Human Rights under Kim Jong-un

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Since the beginning of the Kim Jong-un era there have been notable changes in how the international community and the Pyongyang regime itself approach the issue of human rights. In a recent Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) report (link is external), Amanda Mortwedt Oh details the state of play between the international community and North Korea on human rights in the Kim Jong-un world. (Full disclosure: Marc Noland is on HRNK’s board.)

The report first notes the decrease in refugee flows into South Korea, which are now at levels similar to the early 2000s. Mortwedt Oh notes there could be many different reasons for this: increased punishments by North Korean authorities, a stronger crackdown by Chinese authorities making the journey to South Korea more difficult, or that the economic conditions in North Korea have improved as Kim Jong-un has tacitly accepted greater jangmadang activity. It’s probably some combination of all of these. But, despite the overall trend of fewer North Korean refugees flowing into South Korea, the report notes an uptick so far this year. There have also been notable high profile defections such as the Ningbo restaurant workers (link is external), a Reconnaissance General Bureau senior colonel, and just yesterday reports surfaced of the defection of Thae Yong Ho, a senior diplomat at the DPRK embassy in London (link is external). These elite defection cases suggest instability among North Korea’s well-connected, a much more alarming phenomenon for the regime than what can be understood through data on total defection counts.  

The second area of change Mortwedt Oh notes is in information penetration. With the proliferation of USB drives and mobile phones, clamping down on outside influences is much more difficult for the regime. With the advent of the USB drive, information is easier for North Koreans to obtain and further removed from politics. North Korea can shoot down propaganda balloons or South Korea can ban civil society groups from launching them, but neither has the power to sufficiently control the spread of USBs.

Another feature of the Kim Jong-un era is the increase in international pressure on the human rights front. The report notes the importance of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) process. The United States has increased its pressure on the North Korean regime as well; the US Congress reauthorized the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2012 and passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (link is external). Recently, for their part the State and Treasury Departments then coordinated on an effort to sanction Kim Jong-un directly for the first time. And in South Korea, earlier this year the National Assembly finally passed the North Korea Human Rights Act.

North Korea in turn has altered its approach to human rights. The regime has made diplomatic efforts that acknowledge the importance it places on international criticism over human rights. North Korea submitted its own report on human rights in the DPRK following the CoI finding and sent its foreign minister to speak on the floor of the UN General Assembly for the first time in 15 years announcing readiness to “human rights dialogue with countries not hostile to it.” Through another mechanism, the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which offers suggestions for countries to improve their human rights situation, North Korea for the first time agreed to accept some of the recommendations, although they were the less sensitive ones and there is no evidence that they have actually implemented them.

Finally, the report notes the convergence of concern over North Korea’s human rights and security issues that has emerged in the last several years. In the past, South Korea, and to a lesser extent the US, more clearly bifurcated security and human rights when dealing with the DPRK. The logic was that calling out North Korea for human rights abuses would back the DPRK into a corner and make improving cooperation on other fronts impossible.

However, part of the new international momentum in addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses has focused on the human rights-security nexus. One area of overlap is the role of forced labor in contributing to the regime’s bottom line and ergo illicit programs. An example the HRNK report notes is the concern that North Korean political prisoners are working in mines to provide cash for the regime. As this blog has noted previously, in the nefarious world of North Korean illicit finance, North Korean laborers abroad are linked to front companies for arms smuggling, significantly blurring the line between human rights and security.

The regime has responded to Kim Jong-un's blacklisting by cutting off all diplomatic communication channels with the US and claiming "this is the worst hostility and an open declaration of war against the DPRK." North Korea, of course, is prone to over-the-top rhetoric and the communication channels can always be reconnected, but it will be much harder for the international community to ever un-blur the lines. 

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