Commentary Type

North Korean Human Rights and Some Urgent Tasks for their Improvement

Jhe Seong Ho (Korean Human Rights Ambassador-at-Large)


The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the government of the Republic of Korea.

The State of North Korean Human Rights

As we are all very well aware, the miserable human rights situation in North Korea is no longer a secret. Political prison camps, forced repatriation, public executions, inhumane torture, human trafficking, forced or involuntary disappearance, class discrimination, the absence of freedom of expression and thought, chronic food shortages, and malnutrition in North Korea are notorious throughout the world. It is unnecessary to go into great detail concerning the North Korean human rights situation at this time.

But I would like to emphasize that the North Korean people are deprived of human rights and live a slave-like life as a result of Kim Jong-Il's "Military First Politics" and his luxurious lifestyle.

Under the doctrine of Military First Politics, North Korea conducted a rocket test at Musudan-ri, a small village in northwestern North Korea on April 5th of this year, ignoring the deep concerns and strong objections of the international community. Experts estimate that such an event cost about $300 million, enough to buy more than 1 million tons of rice as of last summer or even greater amounts of other grains such as corn. These quantities would be sufficient to resolve the food shortages that North Korea faces.

At the same time, North Korea has imported high-end products for Kim Jong-Il's personal use and security. It is known that Kim Jong-Il personally owns as many as five-hundred imported automobiles. On April 5, 2009, the JiJi Press of Japan, quoting a source in the European financial industry, reported that a North Korean official residing in Europe attempted to purchase two Italian yachts worth $20 million for his supreme leader. North Koreans also import turtle eggs from India, shark livers from Angola, seal genitals from South America, and rhinoceros horns from Zambia as supplementary products to invigorate Kim Jong-Il's poor health and energy.

These facts clearly show how merciless and senseless Kim Jong-Il is as a leader: He wasted a great deal of money on a rocket test while the same amount could have saved millions of his people.

To be brief, Military First Politics and Kim Jong-il's luxurious lifestyle come at the expense of the North Korean people's blood, sweat, and tears. Ordinary people's right to food and even their right to existence are deprived in North Korea. It is a very tragic state of affairs.

Between 2003 and 2008, the United Nations adopted seven resolutions urging North Korea to improve its poor human rights conditions. In 2008 only three country-specific resolutions were adopted by the UN General Assembly, covering Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea. This indicates that the condition of human rights in North Korea is among the worst in the world. Likewise, various governmental and nongovernmental reports on North Korean human rights, including the Country Reports of the Freedom House, the US State Department, and the UK Foreign Ministry, have reached similar conclusions.

In addition to criticizing North Korea over its human rights violations, the United Nations has continually urged the North Korean government to cooperate with Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK, to allow humanitarian organizations free access to the country, and to address the problem of the abduction of foreigners. Moreover, the United Nations has pointed to the importance of continuous dialogue with all the relevant countries, including South Korea, on the promotion of human rights. North Korea, however, has disregarded these recommendations and is not cooperating with the UN. So we cannot solely rely on the UN. I believe it is time for international civil society to step forward to promote further action.

Some Principles for North Korean Human Rights Improvement

In order for international civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to act for the improvement of North Korean human rights, a firm philosophy of human rights must first be established. Along these lines, I would like to suggest some guiding principles for human rights improvement that apply to the North Korean human rights situation.

First, human rights are universal and transcend national borders. Hence, human rights issues should be considered only within the concept of human rights themselves. No other political considerations can intrude into discussion of human rights.

Second, as history attests, human rights can only be protected when people raise their voices. No progress was ever been made in silence, because a dictator will never protect human rights that could threaten his leadership. Thus silence regarding inhumane and uncivilized violations of human rights can be regarded as a kind of moral crime.

Third, there can be no reasonable hierarchy of the various human rights and no individual right can ever be given priority over any others. This same rule applies to the process of promoting and improving human rights. Some argue that food and survival are the most urgent problems to solve for the North Koreans and that addressing others issues, such as political prison camps and public executions, should be delayed until the most urgent ones have been solved. However, I do not approve of this argument. I value economic, social, civil, and political rights equally because human rights are interdependent and interrelated. All kinds of human rights should be promoted in parallel. In North Korea's case, promotion of civil and political rights must be accompanied with humanitarian aid to address food shortages.

Fourth, we should not neglect human rights issues to focus on security issues, such as nuclear and missile tests, that require immediate solutions. The countries participating in the six-party talks should bear this in mind. The various forms of exchange and cooperation with North Korea, including bilateral talks, must contribute to making progress on human rights issues.

Fifth, I support providing aid to North Korea to ease the country's food shortages on humanitarian grounds. In order to fulfill the humanitarian purpose of this aid, it must be guaranteed that no aid is used for military purposes and that aid distribution is transparent.

Sixth, international cooperation is crucial to solving North Korea's human rights issues. This is even more the case for North Korea, where there is no will to improve human rights despite the miserable situation. Various actors, not only governments, but also civic organizations, churches, and enterprises must mobilize and work together to resolve the ongoing human rights abuses in North Korea.

The Approach of the Lee Myung Bak Administration toward North Korean Human Rights Issues

The Lee Myung Bak administration has adopted a practical approach to North Korean human rights issues. It believes that human rights should be considered a matter of universal values, and so the dire state of human rights in North Korea human rights cannot be ignored or kept silent as though the issue has nothing to do with South Korea.

In this context, President Lee Myung Bak and major policymakers are of the opinion that sincere, constructive criticism of North Korea will help create a healthier and stronger society. In relation to this, as mentioned above, history shows us that human rights can only be improved when the topic is brought up and discussed; the reverse is true when discussion of human rights issues is silenced. Against this background, the South Korean government for the first time participated as a cosponsor for the United Nations General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights.

Furthermore, in the process of normalizing inter-Korean relations, the Lee Myung Bak administration recognizes that meaningful progress should be made on improving North Korea's human rights record. Civil society, NGOs, and the media can play an active role in the process of promoting and protecting North Koreans' human rights. Based on this outlook on human rights, the South Korean government supports NGOs' efforts to promote and protect North Korean human rights directly and indirectly.

North Korean human rights issues include problems related to North Korean defectors (refugees), dispersed families, prisoners of war, and abductees, in addition to North Korea's poor record of protecting its own people's human rights. These issues all have their own unique background and characteristics. Therefore, South Korea is now working out multidimensional plans on the basis of varied approaches, including international cooperative measures such as United Nations resolutions and inter-Korean dialogue, governmental and nongovernmental activities, and official and unofficial (silent) methods.

Some Urgent Tasks for the Improvement of North Korean Human Rights

Having emphasized the important role of NGOs and related governments, I would like to suggest several priorities for us to pursue from now on.

North Korean Defectors

The most immediate and primary task should be the protection of the North Korean defectors in China. Their safe departure from China to a third country is secondary: We should do nothing less than demand that Chinese authorities allow North Korean defectors to live without fear of repatriation while in China, unless it can be proven that they would not be persecuted upon their return to North Korea.

President Lee Myung Bak officially asked Hu Jintao to not repatriate North Korean defectors to North Korea at the summit meeting on August 25, 2008. President Hu's position has not yet been announced, but President Lee Myung Bak's action was a great step forward in solving this difficult problem.

It is our turn to add our voice to the international chorus urging China, a responsible member of the United Nations Security Council, to abide by the nonrefoulement principle for North Korean defectors, as elaborated in Article 33 of the Refugees Convention, in Article 3 of the Convention against Torture, and in various provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which China is a signatory. It is not a matter of begging for mercy from China but a matter of demanding that China fulfill its treaty obligations.

If China assists, then North Korea will not be able to resist the international pressure to protect the human rights of its own citizens.

In addition to this urgent and primary task, we must raise the issue of the plight and status of stateless children born between Chinese fathers and North Korean refugee mothers who have been either forcibly repatriated or who have fled from their trafficked situation. The biological fathers in many cases are either unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their offspring. An NGO actively working to protect these orphans recently reported from the three provinces closest to North Korea that roughly 12,000 of these parentless children have been identified in the Chinese province of Jilin alone, with the combined total of the three provinces estimated at about 25,000 orphans. These orphans desperately need care in the Jilin-Liaoning-Heilongjiang provincial region. Considering the very poor social safety net in northeastern China, local authorities in these provinces are growing increasingly alarmed at the number of orphans appearing in their low-income areas. Faced with such a development, international civil society should make every effort to change the Chinese policy of forced repatriation of refugees without exception into a more mild and humane policy. Efforts should also be made by the international community to offer social welfare facilities and personnel to provide care to these helpless children.

Separately, serious consideration should be given to the establishment of special shelters for North Korean defectors in China or in a third country.


We also must raise the issue of Japanese abductees who are still being held in North Korea. Japan should not be alone in its effort to free these abductees. There are also many South Koreans who are still being held in North Korea, whether POWs from the Korean War or abducted citizens captured from aircraft or fishing vessels.

We must forge a strong international advocacy effort to free these people from North Korea. It certainly provided a fresh start in this direction when Kim Hyun Hee met last month in Pusan with Mr. Iizuka Koichiro, whose mother had been abducted by North Korea when he was only one year old.

International Cooperation

Without international support and cooperation, we will not be able to draw enough attention to the horrible human rights situation in North Korea, and the North Korean authorities will easily avert any criticism of its gross human rights violations. I would like to emphasize that an international coalition is the best way to solve this problem. We need to strengthen international networks and to make another grand wave of international demarche. The more we work together, the sooner we can achieve our goals.

Concluding Remarks

There is still a long way to go on North Korean human rights issues, because, as I mentioned earlier, North Korea does not show any positive response to United Nations resolutions or international requests. Thus it is vital to keep pushing North Korea with the unanimous voice of international civil society.

I hope North Korea Freedom Week becomes a center of productive discussion and effective strategy building, and that it contributes to improving North Korean human rights. The South Korean government will listen to the conscientious voice of world citizens and make every possible effort to improve North Korean human rights, keeping pace with the international campaign of NGOs.

Concluding my remarks, I would like to remind you of the fundamental change in the political climate in South Korea for improving North Korea's human rights. The new Obama administration also shows a human rights-friendly attitude. Against this background, we must make an epoch-making gear change now on North Korean human rights.

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