Human Rights in North Korea: Some Recommendations for the Obama Administration

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

April 30, 2009

This statement was given at the Heritage Foundation conference “North Korean Human Rights: Recommendations for the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress.”

The North Korean human rights record is one of the most egregious in the world, yet the United States has not to date found an effective way to address the issue. In fact, human rights have been largely downplayed or excluded from discussions with North Korea. I would therefore propose to the Obama administration the development of a strategy for integrating human rights into any future dealings, be they multilateral or bilateral, with North Korea.

Conceptually, human rights should not be considered an add-on or after thought to nuclear negotiations but an issue in its own right that the United States stands behind. Indeed, negotiations focused narrowly on nuclear weapons will not become sustainable in the long term unless they are grounded in a broader more solid framework. Nor should human rights be perceived or wielded as a weapon intended to provoke the immediate collapse of the North which then could overcome the South with refugees and huge rehabilitation costs. Rather it should serve as a means to pry open the North’s closed society gradually but firmly, press it to comply with international human rights standards, in particular those it has signed onto, help improve the lives of North Koreans, and bring North Korea into the community of nations. The nature of the regime after all has much bearing on its conduct at home and abroad. A deeper and more permanent peace and security on the Korean peninsula will depend upon commitment to basic standards of human rights.

A strategy to integrate human rights and humanitarian concerns into bilateral and multilateral talks should begin by identifying the human rights issues where progress might be achievable. One example would be families separated by the Korean War or who fled the country later on because of famine, extreme poverty or political persecution. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has expert tracing and reunification facilities and is present in Pyongyang, should be brought in to handle and speed up responses for visits, especially from persons over 70 who may never see their families again.

The liberation of family members of political prisoners, incarcerated with the prisoners, would be another issue to raise. Surely it can be argued that the release of children and grandchildren from penal labor camps, where they may be kept for life, should pose no danger to the state. An escapee born in the camps recently revealed that small children were forced to do hard labor such as hauling coal in dark mines, and that he was ordered to watch the hanging of his mother and the execution of his brother. Such discussions about family members of prisoners could also become an entry point into talks about the reported 100,000 to 200,000 prisoners confined without due process in North Korea.

Individual cases of prisoners should also be compiled in the same way that such lists are developed and presented by the U.S. to other governments. Of course identifying cases will be challenging, and the security of doing so must be weighed, but there are now some 15,000 defectors in the South as well as NGOs who know about cases of North Koreans detained for Bible study, for watching foreign DVDs, for planning to leave the country without permission, for having helped others to leave, for being returned after unauthorized departure, or for expression of views considered disloyal. Names and histories may bring light and exposure to what often seems an undifferentiated mass of people. Like prisoners in other countries, they can become the subject of intercessions which could make a difference in particular lives.

Whatever issues are selected for bilateral and multilateral talks (some for example have suggested discussions within the framework of the international human rights treaties both North Korea and the United States have ratified), the administration should try to achieve practical results. In the humanitarian area, after years of negotiation, North Korea did agree to enlarge access for relief workers bringing in food and medicines and in 2008 agreed to their conducting random on-site inspections and to there being Korean speakers among them. To be sure, many of the concessions made have now come to a halt[1] and need to be reaffirmed, but a foundation was established. Comparable efforts need to be exerted to gain access for UN and NGO human rights workers. For more than five years, North Korea has refused entry to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, has denied requests for a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and failed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisoners or foreign citizens abducted to the North. Nor has the International Labor Organization (ILO) been able to investigate standards in labor camps or the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) been allowed into border areas to screen North Koreans who fled to China and need protection there.

The Obama administration should mobilize a group of governments to work jointly with the UN Secretary-General to develop a coherent plan for enlarging access to North Korea and promoting compliance with the human rights goals and programs of the United Nations. There are many disparate agencies and offices at the UN whose work involves or could involve North Korea. There are the UN’s human rights bodies which issue strong reports on North Korea, there are agencies such as UNHCR, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), the ILO, the trafficking office and more, but there is no overall strategy coming from the Secretary-General’s office for carrying out the recommendations in the different reports and resolutions and coordinating their work so as to have impact on North Korea.

High level dialogues with China will be important not only because of its influence with North Korea but because it bears the brunt of North Korea’s failed policies. On the agenda should be securing China’s cooperation in ensuring that its own, as well as all other international food aid, is distributed to North Koreans on the basis of need, in line with World Food Program standards. Also on the agenda should be the treatment and status of North Koreans who flee to China to whom international refugee and human rights standards apply. China has signed the Refugee Convention and under the torture convention it ratified, China is prohibited from sending back persons to countries where they will face torture on return. Under the women’s convention, China is required to provide protection for women against exploitation, which can be applied to North Korean women who are trafficked and forced into marriages in China and may have no legal status even when married to Chinese.

The Chinese government does not always agree with the standard international definitions of some of these terms. Therefore, discussions with China should also include scholars and experts at the different foreign affairs institutes whose views are sometimes more far reaching and who might work to influence their government’s direction. Indeed, capacity building should be part of any strategy on North Korea. UNHCR for example has held workshops in China on asylum and refugee law. Additional workshops are needed so that a corps of experts can develop in China with an understanding of the human rights of refugees, of temporary protection, and of issues of statelessness — all pertinent to North Koreans crossing into China. The State Department’s Democracy and Human Rights Fund — if it hasn’t already — should explore adding programs for the protection of refugees to the work it supports in China. The holding of workshops in Pyongyang on refugee issues should also be encouraged. UNHCR has already participated in such a workshop,

The creation of an organization or a mechanism for peace and security in Northeast Asia that encompasses security, economic and human rights and humanitarian concerns would be another important initiative. The new framework could draw from the experience of the Helsinki Final Act and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I was in the State Department when the Helsinki process held its first review meetings and saw that discussions among countries with totally different systems and motivations could yield results. A process in Asia should allow for regular discussions and review meetings of a wide range of human security issues, such as freedom of movement, family reunifications, free flow of information and ideas, and compliance with human rights and humanitarian standards. It could also be the umbrella for scientific, educational and cultural exchanges, expanded contact among NGOs, and improved access for journalists. In its 1992 basic agreement with South Korea, North Korea actually agreed to some of these initiatives. North Korea has also ratified some of the major international human rights agreements and might be more willing to face up to its international obligations within a regional framework from which it could accrue political and economic benefits. Creating such a forum will not be easy to achieve but exploration of the possibility should begin in earnest. Non-governmental meetings have already begun. Congressional hearings need now to be held. The North Korean Human Rights Act calls for the U.S. to explore the possibility of a regional human rights dialogue with North Korea modeled on the Helsinki process.

And that leads to my final point — the State Department and Congress should work closely together to ensure the implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act (amended in 2008). That should mean ensuring full funding for expanded radio broadcasts essential to opening up the population to the world outside. It should mean proactively facilitating the entry of more North Koreans into this country than the 67 plus who have been admitted. It should mean encouraging cultural and educational exchanges that can bring new ideas and thinking to North Koreans about a range of issues. And it should mean implementing expanded human rights and democracy programs for North Korea. The position of special envoy to focus exclusively on human rights in North Korea will also be important. But the position needs to be well integrated into overall U.S. policies and programs toward North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s public rebuke of the envoy and the envoy’s public criticism of the State Department in his final report did not suggest a coherent policy that could be taken seriously by other governments. An integrated policy should involve all parts of the government – the White House and National Security Council, the relevant bureaus in the State Department such as East Asian affairs; democracy, human rights and labor; international organizations; refugees and migrants; and policy planning; as well as USAID, the Department of Agriculture and other offices. There needs to be an agency wide agenda for human rights which the entire U.S. government can stand behind in a unified manner.

[1] According to the U.S., the North Korean government began to backtrack on an agreement it had reached on the monitoring of food aid, and the U.S. in the fall of 2008 halted its food deliveries to WFP. In March 2009, North Korea asked five U.S. humanitarian NGOs distributing food aid to leave.