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2009/08/06 10:45 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 66 (August 6, 2009)


North Korea Should Be Led Towards Respect for Human Rights

By Kim Soo-am
(Research Fellow of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, Korea)

North Korean refugees have explicitly made clear that the human rights situation in their native country, officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is the worst in the world. North Korea, however, contends that no human rights problems exist in the country, as all citizens are leading happy lives under a "a socialist system of its own style." The North has filed strong protests about United Nations resolutions condemning its record on human rights and slammed the U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act, which terms the North the world's worst violator of human rights and calls for the improvement of the dire human rights situation in the country, as political plots and pretexts to topple the North Korean regime.

   Voluntary change of domestic North Korean policy to improve human rights can hardly be expected when we take into consideration the nature of the North Korean regime, which has maintained for decades a monolithic ruling system at the apex of which sits the Suryong, or absolute leader of the country. The possibility of North Korean citizens launching any form of campaign to reclaim their natural human rights is also extremely low, given the totalitarian state's absence of a civil society. For this reason, activities outside North Korea to improve the human rights situation in the country will naturally play an important role. In other words, the improvement of the human rights situation faced by North Koreans requires foreign campaigns to that effect.

   Activities to improve the human rights situation in North Korea should be two-pronged: aiming on the one hand to prevent state violations of human rights and protect citizens from such violations, and on the other to promote respect for human rights domestically. A pivotal factor to take into consideration when approaching the issue of human rights in North Korea is the closed nature of the North. Along with its absence of a civil society, these factors mean that foreign activities based on the above-mentioned touchstones of "prevention, protection and promotion" can hardly expect cooperation from any internal element in the country.

   Accordingly, foreign activities aimed at "prevention and protection" need to place priority on touching off a change in North Korean policies related to human rights, while "promotion" activities need to emphasize bringing about a change in foreign strategy towards the North with regard to human rights, including encouraging the formation of civil society in the country and fostering North Koreans' understanding of human rights. Foreign actors, including South Korean ones, should focus on campaigns for "prevention and protection" on a short-term basis, through open advocacy activities at a time when North Korea is isolating its citizens completely from foreign information and banning their freedom of expression.

Special Relations between the Two Koreas

In the course of establishing its approach to solving the question of North Korea's human rights issue, there is a need for South Korea to consider the influence of the unique relationship between the two Koreas. Given the divided state of the peninsula, for South Korea the North is an entity of a dual nature: a counterpart for consultations on unification, yet simultaneously an enemy threatening its security. Despite this dualism, in dealing with the question of human rights, South Korean policy makers tend to view the North simply as an assailant. They have placed priority on criticizing the immorality of the North Korean authorities, often at the expense of neglecting efforts to develop concrete strategies aimed at improving the lamentable human rights situation faced by North Koreans. South Korea must acknowledge the dual nature of the North when it establishes the direction of policy measures on the North Korean human rights question.

   As long as the current North Korean regime continues to exist, South Korea is likely to be faced continuously with the limitations of its efforts and ability to improve the human rights situation in the North; but its has to recognize the reality that North Korea as it now exists is its counterpart for talks and consultations for improving the human rights situation in the country. Even if the South acknowledges the dual nature of the North, it needs to awaken to the fact that the North Korean dictatorship differs considerably from dictatorial rule in other countries. Both Myanmar and Cuba are still under dictatorial rule, but there are some dissidents and civil society in those countries, thus they can establish a network with foreign actors to influence the policy behavior of the authorities concerned.

   In sharp contrast, North Korea bans its citizens from contacting foreigners and isolates them completely from foreign information while maintaining an all-consuming personality cult. For this reason, foreign elements cannot depend on any internal allies and have to establish their own strategy to touch off a change in North's policies, in consideration of the closed nature of North Korean society. Consequently, when South Korea plans "prevention and protection" activities, attention should be placed on giving priority to analysing the factors behind human rights violations and acting to remove such factors. Such campaigns should be pushed for vigorously under strategies which are valid in the international community as follows.

   First, they should invigorate their advocacy activities: South Korea needs to actively support the advocacy activities of domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) while forming an international network focused on human rights in the North, and openly call for North Korea's improvement of its poor human rights record. For example, the North could move to discontinue the public execution and torture of its citizens without changing the nature of its regime. For this reason, the South needs to get more of information on political prison camps, public execution and torture in the North and help NGOs launch actively advocacy campaigns.

   Second, South Korea ought to focus its efforts on reminding the North of the fact that human rights are an important issue in international relations in their own right. A U.N.-backed strategy of direct involvement aimed at bringing about a change in the North's perception and policies regarding human rights should be launched. United Nations organizations' pressure can be most effective in this regard; while resisting the U.N. resolutions on the human rights situation in their country, North Korea, however, is taking some positive measures, including an amendment to its criminal law. It would appear that North Korea is feeling the pressure of the U.N. request for improvement of its human rights situation, fearing further isolation from the international community. For this reason, the United Nations needs to continue to adopt resolutions on North's human rights situation to invigorate "prevention and protection" activities relating to the violations of human rights in North Korea.

   Third, South Korea should make full use of the U.N.'s special procedures and treaty-based bodies in advocating policy change in the North. It needs to make use of the universal periodic review (UPR) system under which the United Nations Human Rights Council has reviewed the human right situation in all of its member countries since its inauguration in March 2006. In December this year North Korea is subject to UPR. On this occasion, South Korea, in cooperation with domestic private organizations and international NGOs, needs to play a role in touching off a positive change in the North's policy behavior regarding human rights. Also necessary for the South is the utilization of the state report submitted to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and trials for open discussion of the human rights issue in the North in the course of examining the state report to the international conventions and covenants with which the North is affiliated. North Korea has not filed any state report on the human rights situation in the country since it submitted its second report on that matter to the international covenant in 2000. The South needs to call continually for North's submission of the third report to covenant.

   South Korea also needs to ensure its policy aimed at preventing the North's violation of its citizens' human rights runs hand-in-hand with the formation of conditions to promote respect by the North for human rights in a broader sense. Campaigns to improve the human rights situation faced by North Korean citizens have so far focused on activities for "prevention and protection" such as open discussions of the human rights question in the North, open requests for the North's improvement of its human rights record and U.N. adoption of resolutions regarding the human rights situation in the country. Considering the closed nature of North Korean society, however, it should be an integral part of activities for improving the human rights situation in the North to form an environment under which North Koreans themselves can aim at improving the human right situation facing them. The success of these measures requires, among other things, the development of a concrete strategy conducive to fostering North Koreans' understanding of human rights.

Strategy for Fostering Human Rights in the North

In the case of North Korea, the South Korean strategy of promoting North Korean citizens' understanding of human rights is currently closely related to policy aimed at opening the country up. Yet as seen in China, improvement in human rights conditions is not necessarily a corollary of an opening-up. There is a need for the South to recognize that work to improve the human rights situation is not completed through an opening-up; but opening-up is just the starting point for work on human rights. For this reason, South Korea needs to push ahead with its policies focused on North Korean human rights as a means of facilitating changes in the North regarding its economic and other development programs.

   To put this more concretely, the South must develop a strategy to spur changes in the North in a manner that respects international norms regarding human rights as part of a process of improving inter-Korean relations. First of all, South Korea needs to approach the issue by means of integrating various conceptions of human rights. West Germany, for example, successfully asked East Germany to give in to its conditions for the expansion of personnel and cultural exchange, the simplification of border-crossing procedures and the resumption of inter-German talks on environment and culture agreements as preconditions for its assistance to East Germany. Accordingly, the South Korean government should ask the North Korean authorities concerned to provide measures to improve its system in a way to contribute directly, or indirectly to improving the human rights situation in the North when it provides the country with large-scale economic assistance.

   Second, the South needs to launch campaigns to foster human rights for North Korean citizens, reflecting discussions in the international community that focus on the complex and many-sided nature of poverty. Understanding is growing that poverty does not mean just a low income, and that a poor country can hardly get out of the poverty trap simply through growth-oriented development projects. But the country can improve the lot of its citizens along with its economy through a human rights-oriented approach that removes its citizens' feelings of divestment, alienation, segregation and exclusion. The South needs to reflect such international discussions of poverty in its campaigns to improve the human rights situation in the North.

   Third, South Korea should establish a strategy combining the question of human rights and that of development. International discussions on the question of poverty have increasingly noted the integration of the question of human rights and development. U.N. agencies have since the early 1990s exerted efforts to apply a more active conception of human rights to all of their activities. Understanding is spreading that human rights and development are mutually reinforcing and a rights-based approach (RBA) is taking root in the international community as a concrete formula toward integrating human rights and development. Under an RBA, entities subject to assistance programs are no longer simply viewed as beneficiaries but as right-holders. For this reason, South Korea must shift its position in order to view North Korean citizens not just as beneficiaries in the course of implementing its development program for them, but as right-holders, and seek a value change in the North, a change in the North's laws, policies and organization.

   Fourth, there is a need to reinforce socialist legalism in the North in order to prevent the North from infringing on its citizens' rights through behavior that violates its own criminal law and codes of legal procedure. The reinforcement of socialist legalism in the North can be achieved in two ways. In one way, the South should continually ask the North Korean authorities concerned to enact and amend North Korean laws in a way to be compatible with the international norm regarding human rights. In another way, it needs to call on them to abide by the applicable laws of the North.