Slave to the Blog: Human Rights Round Up

May 5, 2015 7:00 AM

A number of additional human rights items have popped up recently, in addition to the possible executions we covered last week. First up, the US and Korean missions at the UN organized a conversation on human rights issue, moderated by Barbara Demick, whose Nothing to Envy is one of the true must-read books on North Korea. Testimony was provided by Joseph Kim, orphaned when his father died of starvation and his mother set out in search of food. Jay Jo’s parents were similarly victims of the famine. Kim Haesook provides an example of someone punished by the songbun system, sent to Camp 18 for the crimes of a grandfather.

The event was punctuated by an effort by the North Korean delegation to have their say following one of the refugee's testimony. According to Demick and US representative Samantha Power in delivered remarks, the North Korean delegation was offered the opportunity to respond. But rather than engaging on the issue—which would have been welcomed--the UN team reverted to form.

Some have claimed that Powers tried to shut the North Koreans up, but Martin Williams of North Korea Tech has done the service of providing a clip of the confrontation so you can reach your own judgment. Not surprisingly, there is not much sympathy in the room for the North Korean rant, which the panel for the most part watches with bemusement.

Meanwhile, participants in the Women’s Walk for Peace covered in earlier posts (here and here) continue to grapple with how to square the peace and human rights agendas. Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu call the effort “empty marching,” arguing that they should use their stature to push the agenda outlined in the Commission of Inquiry agenda. Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein go farther in Foreign Policy, focusing again on the hapless Christine Ahn and her status as a “fellow traveler.”

Although Ahn was central to organizing the event, there are plenty of women leaders who signed on and the event should not be judged by Ahn’s selective reading of history, such as silence on minor details such as who initiated the Korean War. In a news conference covered by Anna Fifield at the Washington Post and NKNews, Steinem was clearly thinking about the issue. She argued that strategies of confrontation had had little effect, which is arguably true.

But she also claimed in a moment of exasperation—and an attempted political pivot—that the march has the same objective as Reagan’s Berlin speech, in which he argued that the wall should be torn down. But the metaphor fell more than a little flat; the East Germans built the Berlin Wall just like the North Koreans have rigidly controlled exit. If there is a wall to be torn down, it’s of North Korea’s making. And although I support the march, I cringe when Steinem says she plans to talk seriously to her counterparts at a peace forum organized with the regime’s oversight in Pyongyang. But there are no such counterparts. That North Korean women might be exposed to this group of high-powered activists is, in my view, the major argument for the effort. I doubt seriously that all of them will hold their tongues, which would be a joy to watch.

Last week the Heritage Foundation also staged an event on the human rights issue, including prominent analysts and activists from a number of human rights NGOs; the full program is listed above and you can find the video here.

Finally, Roberta Cohen—who participated in the Heritage panel—has a very useful piece at 38North on how the UN agencies can introduce a human rights component to their programming vis-à-vis North Korea. Cohen argues that it is time to talk seriously about the Rights Up Front Approach for UN agencies dealing with the DPRK. She raises a range of possible actions, from considering the effects of the songbun/caste system on healthcare, the provision of healthcare in the penal system, the refugees, and monitoring of World Food Program assistance to assure delivery to the most vulnerable. She even raises the question of contingency planning for humanitarian problems in the case of a collapse scenario.

Some of these things are unlikely to happen. Yet her account highlights some of challenges of such efforts, if only indirectly. The North Korean response to this agenda is likely to be “no thanks.” Would agencies tasked with a humanitarian mission forego aid if the North Koreans refused to talk on these issues? These are hard questions and most likely to be raised most effectively by a contact group including countries such as Indonesia or smaller European states.


Maintaining Focus on North Korea Human Rights Violations

Heritage Foundation, April 28

Panel 1 – North Korean Defectors Highlight Abuses

Kim Seong-min, Founder and Director, Free North Korea Radio
Choi Jeong-hun, Commander, North Korea People's Liberation Front
Lee So-yeon, Representative, New Korea Women's Alliance
Park Kun-ha, Representative, North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity

Moderated by
Suzanne Scholte
Chair, North Korea Freedom Coalition, and President, Defense Forum Foundation


Panel 2 – Policy Recommendations for the United States

Jared Genser, Managing Director, Perseus Strategies, and Founder, Freedom Now
Roberta Cohen, Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution and Co-Chair, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Lee Sung-yoon, Professor in Korean Studies, The Fletcher School , Tufts University

Moderated by
Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia, The Heritage Foundation



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