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2008/05/15 11:06 KST


The Current State of North Korean Human Rights and International Interest

By Kim Soo-am, Research Fellow, the Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, Korea

International interest in the North Korean human rights issue has been intensifying recently. The newly inaugurated Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea is among those closely observing the North Korea's human rights situation, and has made clear that it considers the issue an important factor that will determine the future direction of inter-Korean relations. The previous administrations, concerned with keeping the channels of dialogue open between the two Koreas, has avoided mentioning human rights issues for fear of angering the North. So, it is very likely that the North Korean human rights issue will become an important point of concern in the process of resuming talks and improving relations with Pyongyang.

   Before the 1990s, North Korea's human rights situation was unknown due to the North Korea's closed-off nature. However, through reports based on testimonies of North Korean defectors published by Amnesty International, the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul and a variety of other organizations, the actual circumstances have been made known to the international community. In December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing serious concern over systemic, widespread and grave violations of the civil, political, economic and social rights of North Koreans.

Actual State of North Korea's Human Rights

North Korean authorities are currently operating concentration camps, and most of the political prisoners have not been able to escape the closed-off areas, living their whole lives in a pitiful existence. Moreover, authorities are carrying out public executions for human trafficking, theft, distribution of foreign CDs and other crimes that do not fall under the capital punishment clause of the criminal law, in order to promote awareness among its citizens. Due to the collective mentality of North Korean society, "individual" freedoms are being restricted considerably. Furthermore, distribution of information and other dimensions of social control are also being restricted. Likewise, in order to maintain the cult of personality around its leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea does not allow religious freedom. In the Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom announced on May 2, 2008, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated North Korea as a "Country of Particular Concern." The human rights situation for women, children, the elderly and disabled citizens has also been assessed as being poor.

   As a result of the serious economic difficulties faced by the DPRK (North Korea), the state's food rationing system and social security system have deteriorated, threatening the citizens' right to food and other basic rights to live. According to "North Korea Today," a publication of South Korean aid organization Good Friends, the recent humanitarian crisis in the DPRK is changing for the worse. It is reported that if aid is not provided by the international community immediately, two to three hundred thousand citizens will die of starvation within the next two months. In addition to the lack of resources, structural factors of the society also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. With the preferential apportionment of resources to the ruling elites and other unequal access of North Korean authorities, the grief of the other classes is being worsened. Also, the disproportionate distribution of resources resulting from the country's "Military First" politics and increased militarization hinder a resolution of the crisis.

   The restriction of citizens' right to freedom is another factor that deepens the humanitarian crisis. In particular, if North Korean citizens were allowed to migrate freely, the food crisis could be mitigated significantly. Furthermore, due to their restricted freedom of expression, the people are not able to make even the most minimal demands. Recently, in an attempt to block negative influences following the opening of its economy, North Korean authorities have been cracking down on the citizens. With increased regulation at the marketplace in particular, the people's rights to live are being severely threatened.

International Interest in North Korea's Human Rights

Considering these conditions within North Korea, the international community has recently raised the issues of 1) the need for urgent humanitarian aid resulting from the lack of resources that violates the people's basic right to live, 2) dissolving the structural inequality that violates the people's human rights, 3) the security of the people's right to freedom, and other factors that deepen the humanitarian crisis. Thus far, the international community has been concentrating its efforts on public deliberation of North Korean human rights issues, however, the UN, individual countries, NGOs and other actors are now promoting different strategies to improve the situation in the North.

   The UN has adopted a resolution that criticizes and pushes for improvement of North Korea's human rights situation. Both the Commission on Human Rights, from 2003 to 2005, and the UN General Assembly, from 2005 to 2007, have continuously adopted a resolution on North Korean human rights. The resolution by the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a "Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea" who is currently in service. North Korea has rejected and denounced the special rapporteur and therefore he cannot visit the North to examine the human rights situation there. However, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council is releasing its "Report of Special Rapporteur on Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" after inquiries were conduced with related countries, organizations and North Korean defectors. In March 2008, the 7th UN Human Rights Council presented and passed a resolution to extend the Special Rappaoreur's tenure by one year.

   The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which went into effect after being signed by President Bush. As a result, President Bush appointed Jay Lefkowitz as the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights and 40 North Korean defectors successfully resettled in the U.S. However, since the act was set to expire in 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs extended the expiration year to 2012 by passing the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2008. The new bill, among other things, changed the position of the special envoy from temporary to permanent and called for stronger cooperation with the South Korean government and North Korean defectors on issues of resettlement.

   In 2004, the first North Korea Freedom Week was held in Washington, D.C. This year, the event took place from April 26th to May 3rd, during which President Bush's "Statement by the President on North Korea Freedom Week" was presented. In the statement, Bush said, "We will continue to support the North Korean people as they strive to achieve the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled as human beings," and "the United States stands with North Korean people in their call for freedom."

Moves by South Korea and the International Community

In June 2006, the Japanese government established a "law to tackle North Korea's human rights violations like the kidnapping incidents." In addition, the EU adopted that year the North Korea Human Rights Resolution while conducting hearings to listen to the testimonies of North Korean defectors. Among EU members, the U.K., Germany and Sweden specifically approved resettlement of North Korean defectors in their countries.

   Recently, due to the influx of information from abroad, North Korean citizens are fostering an awareness of human rights issues. Therefore, as part of a strategy to improve human rights in North Korea, broadcasting aimed at North Korea has increased. From the U.S., "Voice of America" and "Radio Free Asia" are involved in such endeavors. Also, in South Korea, "Open Radio for North Korea," "Free North Korea Radio," "North Korea Reform Radio," and "Radio Free Chosun" are the core non-governmental organizations that are broadcasting to the North.

   The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released a report titled "Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea." The report states that for international non-governmental organizations to facilitate the improvement of human rights in the North, those responsible for human rights violations should be held accountable and the UN Security Council should intervene.

   In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak's new administration declared its strong will to improve North Korean human rights. President Lee's government is establishing a "solution for humanitarian issues between South and North Korea" that includes North Korean human rights. In fact, improving North Korean human rights was among the 12 issues that the Ministry of National Reunification addressed in its 2008 operations report. To carry out this political goal, South Korea, in part, is taking a more active role than just discussing North Korean human rights at the UN. During the 7th Human Rights Council session in March 2008, the South Korean government said "The Government of the Republic of Korea, underscoring human rights as a universal value, calls upon the DPRK to take appropriate measures to address the international community's concern that the human rights situation in the DPRK has not improved."
Also, South Korea voted to extend Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn's term by one year, which was mentioned previously. In addition, when President Lee visited UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the UN's headquarters in New York, he requested that the UN take an active interest in resolving the issue regarding North Korean defectors.