in to accelerate the pace. Certainly American citizens separated from relatives in the North should be a topic for discussion as should the freer movement of people, information and ideas across frontiers and the opening of exchange programs between the U.S. and North Korea.

Another goal should be the health and welfare of children, including their liberation from penal labor camps where unknown numbers are confined with their parents or grandparents and reported to be doing hard labor. Releasing them should pose no danger to the security of the state and should be raised by the U.S. together with other governments. Such a discussion could also serve as an entry point to a longer-term dialogue about the labor camps, a subject a French special envoy raised with North Korea last year.[16] A list of individual cases of North Korean prisoners should be compiled and made the subject of intercessions with the regime in the same way that the U.S. does with other governments. Indeed, for decades, the U.S. has raised cases of individual political prisoners with foreign governments, whether communist like the former Soviet Union and China (even though initially China, like North Korea, was considered unapproachable on human rights[17]), or allies like the Republic of Korea or the Philippines. Movement on high interest cases can occur even with the most difficult governments.[18]

Finally, the creation of a multilateral organization for peace and security in Northeast Asia remains an idea worth exploring once tensions begin to subside. Such a forum could help expand the dialogue with North Korea beyond strategic, economic and energy issues to encompass human rights and humanitarian concerns. Initially, it was hoped that a multilateral mechanism for peace and security would emanate from the Six Party Talks, which included a Working Group on a Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism. Former U.S. Ambassador James Goodby, who helped set up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, argues that a comparable framework for Asia could be “a much-needed agent for change” and could help to hold governments accountable for the treatment of their people.[19] While China’s support would be needed, it did chair the Six Party Talks and divisions are reported within the Chinese government and its think tanks over how to deal with peace and security on the Korean peninsula.[20] In the human rights and humanitarian arena, it is conceivable that China might find multilateral cooperation helpful on issues such as food and energy aid to North Korea and potential refugee flows, concerns reported to have become burdensome to China.[21] A North Korean government (particularly a successor to the current regime) might also find it easier to face up to human rights and humanitarian obligations within a regional framework where it might gain political and economic benefits.

With Kim Jong Il reportedly ailing, a succession process underway, and internal controls seemingly eroding, it is time to plan for the inclusion of human rights issues in both bilateral and multilateral talks once they resume and to work to strengthen the United Nations’ focus on human rights in North Korea. 


[1] See, for example, UN General Assembly/UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea,” Vitit Muntarbhorn, A/HRC/13/47, February  17, 2010; Department of State, “2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea,” March 11, 2010; reports of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, at www.hrnk.org/publications.htm; and Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, “Repression and Punishment in North Korea: Survey Evidence of Prison Camp Experiences,” East West Center Working Paper, No. 20, Hawaii, October 2009.

[2] See David Hawk, Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps, U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2003, p. 24.

[3] “Report of the Special Rapporteur,” supra note 1, para. 86.

[4] See for example Tim Stafford, “Feeding Hope Under a Rogue Regime,” Christianity Today, August 17, 2009.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., quoting Victor W.C. Hsu, World Vision in-country director for North Korea.

[7] See for example Chosun Ilbo.

[8]“Report of the Special Rapporteur,” supra note 1, para. 28.

[9] UN General Assembly/Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK,” Vitit Muntarbhorn, A/HRC/10/18, 24 February 2009, p. 4.

[10] Ibid. See also UN General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General, Situation of human rights in the DPRK,” A/63/332, August 26, 2008, para. 52.

[11] Choe Sang-Hun, “New Constitution Reinforces Kim Jong-il’s Hold on Power,” New York Times, September 29, 2009.

[12] UN Human Rights Council, “Draft Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: DPRK,” A/HRC/WG.6/6/L.12, December 9, 2009, para. 48.

[13] See for example David Hawk, Pursuing Peace while Advancing Human Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea, U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, May 2010. 

[14] Ibid., pp. 37-41.

[15] See, for example, statement by Robert King, Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, to Joongang-Ilbo, reported in One Free Korea, March 16, 2010. See also statement of Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 11, 2009, where he expresses support for broadening the focus of the Six Party Talks beyond the nuclear question.  

[16] See “French envoy talks about trip in North Korea,” ABC News, November 15, 2009.

[17] Roberta Cohen, “People’s Republic of China: The Human Rights Exception,” Human Rights Quarterly, Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 1987, pp. 451-458.

[18] See for example, “China Releases Defiant Tibetan Political Prisoner to U.S.,” International Campaign for Tibet, March 28, 2003; Jim Yardley, “China Releases Political Prisoner Ahead of Visit by Rice,” New York Times, March 17, 2005; Merle Goldman, “Monitoring Human Rights in China,” in Debra Liang-Fenton, Ed., Implementing U.S. Human Rights Policy, U.S. Institute of Peace, 2004, pp. 136, 138; Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights Diplomacy in the Communist Heartland,” in David D. Newsom, Ed., The Diplomacy of Human Rights, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, 1986, pp. 175-179; Warren Christopher, Speech on “The Diplomacy of Human Rights: The First Year,” Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, February 13, 1978 (mentions release of political detainees in Indonesia and Philippines among other countries), p. 5; and David I. Steinberg, “U.S. Policy and Human Rights in the Republic of Korea,” in Liang-Fenton (above), p. 184.   

[19] James Goodby, “North Korea: The Importance of Enlarging the Agenda,” November 2008 (prepared for Comprehensive Framework Working Group, on file with author).

[20] See for example, Sharon LaFraniere, “For North Korea Policy, China Prefers the Fence,” New York Times, 24 May 2010.

[21] See Zhiqun Zhu, “The Korean Crisis and China’s Policy,” International Relations, 2 June 2010.