The Perils Of Politicizing The North Korean Human Rights Issue


North Korea is a hot topic in contemporary media. Officially known as DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, this is a state that works in isolation in an increasingly interconnected global community. With labels such as “rogue state,” or a regime led by a “rocket man,” the world media seems to be solely focused on one thing – North Korea’s nuclear crisis.

What outsiders know about the state is limited, and the ruling Kim family has made countless efforts to keep information confined within its territory. As Jimmy Carter said, North Korean leaders are dedicated to the survival and preservation of their regime. In order to strengthen state control, as the Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights (COI) has concluded, North Korean leaders have pursued this at the cost of “systematic, widespread, and grave [human rights] violations.” The COI report revealed state’s policing of people’s work and movement, arbitrary arrests, public executions without due process of law, and the use of prison camps, also known as the gulag system. The list goes on: “the right to food, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, freedom of expression, the right to life,” etc. Prison camp survivors tell stories of their treatment as subhuman – forced to kneel and swallow the spit of guards, dehydration, sexual assault, and more. The UN in 2014 concluded North Korea was guilty of crimes against humanities, with countless and unreported atrocities happening daily. Despite the awareness of such violations and multiple pleas from the international community to stop these acts, such efforts have been futile.

Why is this an issue that needs to be addressed by the international community? Why do human rights matter? First, on a principle and moral basis, we accept and hold the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a basic threshold for the treatment of individuals worldwide. This stems from our desire to protect our own and others’ dignities, through respect, equality, peace, and freedoms. Secondly, on a legal level, nations are bound to the declaration through international human rights law and have a legal obligation to uphold such standards. Thirdly, on a political consideration for the region, human rights abuses are intrinsically linked to the stability of the regime. The continued vigorous suppression of human rights can lead to state collapse, and the political consequences have serious implications – potential power vacuum, humanitarian crisis, and civil unrest. With the added complication of nuclear weapons in the equation, this will threaten the stability of South Korea, and inevitably, the region as a whole.

Unlike what several human rights activists hope for, which is a civil popular uprising that will change the regime’s behaviour, scholars and critics argue that radical regime change can exemplify and exacerbate the terrible suffering as a result of mass migrations and refugee crises, or even from potential armed conflict on the peninsula. With the current issue at hand, there are two stakeholders involved: people both in and outside the North Korean state, and current citizens or non citizens within the state and state defectors.

For the former stakeholder, the challenge in addressing human rights violations within the regime stem from North Korea’s isolation from the international community and the nuclear capacity of the state. U.S. policy and posture towards North Korea has always been primarily focused on its nuclear program. Although I do not deny it is an objective of paramount concern, human rights violations should be framed as a policy priority in itself. The Brookings Institute, when discussing the nature of the Six Party talks, stated that the parties “managed to exclude all reference to humanitarian and human rights concerns… [fearing it would] antagonize the North Korean government and jeopardize chances for a nuclear agreement.” Despite State Department special envoy for North Korean human rights, Lefkowitz’s, efforts to make human rights a policy issue, nuclear activists have pushed the topic aside to prevent complicating the bargaining process. As mentioned in a New York Times op-ed, Onishi argues that the “human rights issue has become so politicized that the actual plight of North Koreans is often emphasized or de-emphasized for other ends.” There needs to be an attempt by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, to make North Korean rights less a matter of political ideology and more a matter of practical reality. This would take place by placing the topic of human rights at the forefront of policy negotiations along with the nuclear debate. As Katharine Moon advises, it would also require recognizing North Korea as a legitimate counterpart, not a rogue, ‘axis of evil’ terrorist state, in order to “confront Pyongyang officially and boldly on human rights and other matters.” U.S. and South Korea need to bring such issues to institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specializing in human rights, which would broaden the international constituency and actors in addressing North Korean violations. I echo Moon’s argument that “it would convey to Pyongyang that it is not being singled out for demonization, while showing North Korean people that human rights, theirs included, are of universal concern and importance to the international community.”

Regarding the latter stakeholder, the challenge for defector assimilation mainly is the forced repatriation many defectors face in China. China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, but rather as “economic migrants” seeking a better economic lifestyle and employment in China. Evidence of documents and testimonies show that almost all defectors upon repatriation are sent to prison camps, tortured, or even killed. Although China has international obligations under the UN Convention related to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, China continues to repatriate defectors in justification of a border security pact signed with North Korea. The “Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas” ensures China to deport North Korean defectors back to their home country. Although the reasons for these defectors’ decision stem from search of food, medicine, and jobs, as well as fear of persecution, the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge the human rights violations as a definition for ‘refugee.’ In many cases, trafficking of North Korean women and girls into China, who are sold into marriage or prostitution, is also a border issue that not only involves North Korea, but also Chinese local and central authorities who turn a blind eye to these violations. The Chinese government must and should clamp down on domestic Chinese entities involved in the illicit trade of human trafficking. 

In all, the North Korean human rights issue is one that requires the involvement and efforts of multiple nations. I believe the real push for addressing the human rights issue will begin by state actors acknowledging North Korea as a state capable of negotiating policies to protect human rights rather than to demonize it and view the state as unwilling and unable to do ‘good’, China clamping down on domestic Chinese entities permitting the continuation of these abuses and violations, and utilizing existing institutions and NGOs specialized in effectively addressing the issue from a politically neutral and practical perspective. 

In Hee Kang