Cohen, Lee and Hong on Human Rights in North Korea



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.

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