The severe human rights violation in North Korea has been well-known throughout the world. This essay aims to take a closer look at the human rights situation in North Korea in three steps. First of all, the facts about the human rights situation in North Korea are briefly described. Afterwards, the ways in which international actors address this issue are explained, and the effectiveness of such measures are critically evaluated. The major international actors involved include UN, South Korea, United States, EU, Japan and China. Following that, the ways in which domestic actors in North Korea should address this issue are also explained. Through the discussion, this article attempts to draw a conclusion on how the human rights violation in North Korea have been alleviated by these actors, and what effort is required to address this issue in the future.
Human Rights Violation in North Korea
The ruling party in North Korea is WPK (Worker’s Party of Korea), which allows for no freedom of ideology, press, assembly and religion (Han, 2015, p153). The party actively pursues and severely punishes individuals who practice various religions such as Christianity. A songbun system is implemented, which divides the population into different hierarchies based on their level of allegiance to the regime. Food, job and other resources and opportunities are unfairly distributed among the population based on their social hierarchies.
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The most glaring human rights violation in North Korea is the persistent famine and political prisoner camps in the country. The living standard in North Korea is one of the lowest on a global scale. During the 1996-2000 famine, around 330,000 inhabitants in North Korea died of hunger (Han, 2015, p154). Although North Korea receives international aid from various organisations, they are distributed on the grounds of the songbun system instead of humanitarian considerations (Hilpert & Krumbein, 2016, 182). The inadequate standard of living in North Korea results in the continuous emigration of inhabitants, such as through defection or other means. However, many of them are forcedly repatriated or trafficked, and end up in the torture and execution of North Korean government (Goedde, 2010, 534).
The political prisoner camp is another appalling human rights violation in North Korea. Persons who are considered to be a threat to the regime are incarcerated in the prison camps and cut off from the outside of the world for the rest of their lives (Hilpert & Krumbein, 2016, 78-80). According to the “guilty of association” rule, the entire family of the political prisoners will also end up in these prisoner camps. In the prisoner camps, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are strictly controlled and severely tortured by means of forced labour, sexual violence, deliberate starvation and execution. It is estimated that the cruelty in the prisoner camps have lasted for more than five decades.
Apart from the aforementioned violations, other types of human rights violation in North Korea include restrictions on travel, rights violations against women, disabled and workers and so on (Goedde, 2010, 532-533). The human rights situation in North Korea include the violation of Articles 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 2015) among the many others. The situation in North Korea has been described as being “without parallel in contemporary world” (Son, 2018, 138). Therefore, it is necessary for international and domestic actors to take appropriate actions to address the issue. In the subsequent paragraphs, the actions taken by different international actors and the extent to which such actions improve human rights situation in North Korea will be discussed.
UN works as the hub of international human rights community. It consists of multiple agencies, which allows UN to deal with human rights issues worldwide through its institutional channels (Goedde, 2010, 544). Additionally, UN’s close connection with international NGOs also builds a platform where they can share information and cooperate on human rights issues in different parts of the world. The various agencies of UN work in different ways to address the human rights violation in North Korea (Goedde, 2010, 544-549).
The General Assembly is the most visible body of UN that is responsible for overseeing human rights issues in North Korea. In 2008, the General Assembly passed a human rights resolution in which the obligation of member states of UN agencies to protect human rights was acknowledged for the first time in history (Goedde, 2010, 544). As North Korea is the member state of the UN, the resolution has a binding force for North Korea. The resolution strongly urges North Korean government to end the misallocation of humanitarian resources and abduction.
Other UN agencies that address human rights violation in North Korea include: Human Rights Council, which conducts periodical assessment of human rights situations worldwide; Special Rapporteurs, which assess human rights situation in North Korea and produce reports about the issue; UN Humanitarian Agencies, which provide healthcare, medical and food aid to North Korea and responsible for building a cooperative relationship with North Korean government; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which provides technical assistance in human rights observance in North Korea; UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which assists refugees from North Korea to move to safe countries (Goedde, 2010, 544-549).
The actions taken by different agencies of UN alleviate the human rights violations in North Korea to different degrees. The actions of UN Humanitarian Agencies might be the relatively effective ones, as they alleviate the food and health crisis in North Korea, and also serves to build a relationship between North Korean government and international organisations. International organisations gain access to a greater area of North Korea and reach approximately 6.5 million people in the country, which is a huge step forward (Goedde, 2010, 548).
Other actions of UN, however, are not as effective as these Humanitarian Agencies. The resolution of General Assembly against North Korea, for example, is taken as a movement with political purposes (Goedde, 2010, 545). The human rights observance provided by Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, furthermore, is also turned down by North Korean government. Moreover, actions of UN cannot effectively improve human rights situation in North Korea without the cooperation of North Korean government.
South Korea has actively engaged in dealing with the human rights issues in North Korea due to the historic and geographical proximity between two countries. One important action taken by South Korea is to introduce the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) in 2005 (Han, 2015, 152). NKHRA unites the commitments of UN, United States, Japan and EU to protect human rights in North Korea. The contribution of NKHRA to human rights situation in North Korea is three-fold. NKHRA specifies the composition and operation of institutions and foundations to address human rights issues in North Korea (Han, 2015, 173). Additionally, NKHRA sets up a human rights database that collects and records the wrongdoings of North Korean government (Han, 2015, 174). Thirdly, NKHRA improves the transparency of foreign aid provision to North Korea (Han, 2015, 175).
Despite the aforementioned contributions, NKHRA still has various limitations. NKHRA itself is a domestic law of South Korea, so it has no binding force on North Korea (Han, 2015, 172). Furthermore, NKHRA itself is the victim of partisan politics within South Korea. The ruling parties in South Korea hold different approaches and ideologies towards the situation in North Korea (Han, 2015, 170-172). The parties and groups in South Korea can be generally divided into two types: the conservative groups which dominate the activities about human rights in North Korea and expects the collapse of the North Korean government; and the progressive groups which prefer the normalisation of relations with North Korean government (Goedde, 2010, 538-539). The divergence between these two groups create barrier for the enactment and ratification of NKHRA, thus limiting its effectiveness to improve human rights situation in North Korea.
Apart from NKHRA, South Korea has taken other actions to address human rights violations in North Korea. NKHRA has mobilised many NGOs within South Korea, which work on human rights issues in North Korea in different ways. For instance, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights is an NGO that offers platforms where human rights issues in North Korea can be publicised and the voices of North Korean refugees can be heard by holding regular conferences (Goedde, 2010, 539). Media organisations like Free North Korea Radio and Daily NK get news into North Korea so that the inhabitants there are able to hear different voices. Many other NGOs work on providing assistance to North Korean refugees, the provision of humanitarian aid to North Korea, and the collection of information about human rights situation in North Korea (Goedde, 2010, 540-543).
Despite the partisan politics within South Korea, South Korea has made consistent efforts to alleviate the human rights violation in North Korea in the past decades. During 2004-2007, South Korea has taken in 5,961 North Korean refugees, which makes South Korea the main destination of North Korean refugees (Goedde, 2010, 562). Additionally, South Korea has been the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 2000 (Kim, 2014, 443). In 2006, the humanitarian assistance from South Korean government and NGOs account for 92.4% of total aid received by North Korean government. The aid from South Korea does not stop even during the military assaults of North Korea (Han, 2015, 186).
In general, South Korea has made substantial efforts to improve human rights situation in North Korea, but the effectiveness of these actions is limited by a lack of binding force to North Korea and the partisan politics within South Korea.
United States is also an important international actor engaged in the human rights issues in North Korea. United States is one of the countries that initiates and commits to NKHRA, which mobilises various NGOs within United States that work on human rights issues in North Korea and also improves the efficiency of application processing of North Korean refugees (Goedde, 2010, 561). However, United States seems to put more emphasis on denuclearisation instead of human rights issues in North Korea, which can be seen from the limited number of North Korean refugees taken in by United States and the limited amount of assistance it provides to North Korea. During 2004-2007, the number of refugees taken in by United States is merely 37 (Goedde, 2010, 562). The total amount of assistance provided by United States during 1997-2011 is $1,313.75 million, which is far less than that of South Korea (Kim, 2014, 444). However, United States does provide a large amount of food aid to North Korea during the same period. This is understandable considering a lack of transparency in the distribution of foreign aid in North Korea.
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The NGOs that work on North Korea-related issues in South Korea receive funding from the United States as well. However, the United States only provides funding for the conservative groups in South Korea, which prioritise denuclearisation and the collapse of North Korea regime (Goedde, 2010, 539). It seems that the support of United States is more contingent on the political ideology of the groups instead of the humanitarian contributions they make. The approach towards North Korea taken by United States and conservative groups in South Korea is criticised for possibly provoking North Korean government, which is detrimental to the human rights situation in North Korea (Goedde, 2010, 539). At the present stage, the cooperation from North Korean government is vital to addressing human rights issues in North Korea.
In general, the United States has been actively engaged in the issues relating to North Korea, such as providing humanitarian assistance. However, the United States appears to be more interested about denuclearisation and political issues in North Korea rather than solving its human rights violations. Moreover, its aggressive stance towards North Korean government might not be the most effective approach to solving the human rights situation. This might lead one to think that the ‘assistance’ provided is merely a way to further their own agenda.
The EU commits to NKHRA, and is an important sponsor of General Assembly and Human Rights Council of UN (Han, 2015). The EU also tries to have conversations with North Korea about human rights issues, which was discontinued by North Korea as EU requested critical human rights investigation in the country (Hilpert & Krumbein, 2016, 83). The nuclear tests in North Korea concerns the EU, but EU takes a more neutral stance on the provision of humanitarian assistance to North Korea than the United States. The nuclear tests of North Korea in 2005 and 2009 barely affected EU’s humanitarian assistance to North Korea, in contrast, those actions resulted in a drastic drop of United States’ humanitarian aid (Kim, 2014, 444; Lee, 2012, 48-49). This implies that EU segregates the human rights issues from nuclear issues in North Korea. Though the quantity of humanitarian assistance to North Korea provided by the EU is less than that of United States, the more neutral stance of the EU is more beneficial for the human rights situation in North Korea.
Just like EU and United States, Japan is also one of the countries that commit to NHKRA (Han, 2015, 164). Japan puts more emphasis on abduction issues as many of the abductees in North Korea are Japanese citizens. In terms of humanitarian aid, Japan provides rice and medical supplies to North Korea through UN agencies like UNICEF and WHO (Söderberg, 2006, 451). Though the humanitarian aid offered by Japan is far less than that of South Korea and United States, it does alleviate the human rights situation in North Korea to a certain degree.
China is considered as the closest ally of North Korea and perhaps the state that exerts the most influence on Pyongyang (Nanto & Manyin, 2011, 94). China exerts a dual-effect on human rights situation in North Korea. On one hand, China has been the largest provider of food and fuel to North Korea (Nanto & Manyin, 2011, 94). Though the North Korean government does not distribute the aid on the grounds of humanitarian considerations, the aid from China alleviates the sufferings of North Korean inhabitants to a certain degree. Additionally, China is the largest trade partner of North Korea and makes major investments in northern part of North Korea, thus enhancing the living standard in North Korea. On the other hand, China has signed a bilateral agreement with North Korean government in 1986 to repatriate North Koreans who enter China illegally (Goedde, 2010, 557). This will undoubtedly result in the cruel torture of those repatriated to North Korea. From this perspective, China is an accomplice of the human rights violations in North Korea.
Unlike United States and the conservative groups in South Korea, the approach of China towards North Korea is to maintain the stability of the Kim regime and the country as a whole (Nanto & Manyin, 2011, 97). Such an approach is less likely to provoke North Korean government and it imposes more torture on its people consequently. However, the longer life-span of the Kim regime also means that the torture of North Koreans will last longer. However, like the United States, this could mean that China is only acting to further their agenda – using North Korea as one of the frontlines of the proxy war against the United States.
Domestic actors in North Korea
After discussing the international actors that affect human rights situation in North Korea, the domestic actors in North Korea will be discussed. The actions made by international actors have exerted pressures on North Korean government. North Korean government’s responses to the human rights reports made by UN have changed from the denial and outrage at first towards a growing level of cooperation in recent years (Han, 2015, 175-176). In 2014, North Korea participated in the UN General Assembly for the first time. In the same year, North Korea also provided invitation to a member of Commission of Inquiry to their nation (Han, 2015, 176). Such changes of North Korea shows that it cares about how it is perceived by the international community (Son, 2018, 138).
Additionally, North Korea is willing to increase their cooperation with UN Humanitarian Agencies (Goedde, 2010, 548). North Korea provides more access for UN Humanitarian Agencies to a greater area of the country, thus allowing them to reach more inhabitants in the country. This not only enables UN Humanitarian Agencies to improve the wellbeing of a greater number of inhabitants in the country, but also allows for a more accurate understanding of human rights situation in the country. In general, the efforts made by aforementioned international actors do exert an influence on North Korean government, and is effective in pushing the country to make a few positive changes.
North Korea is one the largest violators of human in the contemporary world. Various international actors have made active efforts to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, which mainly include the UN, South Korea, the United States, the EU, Japan and China. However, the effectiveness of such actions is still limited as the final say still lies in the hands of the North Korean government. What makes human rights issues in North Korea more complicated is that it is often associated with political issues like denuclearisation, political ideologies and different approaches towards the North Korean government of international actors. When North Korean government perceives the actions of outsiders a humanitarian issue instead of a political issue, it is more likely that the government will accept the recommendations of international actors and improve its domestic human rights situation to a certain degree. However, when an action is perceived as having political purposes, the North Korean government often responds with rejection and outrage. Therefore, to improve human rights situation in North Korea, it is suggested for international actors to segregate human rights issues from political issues.
- Goedde, P. (2010). Legal mobilization for human rights protection in North Korea: Furthering discourse or discord. Human Rights Quarterly, 32(3), pp. 530-574.
- Han, S. (2015). The North Korea Human Rights Act: South Korean and International Efforts and the Necessity for the Law. Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, 22, pp. 151-188.
- Hilpert, H. G., & Krumbein, F. (2016). Human Rights in North Korea: A European Perspective. The Journal of East Asian Affairs, 30(1), pp. 67-92.
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- Lee, M. (2012). A step as normative power: the EU’s human rights policy towards North Korea. Asia Europe Journal, 10(1), pp. 41-56.
- Nanto, D. K., & Manyin, M. E. (2011). China-North Korea Relations. North Korean Review, 94-101.
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- Son, S. A. (2018). North Korea's human rights insecurity: State image management in the post‐UN COI era. Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, 5(1), pp. 138-149.
- UN. (2015). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (Accessed: 19 November 2019).
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