Evolution of Contemporary Responses to Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Evolution of Contemporary Responses to Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has become increasingly responsive to human rights criticism since early 2010. The DPRK has recently begun to respond to United Nations human rights investigations, and in 2018 they  participated in bilateral meetings with South Korea and the United States to discuss their foreign relations. As a result of these historic developments, the following question is proposed: how have responses to North Korean human rights abuses evolved in the twenty-first century? The international community has attempted two different methods of addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses: The early 2010s were characterized by shaming Kim Jong Un’s regime; and the late 2010s have been characterized by international collaboration with North Korea, notably with South Korea and the United States. These distinct periods are reflected in two diverse responses from the Kim regime regarding allegations of their human rights violations.

Human Rights Abuses

North Korea has been known for its terrible human rights violations since the informal end to the Korean War in 1953. When the two Koreas split, North Korea spiraled into an inhumane dictatorship run by the Kim family. As evidence of this, North Korea placed third-to-last out of 195 countries on Freedom House’s 2018 ranking of free countries, preceded only by Syria and South Sudan.

It is well known that the Kim regime strictly dictates the lives of the North Korean people. As the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, puts it, the DPRK engages in “unprecedented crimes against humanity.” The country’s isolation and prioritization of defense and military spending presents a confounding image of both nuclear armament and extreme poverty and starvation. The strict control of food rations also poses major issues for the North Korean population and the country is again at risk of falling into a famine. In a 2017 report, it was estimated that at least forty percent of the North Korean population is suffering from severe food insecurity, with only the capital city of Pyongyang exempted from this issue.

Censorship, travel bans, public executions, and political prison camps are also major human rights violations of the North Korean people. In a December 2017 report on North Korean political prisons, the DPRK was found guilty of ten crimes against humanity. These include enslavement, torture, persecution, and enforced disappearances. It is clear that the North Korean government violates the human rights of the majority of its citizens. As a recent defector explained, “if you don’t have money or power, you die in a ditch.” The international community is aware of these violations and has been increasingly addressing these issues over the past decade.

The First Wave of Responses

The first wave of responses to the human rights abuses committed by North Korea began in 2013 with the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The United Nations created this commission to investigate the widespread violations of human rights. In doing so, they called for North Korean compliance with the investigation and humanitarian assistance if deemed necessary. The Commission released their report to the public in February 2014, finding that the North Korean government was guilty of “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.” The report also includes a letter sent by Michael Kirby, chair of the commission, to Supreme Leader Kim, in which Kirby expressed his disappointment for not being granted access to travel to Pyongyang. Kirby further explains that he had been hoping to speak with the Supreme Leader and his top government officials in order to better understand the North Korean perspective on their own human rights.

North Korea’s noncompliance in the commission and their refusal to respond to various correspondences was of high concern to the United Nations. Kim, however, saw no problem with remaining silent when faced by these claims. Having just taken over power from his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, acknowledging the human rights abuses would have undermined his authority and ability to lead. Therefore, it was a rational decision of the DPRK not to respond to shaming tactics imposed by the international community.

Later in 2014, the United Nations made two more similar attempts at responding to North Korea’s human right abuses:

  1. The United Nations formally added North Korea’s human rights abuses to the Security Council’s agenda as a “threat to international peace and security.”

  2. The UN General Assembly passed Resolution 69/188 addressing human rights in the DPRK. The 7-page document condemns the actions of North Korea, expresses serious concern based on the commission’s findings, and strongly urges the DPRK to respect all of its citizens’ human rights.

Given the heightened importance placed on human rights in the DPRK and constant shaming tactics, North Korea responded to the United Nations by publishing their own report from the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies. In this document, the regime explains how human rights are respected by their government and, contrary to the world’s belief, North Koreans are thriving. This report described the United States and the European Union as the main obstacles to promoting human rights in North Korea and labels the United Nations reports as vicious propaganda.  

This first wave of responses to human rights abuses in the DPRK can be characterized by multiple attempts from the United Nations at shaming North Korea and by North Korea’s persistent denial of any human rights abuses. North Korean foreign relations thawed during this time, however, there was no positive impact made on the human rights of the North Korean people, nor were human rights abuses acknowledged.   

Second Wave of Responses

The second notable wave of responses to human rights abuses began in 2017. After remaining dormant for a few years and observing the UN’s failure at diplomatically engaging with North Korea, the international community shifted its focus back to North Korea’s human rights abuses. This interest was likely sparked in part by the imprisonment of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested for stealing state propaganda. His case drew attention to the treatment of political prisoners in North Korea when he died three weeks after his release to the United States in June of 2017. Despite their previous lack of success, the United Nations continued to use the shaming method in an attempt to embarrass North Korea into action. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in North Korea released a report, as has been done every year since 2004, stating the UN’s increasing concern for the worsening of living conditions in North Korea. However, Kim merely continued his tradition of ignoring recommended regime changes.

Two states, South Korea and the United States, diverged from the UN and turned towards collaboration tactics in an effort to engage in dialogue with the DPRK. This was an attempt to move towards a period of tactical concessions, which would eventually move North Korea away from denial of their human rights abuses. In April, May, and September of 2018, South Korean president Moon Jae In met with Supreme Leader Kim to discuss ending the Korean War and the future of Korean relations. These historic meetings were the first time North and South Korean leaders have met in person since 1953. Kim agreed to denuclearize the peninsula before 2019 and a declaration was signed to officially end the Korean War. Plans to remove weapons and guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone were established and a united bid to host the Olympics in Korea was submitted to the Olympics Committee.

These three meetings between North and South Korea shared a key characteristic: they focused on nuclear capabilities and foreign relations, but not human rights. In order to get North Korea to open communication with the rest of the world, South Korea had to shift the dialogue to national security and improving relations. This is reflected in the Panmunjom Declaration, the resolution that came out of the first inter-Korean meeting. While the declaration was highly symbolic of a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula, it was lacking in realistic steps by which to denuclearize North Korea and improve their human rights.

The second key meeting was the US-North Korean summit in June 2018. This meeting, like the Inter-Korean summits, was highly symbolic. After the meeting, United States President Trump tweeted that “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” However this declaration has been undermined by recent satellite evidence from CSIS, finding that the DPRK is in fact increasing their nuclear power. This does not come as a surprise, given that the declaration signed at this meeting was lacking in realistic measures by which the DPRK would move towards denuclearization.

In summary, the second wave of responses to North Korean human rights abuses was more successful than the first in bringing about dialogue with the DPRK, especially in regards to denuclearization. However, this increased interaction with the international community will make very few improvements on the human rights of North Koreans. As North Korean defector Jang Jin-Sung says in his autobiography: “North Korea uses dialogue as a tool of deception rather than negotiation.” The DPRK is likely engaging in dialogue with the intention of manipulating hopeful South Korean and American governments into weakening sanctions and de-escalating military threats. Pyongyang is feigning interest in cooperation while continuing to ignore its people’s human rights.

The heightened global attention to North Korea and their human rights abuses, as well as the Kim regime’s recent participation in bilateral summits, offers a promising view of the future of human rights in the DPRK. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry, Resolution, and Special Rapporteur have been effective in highlighting the human rights abuses in the DPRK, but ineffective in dialogue with North Korea and in presenting realistic steps to solve problems. Ultimately, the second wave of responses was far more effective in engaging North Korea in discussion, seen through diplomacy efforts from North Korea unprecedented in contemporary years. Although the summits focused on national security, minor concessions on human rights were made by North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Region, a South Korean-owned North Korean-operated development complex is set to reopen, which will employ thousands of North Koreans and provide the North Korean state with significant economic assistance.

While human rights were not a particular focus of the second wave, the improved foreign relations brought about by all three summits will be key in long-term eradication of human rights violations. Once the issue of denuclearization has been somewhat mediated, the focus of diplomatic efforts should shift to human rights abuses. Positive progress in the human rights of North Koreans will come about very slowly, just as diplomatic relations with North Korea have been improving slowly. More than seventy years of tension cannot easily be remedied; however, states committed to progress will eventually bring about change. Therefore, further collaboration with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in the best interest of the United States, South Korea, and the broader international community, including the United Nations. Continuing to host summits and strengthen diplomatic ties with Kim Jong Un will bring about gradual positive progress towards recognition of human rights violations by North Korea.

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