Cohen, Lee and Hong on Human Rights in North Korea

January 29, 2014 7:00 AM

In the last month, we have seen new pieces on the North Korean human rights issue from Roberta Cohen at Brookings, Karin Lee at the National Committee on North Korea and Christine Hong, a professor of literature at the University of California Santa Cruz. The contributions could not be more different, ranging from a highly cosmopolitan, rights-oriented perspective from Roberta Cohen, through a more cautious view that emphasizes engagement on the part of Karin Lee, to a broadside against the entire human rights trope from Prof. Hong.

Roberta Cohen’s contribution--"Human Rights in North Korea: Addressing the Challenges"—appears in KINU’s International Journal of Korean Unification Studies vol. 22, no. 2. It can also be linked—with a cogent summary-- through Brookings. Cohen takes international human rights commitments seriously, and argues that North Korea should be held to account not simply on broader moral grounds but for international legal reasons. North Korea has acceded to four international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. These treaty commitments not only constitute obligations that bind North Korea, but constitute obligations on the international community to hold North Korea to account, including through the Commission of Inquiry (our posts on the CoI can be found here). If not, what is the purpose of writing such conventions in the first place?

The new emphasis in Cohen’s article is on documentation, which undergirds the Commission of Inquiry effort and surfaced in the recent appropriations bill signed by the president. Documentation is critical for holding not only the government but particular individuals to account, particularly where crimes against humanity may have been committed.

The challenge for Cohen is what to do with the information we have, which is already pretty substantial; there may be rearguard efforts to deny the scope of North Korean abuses, but the facts are not in serious doubt. Cohen walks through the full range of strategies that might be brought to bear from the International Criminal Court, to putting the North Korean human rights situation on the Security Council agenda, and exploring the International Court of Justice venues to what might be called a “whole UN” approach in which humanitarian and human rights activities are effectively linked. Cohen wants to see human rights placed on multilateral and bilateral agendas with the DPRK as well as with China, and she lauds the effort to piece the information veil through broadcasting. Whether such strategies will have effect can be debated, but Cohen argues that not pursuing them and remaining silent cannot be effective: “the longstanding view that nothing can be done has well served — no doubt unintentionally — the Kim regime in maintaining its tight controls over the people of North Korea.”

Karin Lee’ s piece, in the form of testimony (in .pdf) before the US Helsinki Committee, provides an interesting contrast. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 settled postwar borders in Europe, held out the promise of greater economic exchange and contained a “third basket” of humanitarian and human rights expectations. The Helsinki model has sometimes been proposed for Northeast Asia and North Korea in particular. As Lee notes, however, the accords were not explicitly designed to generate regime change, and the Soviets would never have signed them if they were. The section on commitment to human rights (1.a. VII) follows immediately on the heels of a strongly worded section on non-intervention in internal affairs (1.a.VI) (in .pdf here). Indeed, early neo-conservative critics of the agreement felt it gave away too much. As Lee rightly argues, North Korea would never sign onto a process that would have an OSCE (Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe)-like organization on its doorstep.

Rather, Lee notes that the Helsinki accords were themselves the result of a lengthy process of generating support for engagement within West Germany—culminating in Brandt’s Ostpolitik—and pursuing exchanges and other forms of people-to-people contact, much of it with direct government support. Lee notes the humanitarian engagement and other activities such as Track II dialogues that are taking place with respect to North Korea, and others that might play an ice-breaking role from research on volcanic activity to medical consortia. But even these approaches would require a less polarized policy environment and greater willingness to engage North Korea at the governmental and people-to-people level, including through a liberal issuing of visas to North Koreans (which we strongly support). A Helsinki process is even further removed under current circumstances.

Nonetheless, there is an implicit argument that pushing human rights is unlikely to advance the process of opening, and could even be counterproductive. Rather, Lee argues that the causal arrows are reversed. The force of the Helsinki Watch groups—initially small groups of courageous intellectuals—only gained practical significance as information seeped in and the Soviet empire began to fray. It was greater openness through engagement that ultimately contributed to the human rights successes that the Helsinki process enjoyed.

Finally, Profs. Christine Hong and Hazel Smith are guest-editing a two-part special issue of Critical Asian Studies on “Reframing North Korean Human Rights”; Routledge has temporarily lifted its paywall and granted access to Prof. Hong’s introductory contribution and the first several essays from the collection.

Hong’s article constitutes an extreme statement of the “human rights as ideology” approach. To get the feel of is dense academic style, it is worth letting her speak for herself:

“With their near-exclusive focus on pain and suffering in the present and exculpatory stance toward their own violence—violence now branded as 'emancipatory'—human rights as an antipolitical ‘moral discourse’ has functioned to evacuate historical and geopolitical contexts, and indeed to imply the obscenity of explanatory frames other than the most immediate.”

If you want a bare-knuckled take-down of Prof. Hong’s piece, we refer you to Josh Stanton. But it is honestly hard to figure out what Prof. Hong is arguing. We always thought that the historical mission of the left was to stand up for oppressed people. But colonial and post-colonial discourse is preoccupied with external forces—and particularly the sins of American empire—and thus ends up focusing on purportedly oppressed countries. The animating concern behind Hong’s critique is that human rights moralizing is little more than justification for American imperialism and intervention.

This shift in focus can cause a lot of mischief, as it effectively allies “progressives” with repressive governments under the logic that the enemy of my enemy—namely the US—is my friend. The agency of the North Korean leadership is altogether missing from Hong’s equation, playing conveniently into the regime’s victim narrative. The “reframing” of human rights that Hong calls for says little about how we should actually understand current political, economic and social conditions in North Korea. Indeed, Hong chastises those of us who try to do empirical work on North Korea—with all its limitations—for lack of evidence while largely ignoring the repression and humanitarian problems the North Korean regime has brought down on its citizenry.

Advancing the cause of human rights—assuming contra Hong that you believe in them—is hard. Also contra Hong’s conspiratorial narrative, there is no consensus within the human rights community about how it should be done. But if you are interested in the issues, these three pieces constitute the full spectrum on which to cut your teeth.



Great post.
'd also refer your readers to Shin and Choi's 'Misdiagnosis and Misrepresentations' in the above-mentioned Critical Asian Studies journal. Similar to your description of Hong's article, the authors strike an especially critical tone regarding the human rights agenda in the DPRK and how, in their eyes, it has undermined the right-to-health for North Koreans.
The article's basic argument centres on the notion that human rights actors, such as Amnesty, have unfairly politicised human rights in the DPRK, which has justified hostile foreign policies by governments dealing with the regime (i.e. using humanitarian aid as foreign policy tool) that now negatively impacts upon the right-to-health of North Koreans.
This argument is fine and offers a great challenge to how we imagine human rights for North Koreans and how we implement humanitarian aid. Importantly, however, the strand of critique applied by the authors (I've yet to read Hong's piece) almost entirely overlooks the role of the North Korean state as the prime provider and securer of human rights for the North Korean people. As a certified fan of post-colonial studies, this is especially worrying. Although a critique of powerful and explicitly Western constructs, such as human rights, and their impact upon North Koreans is helpful, the article offers no critique of the North Korean state, its utilisation of knowledge, power and social constructs to subjugate its own people and its historical failure to better engage the international community on health-related aid and expertise.
Perhaps all that this and other articles of similar and opposing bents illustrate is that objectivity and North Korean studies are rarely soul-mates.


100 years ago the nice-nellyisms to rush into wars were: "civilisation, christianity, father-/motherland".
Today propaganda-tools are "democracy, human rights and responsibility"
The real words hidden behind are: resources, markets, power.

Joshua Stanton

James, Good comment, but is "human rights" an explicitly Western construct? The long shadow the comfort women issue casts on relations among Asian nations contradicts that. Certainly different cultures have different (and evolving) priorities in their hierarchies of individual rights, but all cultures (if not all political systems) agree that there is a human right not to be murdered, raped, or unjustly imprisoned.

We afford cultural differences (which are an enduring part of our identity that we protect) a presumption of tolerance that we do not afford to ideological differences (which are artificial and imposed). The crits attempt to shelter the crimes of an ideology they can't quite defend within the safe harbor of cultural difference. But this distorts the meaning and purpose of both culture and tolerance. There is nothing innately brutal or genocidal about Korean culture, and our concept of tolerance deserves to be protected from this sort of misuse, because it is so essential to maintaining a peaceful civil society.


Thanks for the response, Josh.
I completely agree that the cases you list, such as the right to life that prohibits murder, torture, etc., are universal, inalienable human rights. These are universally applicable to all peoples and societies, regardless of social, historical and cultural contexts. To argue otherwise is to misrepresent the agency, basic humanity and histories of non-Western societies.
Yet, I would argue that as it exists today - in its discourse, implementation (legal, political, social), power structures and organisation - the modern practice and understanding of human rights is rooted in the Western experience and still maintains a strong link to Western ideas, structures and histories (for example, the role of Christianity in South Korea's democracy movement). In its principles, of course, many human rights are universal. Every culture has similar or competing conceptions of human rights that have been/are practised, but the Western experience remains dominant in shaping how, who and why we respond to human rights abuses.
Whilst this is academically interesting (for some), on the ground it matters little to those North Koreans whose human rights are being abused. Still, I think that the point retains some relevance when we consider how and why human rights are thought of for North Koreans. Are certain human rights that accord with the interests of powerful groups being cherry-picked over others to suit particular needs/interests/beliefs? Are the human rights you raise - i.e. those that prioritise existential threats to a North Korean’s very being - being cro-barred into agendas that are far broader than they ought to be?
The obvious example here is that of Christian missionaries (not for any personal issues, but as they’re one of the most recognisable non-state voices in North Korean human rights). Are border-missionaries - who hold absolute power over North Korean refugees once they defect - that pursue religious ends alongside human rights (the right to freedom of religion), financially support people trafficking and its abuses through the buying of North Koreans, return an unknown number of converted North Koreans to the DPRK to preach the gospel, etc., vindicated by the very real fact that Christian missionaries are some of the most effective and only groups that aid North Korean defectors? It’s an argument that has no satisfactory answer and offers conflicts between core human rights principles.
But, really, if they don’t do it, who will? States?
Finishing on your note on 'Tolerance', I think this is crucial in the wider story of North Korean refugees. Be it in South Korea or elsewhere, North Koreans are tolerated, but are rarely understood. I for one would welcome more North Korean voices on issues, such as human rights and its practise, to increase our collective understanding and explode some prevalent myths.

Aidan Foster-Carter

James and Roland, do you have surnames? It's nice to know who people are.

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