There is a growing international interest and concern about human rights issues in North Korea while the North Korean authorities continue to fend off the access by the international society to the human rights situation in its society. International society is stepping up its concern for the seriousness of human rights situation in North Korea on the basis of eyewitness accounts of those North Korean citizens who have succeeded in crossing the border and information gained through various other routes.
The UN Human Rights Commission has, in three consecutive sessions – 59th, 60th, and 61st sessions – adopted resolutions on North Korea. In the 60th session, the Commission appointed a special rapporteur to examine the situation more closely. The United National General Assembly, in its 60th session also adopted a resolution on human rights situation in North Korea based on the report prepared by the Commission’s special rapporteur. The UN resolution, initiated by the EU, the U.S., and Japan, expresses the concern for the seriousness of human rights violations of the citizens in North Korea, and that the North Korean authorities are failing to cooperate with international organizations, and restricting the access by these organizations to monitor the situation.
As noted in the UN resolution on human rights in North Korea, the human rights situation of the citizens of North Korea is a source of deep concern; it is further amplified by the fact that the human rights policies and implementation of the North Korean authorities are inconsistent. The UN resolution, however, is not without its own problems as it fails to note and acknowledge the various positive measures undertaken by the North Korean authorities in the last few years to bring about improvements in human rights provisions by institutional reforms, such as, the amendment of the Criminal Code, their engagement with the international community as in the submission of reports on application of international instruments, or the developments in reconciliation and cooperation between South and North Korea. At the same time, some of the human rights issues noted by the UN resolution, such as, infanticide or forced abortion, need to be pointed out as inconclusive, requiring verification whether these incidences are wide spread phenomena or whether the authorities are systematically involved with deliberate intent.
It cannot be denied that the aggravation of human rights situation in North Korea is a reflection of the human right violation arising from the operation of the North Korean state system and some of the policies of the government. Even if one were to acknowledge the specificity of the North Korean system and the particularity of its operational principles, there cannot be the grounds for justification of the violation of universal and basic rights. The series of natural calamities experienced by North Korea in the 1990s, combined with a structural crisis in its economy have given rise to massive food shortage and cross-border displacement. The realities of displaced North Koreans who have entered into China, removed from any kind of human rights protection, is also a cause for grave concern.
An effort to understand the roots of the aggravation of human rights situation in North Korea calls for an examination of some of the external factors. The continuing isolation suffered by North Korea and the unrelenting environment of hostile confrontation that besets her, even in the post-Cold War period, stand as significant contributing factor in the aggravation of human rights conditions in North Korea. The pressure of economic sanctions on North Korea by the U.S. and the unabated arms race in the Korean peninsula have seriously undermined the right of North Korean people for security and development. The U.S., the singular superpower in the post-Cold War era, has continued to generate prejudice against North Korea in the international community by labeling it a “rogue state” or a part of the “axis of evil”, and mounted pressure on North Korea by adopting even more aggressive attitude and instruments, such as, the North Korean Human Rights Act. The discussions on human rights situation in North Korea in the international fora, such as, the UN, have mostly disregarded the various external factors which have played a part in the human rights situation in North Korea, focusing mainly on the factors internal to North Korean system. The recent UN resolution cannot be free from the critique that it too fails to sufficiently acknowledge the historical factors, including the crucial influence of the reality of hostility that defines the situation in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.
The real problem lies in that the repeated adoption of resolutions on human rights in North Korea at the UN is casting the human rights debate into a political dispute, giving rise to serious tensions within Korea and in the international community. The debate has degenerated into on of what position the government should take in the voting on the proposed resolution on human rights in North Korea at the U.N., what position the various political parties should take on the issue, downgrading the efforts for human rights situation in North Korea to one of whether one joins the denunciation of the North Korean human rights situation or not.
A genuine effort aimed at bringing about an improvement in human rights situation in North Korea needs to prevent the issue becoming overly politicized, and focusing, rather, on developing substantial effective measures which could actually promote the improvement.
Political approaches which aggravate tension and conflict, without bringing about effective improvement in human rights situation should be avoided.
The most important criteria for assessing the UN resolution, which has become the latest focal point of the debates on how to address North Korea, should be whether it can actually help the effort towards bringing about improvement in human rights situation in North Korea. For a long time, the human rights discussions in the U.N. have been instrumentalised for applying pressure on the particular countries based on the various interests of the countries involved in the debate. This has led to a situation where the adoption of a resolution has only triggered “retaliatory” response of the countries that have become the subject matter, and has failed to bring about actual improvements in human rights situation. It has reached a point where the UN Human Rights Commission is faced with a criticism for its inefficiency and shortcomings in representativeness. In March 2005, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan, in his report on the reform of the UN system, pointed out that some countries attempt to gain seats in the Human Rights Commission, not to contribute to the improvements in human rights, but, either to protect itself from criticism or to criticise some other countries for their own purpose. His statement was accepted as a critique of the politicization of the human rights discussions at the UN Human Rights Commission. The reality of political interest as the determining factor in human rights discussions is demonstrated eloquently by the silence of the international organizations on the blatant human rights violations in the illegal confinement and abuse at the Guantanamo Camp and the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The cloud of doubt on the efficacy of UN resolution in bringing about real changes – that it will remain nothing more than naming and shaming – stems from the long frustration with politically motivated selectivity and discrimination in human right discussions at the UN and the growing erosion of confidence. When human rights becomes an instrument of attack and exclusion, the efforts to promote human rights inevitably end in failure. Given this, the effort to promote UN resolution on human rights in North Korea which cannot be expected to have meaningful influence on actually bringing about human rights improvement or the fuelling of unnecessary tension and divisions over whether one supports the resolution or not are all unnecessary and undesirable in view of the objective at hand, that is, to actually bring about real improvements.
Historical review points out that human rights debate in the international society on the basis of power politics may be driven by an attempt to gain political advantage by certain countries. Furthermore, inappropriate intervention arising from this may give rise to grave humanitarian disasters. This awareness and concern also informs the view that the North Korean Human Rights Act enacted by the U.S. Congress may not make any positive contribution to the improvement of human rights situation of people of North Korea.
Issue of Human Rights in North Korea Need to be Addressed in a Holistic and Balanced Manner.
The broadening of the concept of human rights and the sincere concern and efforts of the international community for improvement of human rights situations in each country of the world is undoubtedly a product of the progress in humanity. In order to prevent the efforts to call on a particular country to improve human rights situation degenerating into instruments of political game, human rights engagement must be undertaken in holistic and balanced manner, based on a firm recognition of the indivisibility and mutual interdependence of every aspects of human rights. In focusing on human rights in North Korea, the effort should not just focus on one selective aspect, but address all its aspects – the right of civil liberty, social rights, rights to development, etc. – in a balanced manner. In focusing on North Korea, the issues of right to livelihood and survival which is seriously threatened by the crisis that has inflicted North Korea for long needs to be addressed with paramount urgency. At the same time, in developing a comprehensive approach to human rights issues in North Korea, the attention of the international community should not be limited to political-economic system and policy and the application of legal and institutional systems in North Korea, but, must take into account the realities and systems of military tension and arms race that define the Korean peninsula. This inevitably raises the issue of the need for international cooperation in order to address these problems.
In raising concern for human rights situations other countries, all the active parties must secure legitimacy that stems from upholding the principles of universality and peaceful means of intervention. This also calls for a simultaneous commitment for improvement of human rights situation in one’s own country. In South Korea, the continued insistence on maintaining the National Security Act, which is widely acknowledged as an instrument of serious human rights violation, and the flammable demand for incarceration of Prof. Kang Jeong-koo on entirely untenable grounds stand in contradiction to the denunciation of human rights violations by the North Korean authorities. Such a situation undermines the legitimacy of the human rights discourse. The application of a narrowly defined criteria for human rights, and use of human rights as an instrument of politically motivated activities disqualifies them as genuine human rights engagement. It cannot escape being regarded as political machination.
The Environment for Improvement of Human Rights Situation in North Korea Needs to be Created through Efforts to Ease Tension in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.
Human rights cannot be realized in absence of peace. Peaceful co-existence in the Korean peninsula, therefore, can be said to be a basic condition for guaranteeing human rights of the peoples of South and North Korea. South and North Korea have stood against each other in hostile confrontation for nearly half a century. In the recent days, South and North Korea have made consideration progress in reconciliation and cooperation based on a widespread popular support. However, the Cold War system of confrontation has not come to an end in Northeast Asia despite the various efforts for peace in the Korean peninsula. The situation calls for a detailed understanding of the conditions for peace in Northeast Asia. It is difficult, therefore, to expect the UN resolution sponsored by the U.S., EU, and Japan to have meaningful influence on the North Korean authorities towards more positive efforts for human rights, given the continued tension between North Korea and the U.S. and North Korea and Japan, and the suspension of dialogue between North Korea and the EU.
The most paramount initiative to bring about human rights improvement in North Korea lies in effective measures to bring to end the situation of confrontation in Northeast Asia. This will set the conditions and environment in which North Korean authorities can move towards efforts to bring improvements in human rights situation. In particular, the resolution of the Korean peninsula nuclear issue and the early initiation of the dialogue process for the normalization of relations between North Korea and the U.S. and North Korea and Japan would set the favourable climate for improvement of human rights situation in North Korea. The international community needs to call for easing of tension and arms reduction in the Korean peninsula and extend cooperation and assistance to North Korea for it to embark on reform and liberalization and to improve its external relations. The EU would be better advised to engage North Korea in human rights dialogue rather then mounting a human rights campaign at the UN.
It is Necessary for the North Korean Authorities to Adopt an Attitude and Efforts to Bring About Improvement in Human Rights Situation.
As the primary responsibility for worsening of human rights situation in North Korea lies with its authorities, it must begin to develop effective policy measures to bring about improvement. The North Korean authorities have maintained an attitude of denying the existence of the problems of human rights situation despite the repeated adoption of resolutions at the U.N. and the continuing development of concern for human rights in South Korea and the international community at large. The current situation North Korea encounters on the issue of human rights is brought on itself by the authorities in the failure to demonstrate to the international community its commitment and measures to bring improvement.
The North Korean authorities needs to recognise that no country can completely shut out information about human rights situations; upon this recognition, it must bring the human rights situation to light and facilitate the international community to obtain access to information about the human rights situation. It needs to engage with technical cooperation and advice of international human rights bodies for the efforts towards improving human rights situation. At the same time, it needs broaden its engagement with the international community through developing bilateral or multilateral human rights dialogue with concerned actors in international community, like the EU. North Korean authorities would need to be more open towards these efforts. Only when North Korea undertakes these efforts, would the international community recognise it as a member and pave the way for extending necessary assistance. If North Korea refuses to recognise and engage with human right dialogue, as it is doing now, there will be no place for measure for genuine and gradual efforts for human rights improvement.
South Korean Government Needs to Initiate Positive Efforts in International Dialogue on Human Rights Situation in North Korea and Greater Efforts toward North Korea to Open Itself to the International Dialogue
South Korean government has failed to make positive efforts or to propose constructive alternatives on issues such as UN resolution on human rights in North Korea or the adoption of laws in countries like the U.S. and Japan on North Korean human rights. It is not difficult, however, to appreciate the difficulty South Korean government faces in raising the issue of human rights considering the attitude of North Korea and the difficult efforts towards reconciliation and cooperation in the broader South Korea-North Korea relations. The government, nevertheless, must take up the efforts to explain that unilateral denunciation on human rights situation in North Korea would not be effective, but that an improvement in the relations between North Korea and outside world and the creation of the climate for dialogue is the only meaningful approach in the effort to bring about improvement in human rights situation of people in North Korea. It would be an important role of the government of South Korea to persuade North Korea to engage in human rights dialogue with international organizations and various bilateral efforts, including with itself. South Korean government needs, at the same time, to initiate dialogue with North Korea to jointly address the anti-human rights legal and institutional systems that arose from the national division. It would be vital for South Korean government to initiate gradual and positive approach towards human rights concerns in North Korea.
Forced Repatriation of Displaced North Koreans and Planned Border Crossing Must be Brought to an End, and a framework of international cooperation to address human rights violations faced by displaced North Koreans must be established.
The human rights situation of displaced North Koreans arising from the series of cross-border displacement since mid-1990s as a consequence of food crisis in North Korea has become a focus of international concern. In the last few years, the food crisis in North Korea has become relatively manageable. On the other hand, the promulgation of North Korea Human Rights Act in the U.S., the series of attempts by North Korean displaced persons to enter into the premises of foreign diplomatic missions in China, have catapulted the issues of displaced North Koreans into a political and diplomatic issue. This has prompted the Chinese authorities to clamp down on North Korean displace persons in China. The number North Korean displaced persons in China is said to have declined recently. North Korean authorities are also known to differentiate between those who have crossed the border for political reasons and economic reasons in their treatment. It is also reported that the treatment of those displaced persons who have returned to North Korea has improved with a general easing of punishment.
Nevertheless, the serious human rights situation of North Korean displaced persons in the border-lying areas between China and North Korea continues to be cause of serious concern. Due to the insecurity in their personal status, the displaced persons are reported to have become subject to human trafficking and gross exploitation. There is a need to ascertain the precise extent of the number of North Korean displaced persons in countries like China and to obtain reliable understanding of their motivation for border-crossing and their views on their future in order to develop an appropriate measures of relief.
In order to prevent human rights violation arising from the uncertainties about their status, their rights as migrants must be guaranteed. Given that the majority of the North Korean displaced person have crossed the border due to economic causes and to seek livelihood and intend to return to North Korea with changes in situation, the repressive measures like clamp down, forced repatriation, and punishment may give rise to serious human rights violation. With regard to those North Korean displaced persons who have undertaken border-crossing for political motivations or humanitarian motivations and express a wish to settle in South Korea or head to a third country, all political persecution and punishment must cease. The Chinese authorities must respect their wishes and the North Korean authorities must cease political punishment against these group of displaced persons.
The issues of North Korean displaced persons should never be exploited for political or commercial cause. Actions which instigate border-crossing and asylum-seeking must be cease; in cases where it is unavoidable to extend support to these persons on humanitarian grounds, it must be conducted with great care. Various brokering practices with regard to displaced North Koreans must be brought to an end. The efforts to arrange passage of North Korean displaced persons to a third country for the purpose of political campaign against the North Korean system with an intent to bring about its collapse – and the support for those organizations involved in this kind of activities – seriously damages the spirit of humanitarian efforts to protect human rights of displaced persons. Such activities, as they may have serious negative impact on the efforts to create an environment that will facilitate the real solution of the problem, must cease.
Lastly, the settlement policy of the South Korean government for displaced North Koreans need to be undertaken with great care so as not to encourage planned border-crossing.The U.S. government needs to recognise that its politically motivated human rights policy towards North Korea, such as the North Korean Human Rights Act, is, in fact, aggravating the human rights situation of the North Korean displaced persons, and undertake to overhaul its entire policy approach.
25 November 2005
PSPD Center for Peace and Disarmament