The Role of Human Rights in Policy Toward North Korea

Women work a silk factory beneath a banner with Korean writing. Women work in Kim Jong Suk Silk Factory beneath a banner reading 'Lets Advance with Full-Scale Offensive' on August 21, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea continues to carry out weapons testing and to declare that not a single COVID-19 patient has emerged in the country. Analysts and medical experts, however, are highly skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims. A coronavirus outbreak would overwhelm the North’s weak healthcare system and would be devastating to its people, who suffer from relatively high levels of malnutrition and have no access to information about the pandemic.   

North Korea is one of the worst human rights violators in modern history. In February 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council published the landmark Report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a comprehensive account of human rights abuses committed by the authoritarian country’s leadership against its people. It was seen as a major milestone in the effort to shine a light on the gravity and scope of the problem and to hold the perpetrators accountable by bringing them before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Over the past three years, however, the momentum for action on the report’s recommendations has faded and the human rights issue has been largely viewed as less serious a concern than the regional and global security threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program and long-range missiles.

Coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the COI report, it was the goal of the Korea Program’s twelfth annual Koret Workshop to regenerate awareness of the role of human rights in policy toward North Korea by gathering experts at Stanford to discuss the topic and generate concrete recommendations for action. In this post, we share highlights from select presentations prepared for this workshop that was canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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Human Rights and Denuclearization

As the Trump administration shifted from a “war of words” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to prioritizing summit diplomacy, the focus on the human rights problem receded and many stakeholders, both within and outside the administration, preferred to play it down so as not to jeopardize the negotiation over a denuclearization agreement.

Yet the irony, argues Asian affairs and security expert Victor Cha, is that the denuclearization and human rights agendas are inextricably intertwined. “Human rights is an integral and unavoidable component of a comprehensive North Korea strategy,” he says. Cha, professor of government and holder of the D.S. Song-KF Chair in Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, joined APARC as the Koret Fellow in Korean Studies for the winter quarter of 2020.

Cha notes that revenues gained from forced labor exports and other human rights abuses help the Kim regime finance its proliferation activities. Furthermore, improvements in the country’s human rights condition would reflect the leadership’s commitment to reform and make a denuclearization commitment by the DPRK more credible. The United States, claims Cha, must take actionable steps to include the human rights issue in bilateral relations with Pyongyang: establish a rights-first approach in future negotiations, resume humanitarian assistance, and fill the position of a Special Envoy for Human Rights as mandated by the Congress.

Watch Professor Cha discuss these issues in our recent virtual Q&A:

Tae-Ung Baik, professor of Law and director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, calls for a step-by-step approach, advancing small, concrete changes that will have a cumulative effect toward better protection of the rights of the people of North Korea. For example, cooperation and consultation on human rights protection should be exerted to promote reform in specific areas such as the North Korean judicial and criminal justice systems.

Ambassador Robert King, who served as a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State in the Obama administration, also stresses that addressing the human rights problem is essential to making progress toward denuclearization and security goals. King argues that North Korea must accept international norms and standards for denuclearization, but its acceptance of international human rights standards is necessary if it is to win international legitimacy.

Listen to highlights from King’s talk at the Korea Program’s seminar, which he delivered in the fall quarter of 2019 while being affiliated with APARC as the Koret Fellow in Korean Studies:


Freedom of Information

Although the human rights condition in North Korea has not improved, the information landscape in the country has changed significantly over the past quarter-century. Nat Kretchun, deputy director of the Open Technology Fund, describes the transformation as “trending up from an extremely low base toward greater openness and access before, more recently, retrenching.”

In the years following the famine of the mid-1990s, information flowed into the country like never before, exposing North Korean citizens to a range of new content via an array of non-networked technologies, including information from China, South Korean entertainment media, radio broadcasts from NGOs, and outside broadcasts by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. As they regained some measure of economic stability, however, the North Korean authorities began to reestablish control over information flows. The recent available data demonstrates that access to information is falling off and the era of more socially normalized consumption of outside information is over, says Kretchun. “The government has begun implementing a far more technologically savvy information control strategy than it previously had the capacity to do […in an] effort to move communications and media consumption onto state-controlled networks via state-controlled devices.”

Indeed, Martyn Williams, a veteran watcher of North Korea’s information technology sector, shows that, while the digitization of media was the catalyst that led to the mass spread of foreign content across the country, so too has the same technology been employed to help the government combat it. For example, every Android tablet and smartphone in North Korea logs every page a person visits with the web browser and randomly takes screenshots during his/her use of the device. Users are allowed to see this database of collected screenshots but cannot delete them. “The system is sinister in its simplicity. It reminds users that everything they do on the device can be recorded and later viewed by officials […] it insidiously forces North Koreans to self-censor in fear of a device check that might never happen.”

Furthermore, the security software pre-loaded onto North Korean phones and computers cannot be replaced and the state’s digital certificate system makes mobile devices little more than consumption tools for state propaganda and personal memories. “While digital technology has created new pathways for foreign content, the increased networking of products could work against information freedom and eventually lead to the creation of an even more Orwellian society,” concludes Williams.

Minjung Kim, director of the South Korean NGO Save North Korea, emphasizes that a key to addressing the human rights problem in the country lies in discrediting the regime’s ideology in the minds of the North Korean people. It is, therefore, necessary to further produce and deliver content that educates citizens on how the regime shapes and manipulates ideology.

The Role of the United Nations

The Kim Jong Un regime responded to the 2014 COI report with outrage and denunciation, and Pyongyang has continued to refuse to cooperate with UN Special Rapporteurs.

For three consecutive years following the publication of the report, the UN Security Council returned to consider the North Korean human rights record. Since 2018, however, the issue has not been placed back on the Security Council agenda, while the U.S.-DPRK summit denuclearization diplomacy has not included a single statement regarding improving the lives of North Korea’s people.

The North Korean human rights problem has long been subject to political debates. Still, claims Joon Oh, former ambassador of South Korea to the UN and former president of the UN Economic and Social Council, future efforts can focus on helping the North Korean people realize economic and social rights, as these do not necessitate political reforms that threaten the regime. The challenge here, though, Oh recognizes, is that such efforts require technical cooperation and humanitarian assistance, which, in turn, have been narrowed down since the UN security council imposed sanctions on North Korea in 2017 for its nuclear and ballistic missile development.

Former Justice of the High Court of Australia Michael Kirby, the chair of the COI report, who has argued that there will never be peace on the Korean peninsula as long as there are grave human rights abuses occurring in North Korea, claims that “When a state is unwilling or unable to halt or avert [mass atrocity crimes], the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary. […] It is not acceptable simply to wring our hands and cry ‘never again.’ Action must be taken, however difficult and even dangerous is the path of pursuing such action can sometimes be.”

Granted, the international community must urgently reduce and eliminate the dangers posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. However, says Kirby, turning a blind eye to human rights crimes because their mention will upset those who are alleged to have committed them or permitted them to be committed in their name is neither a rational nor a just response.

Kirby urges the international community to engage the large population of North Korean refugees within South Korea and to learn from their experience about the needs of the North Korean people. "Imagination and new strategies are sorely needed," he concludes. "But releasing the pressure of sanctions without assured dividends in the observance of human rights, dismantling of weaponry and achievement of security is not the way to go."

About the Koret Workshop

The Koret Workshop, hosted annually by Shorenstein APARC’s Korea Program at Stanford, gathers each year an international cohort of experts to discuss pressing challenges in contemporary Korean affairs and U.S.-Korean relations, with the broader aim of fostering greater understanding and closer ties between the two countries. The workshop and the Koret Fellowship in Korean Studies are made possible thanks to generous support from the Koret Foundation. The twelfth annual Koret workshop, which was scheduled for March 2020 and canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, may be rescheduled to a later time.