Human Rights in North Korea: Addressing the Challenges

Over the past decade, non-governmental organizations and United Nations human rights bodies have brought to world attention egregious human rights violations in the DPRK. The information has largely been based on the testimonies of North Koreans who since the late 1990s have fled to the South, and other countries. Combined with satellite imaging, NGO reports have confirmed the existence of a vast system of prison labor camps as well as many other serious infringements of civil, political, economic and social rights that the North Korean government continues to deny.

The information has made it possible for the international community to act. In 2004, the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK. That same year the United States Congress adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act which authorized the appointment of a Special Envoy for human rights in North Korea and called for greater attention to human rights in US dealings with North Korea. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first resolution on human rights in North Korea. By 2011, a coalition of more than 40 international and national NGOs was formed to press for stronger action at the United Nations. And in 2013, the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate whether North Korea’s widespread and systematic violations constitute crimes against humanity for which North Korean officials could be held accountable.

So far, these efforts are said to have produced few tangible results on the ground. In his 2012 memoir, former British Ambassador to North Korea John Everard observed: “I can trace no evidence that international efforts have had any significant effect on DPRK behavior” in the area of human rights. Other scholars and commentators have noted as well that human rights efforts have had little effect in changing North Korea’s behavior. Some have even concluded that the human rights framework should be set aside in dealing with North Korea and alternative processes identified and developed.

This article argues that the compilation and dissemination of information about the human rights situation is critical to an effective international response and that reliance on international human rights standards to frame that response is essential. North Korea of its own accord has acceded to four international human rights treaties — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This not only binds North Korea to uphold these standards but compels the international community to hold North Korea to account. Continuing to document human rights information and most importantly harnessing that information to effective strategies could lend support over time to those inside the country inclined toward change. This will require the engagement of a broad range of actors — governments, international organizations, NGOs and civil society. A major goal will be to pierce the information wall around North Korea through use of social media and other new technology to make North Koreans fully aware of the world outside and the benefits of political and economic reform.

The article first examines the challenges to compiling information about the human rights situation in North Korea and how these challenges have been addressed. It then looks at the establishment of the UN Commission of Inquiry and the impact its findings could have on supporting change in North Korea. It identifies a range of strategies needed internationally to promote greater impact on the ground.

Editor’s Note: This article on human rights violations in North Korea was originally published in the International Journal of Korean Unification Studies vol. 22, no. 2.