Human Rights Progress In North Korea: Is It Possible?

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

March 20, 2012

This article was published in 38 North and the original article can be viewed here.

Despite hopes, even predictions that Kim Jong Il’s death might usher in progress on human rights in North Korea, no change is yet discernible. North Korean defectors have long speculated that Kim Jong Un would not enjoy the same lockstep support commanded by his father and grandfather and might have to respond in some measure to popular needs and aspirations.[1] The North Korean economy, moreover, might not survive without reform. Even though the government periodically clamps down on private market activity, the people, including some in the government, are increasingly showing themselves to be of a “market mentality.”[2] Since they will not easily relinquish this reliance, it could pave the way toward greater economic freedom and ultimately political reform. New information technology is further eroding the isolation imposed by the regime.

Is this wishful thinking? Even assuming Kim Jong Un were inclined to promote change (a very big unknown), could he do it? He is surrounded by his father’s advisers and hard line repression continues while he consolidates his authority. As one expert put it, Kim Jong Un will not be able “to depart from his father’s legacy until he has fully established himself as the new ruler.” But “the longer he spends strengthening his position based on the same system of brutal repression, the less of a chance he will have to break away.”[3] Arrests and purges have accompanied his ascension to power,[4] reinforced by the support of those in the military, party and elite who stand to benefit from the regime’s continuation.

Tacit support has been given to Kim Jong Un by the international community. Wary of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and aggressive stance toward the South, and fearful of possible refugee flows and instability, China, the United States and other countries have made ‘stability’ their principal objective. However, in the process of doing so, they have largely sidelined the equally compelling need for justice and human rights.

Of course, unexpected changes can take place in countries deemed unlikely for human rights reform.[5] They may arise less from external pressure than from the ripening of conditions inside the country toward openness and change. Or they may arise from governmental steps to institute reforms to ensure the regime’s survival and secure international aid. In the latter case, North Korea’s surprise announcement of a satellite launch in April appears for the moment to be scuttling prospects for international assistance from the US and other countries and ushering in a period in which prospects for human rights reform look dim. Nonetheless, it is important to identify the signs to look for when trying to gauge whether Pyongyang’s new leaders are ready to head in new directions.
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[1] Kim Kwang Jin, “After Kim Jong-Il: Can We Hope for Better Human Rights Protection?” Occasional Paper, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2009, p. 15.

[2]Victor Cha, Statement at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), February 10, 2012; see also Chico Harlan, “In North Korea, role of foreign currency grows,” Washington Post, February 16, 2012.

[3] Greg Scarlatoiu, “The Magnanimous Comrade: Kim Jong-un’s Amnesty,” The Peninsula, Korea Economic Institute, January 18, 2012.

[4] “N.Korea: Purges ‘Ensure Kim Jong-un’s Succession,’” Chosun Ilbo, December 27, 2011.

[5] Recent developments in Burma are a good example; so too is the Arab spring.