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Human rights and humanitarian planning for crisis in North Korea

Roberta Cohen

In military and political circles, contingency plans abound for North Korea based on different scenarios — political evolution in the North leading to peaceful reunification with South Korea, collapse of the Kim regime, fighting among military factions, and a possible takeover by foreign forces. Whatever the scenario, there has been little or no input from human rights and humanitarian actors in the design of the contingency plans. Yet, adequate food, medicines, potable water and sanitation will need to be provided in any scenario involving disruption or turmoil in the North. And in the case of mass migration, protection, assistance and developmental solutions will be required for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Essential too will be the creation of a secure environment to safeguard the North Korean population from violence, human rights abuse and criminal activity. And plans will be needed to achieve political transition, economic recovery, the establishment of the rule of law, and transitional justice encompassing accountability and steps toward reconciliation.

In sum, human rights and humanitarian concerns should figure prominently in any scenario. Yet, the relevant actors have not yet come together to prepare. One reason is that no established forum exists to bring human rights and humanitarian groups together and no call has been made to do so. More importantly, there is little common ground. For humanitarian actors, even talking about change in North Korea violates their modus operandi of neutrality, impartiality and cooperation with the government. Any planning, they fear, could create the appearance of their seeking to unravel the regime (aka ‘regime change’) and lead to government restrictions on their operations or expulsion from the country. The preservation of access, however limited, is a goal of its own. Human rights advocates by contrast seek reform openly by exposing violations, raising public awareness and making recommendations for civil, political, economic and social change. Accountability also figures prominently to ensure that those who have perpetrated crimes against humanity are held responsible. Humanitarian groups and those who ‘engage’ with North Korea often tend instead to emphasize reconciliation. To prepare for eventual reunification, however, both groups will need to be involved to ensure that their concerns are reflected in contingency planning.

This paper seeks to identify some of the human rights and humanitarian concerns that will need attention in the event of a change in the North, for example:

  • Protecting, assisting and finding solutions for North Korea’s political prison population of more than 100,000, and those abducted from abroad;
  • Identifying who should be held accountable for the Kim regime’s crimes and abuses, the most effective judicial arrangement and how transitional justice should be introduced; and
  • Effectively managing refugee flows and internal displacement. 

The paper gives particular attention to the rescue of political prisoners since this tends to be overlooked in contingency planning. It also examines the application of the United Nations’ Human Rights Up Front (HRuF) approach to North Korea, which could encourage early involvement of humanitarian and development organizations on the ground with human rights concerns. And it discusses the UN doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P) given the likelihood that military forces, whether of South Korea, the United States or of China, will be involved in any effort to stabilize the situation.

Scenarios that actually take place could of course defy all planning: for example, if China were to absorb the North economically and then seek to dominate the country politically (possibly even militarily) and thereby thwart reunification. To be sure, standing in the way would be opposition from South Korea, the US, Japan and other states, the United Nations, and doubtless from North Koreans as well.

This paper is based on the assumption that change will occur in North Korea, that South Korea and the United States as well as China will play significant roles and that given Korea’s history, the United Nations and its military command will also be substantially involved. Even though the scenario and timing cannot be known, the sooner preparations are made, the more likely it will be that problems inherent to reunification will be anticipated and addressed.

This article is from the forthcoming Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the International Journal of Korean Studies.

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