A Self-Interested Case for Human Rights in North Korea

Keynote address to the Third International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees
Tokyo, Japan

February 9, 2002

Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to address this group.

The past three years paradoxically have been ones of both rapid change and enduring continuity on the Korean peninsula. At the time of the first conference in 1999, convened under the able leadership of Reverend Benjamin Yoon, South Korea had elected a former dissident (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kim Dae-jung as its President. Yet while South Korea continued to make remarkable strides in the area of human rights, North Korea sadly remained unperturbed by global trends in this regard.

A year later, my friend and colleague Carl Gershman spoke of opportunities and challenges created in the wake of the epochal June 2000 meeting of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Today, we are once again confronted with radically changed political circumstances that present both challenges and opportunities. The horrific events of September 11 were the product of such utterly evil acts as to deny any true comprehension or understanding. Perhaps a Rwandan acquaintance, a survivor of unspeakable horrors in his homeland, put it best. Standing together in Washington, gazing at the sky on the beautiful fall evening following the attacks, he said simply "this isn't politics."

In the aftermath of September 11, it is entirely understandable that the United States and its allies will de-emphasize human rights concerns as the exigencies of the military campaign against terrorism will, by the dint of geography, require cooperation with regimes whose respect for human rights is mainly notable in their absence. But it would be a mistake to regard this as the whole story.

If anything, the events of September 11 underline the lesson that countries marked by cultures of violence beget violence in dissent, and governments that repress domestic dissent externalize that dissent, in effect exporting their internal problems to the rest of the world.

The moral for all of us is that support for human rights is not solely an altruistic commitment, divorced from our own immediate self-interests, but a precondition for our own safety and well-being. As long as anyone is denied basic human rights, none of us are secure. As my Rwandan friend ruefully recounted that September evening, that upon reaching the United States, "I thought I was safe." The events of September 11 have made clear that neither he nor any of us will truly be safe until universal respect for human rights has been achieved.

Today as a community we face two tasks. The first is to document and publicize the human rights abuses occurring in North Korea as we meet. Subsequent presentations at this conference will document these crimes in grim detail.

North Korea is in the midst of a decade-long food crisis. Perhaps one million or more North Koreans have died in this never-ending famine, and today international aid feeds approximately one-third of the population. This catastrophe is not the result of an act of God. It is the appalling product of a cynical act of man. It is a tragedy made possible only by totalitarian repression unparalleled in the world today.

To perpetuate this dystopia, internally the regime subjects its citizens (more accurately, its "subjects") to arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture for vague "crimes" ranging from suspected political dissent to foraging for food, and operates a vast network of detention centers in which hundreds of thousands are kept. Externally it engages in illegal activity as a matter of state policy. For this regime, progress is a threat.

The second task of this conference is to move beyond documenting these horrors and to begin to develop a policy agenda for their elimination.

If we are going to be honest about the Kim Jong-il regime, then we ought to be honest about ourselves. There is no disagreement among us about the horrific conditions in North Korea, nor is there any disagreement about the imperative of their elimination. There is disagreement, however, about the best strategies and tactics to achieve our shared goals. In my remaining time this morning, I would like to offer some personal suggestions to encourage such a discussion of this agenda. I have no illusion that my views will find universal acceptance, yet I believe that it is important for us to move beyond criticism in the search for constructive alternatives.

In today's desperate circumstances in North Korea, those who can, escape. This, in turn, creates dilemmas for North Korea's neighbors, which even if touched by humanitarian concern, are understandably wary of permanently housing ever-growing numbers of North Korean escapees. As long as North Korea denies its citizens basic rights we will be confronted with a festering problem of international dimensions.

So what is to be done? First, as Jack Rendler correctly pointed out during our first conference, we must insist that North Korea end the information embargo and live up to the international covenants that it has signed, most prominently the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Jack's presentation later in this conference will outline further steps in this campaign.

Those of us from countries that have established diplomatic relations with the DPRK should demand that our representatives raise these concerns at every opportunity, including at the United Nations and other international fora in which the DPRK participates. We must devise concrete strategies to ensure compliance with agreements into which the DPRK has voluntarily entered.

Those of us from countries in the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the DPRK should insist that human rights concerns play a central role in the process of normalization.

This is the easy part. But we should not be satisfied with diplomatic pressure. The existence of civil society beyond state control is a prerequisite for the maintenance of human rights. As non-governmental actors, we must continually try to expand our contacts within North Korea, and broaden our engagement with individuals, groups, and organizations beyond direct central control. This has already begun, as the previous conferences have so amply attested, but this process of deepening our engagement with North Korea must accelerate.

One aspect of this effort should be to encourage the adoption of the Global Sullivan Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility similar to the principles that were applied in apartheid-era South Africa for companies doing business in North Korea.

We can also do more on the diplomatic front. Over the next two days, we will hear considerable criticism of countries that forcibly repatriate North Korean escapees. While this practice is regrettable and arguably illegal under international law, it is also understandable. We must move beyond simply criticizing China and Russia and begin to devise constructive solutions. We have an ethical obligation to feed starving North Koreans. We have no obligation to do so in ways that strengthen the North Korean regime.

Twenty years ago, the world was confronted with a similar problem with the mass exodus of "boat people" from Vietnam. The international community underwrote the establishment of temporary resettlement camps in surrounding Asian nations with the promise that these would be way stations to permanent resettlement. There is no reason that China and Russia alone should bear the burden of the North Korean nightmare. Other, wealthier, countries, including the United States, Japan, and the European Union, must open their doors to permanent refugee resettlement. I should note in passing that among OECD members, the countries that we accepted the fewest refugees over the past ten years have been South Korea and Japan. I point this out not to pick on South Korea and Japan, and certainly not to embarrass our hosts or other conference participants, but rather to underscore the need to affect policies in our own home countries.

Finally, let me say a word about South Korea. While we all have interests in North Korea, ultimately, it is South Korea that has the greatest stake of all. In the past fifteen years, South Korea has made enormous progress in the area of human rights. Its political culture of tolerance and respect for dissent must continue to be strengthened.

Today, North Korea, with its violence and repression, is not a worthy partner for South Korea. Yet it is the only North Korea that presently exists and it is the North Korea with which South Korea must deal. One day in the future the Korean peninsula will be unified politically. If through some miracle it were to happen today, North Korea's culture of violence would put South Korea's achievements at risk. It would be far, far better that the North Korea with which South Korea unifies one day in the future more closely resemble open, democratic South Korea, than today's closed, totalitarian North Korea.

Events since the last conference have reminded us that the fight for universal human rights is not solely a matter of altruism; regrettably, this struggle remains a very practical concern in today's world. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Korean peninsula. I hope that the day will come soon when the problems will be solved and we do not have to have these conferences anymore.

Thank you.