The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or DPRK) has been much in the news recently. In a shift from years past, this time North Korea is under scrutiny more for its appalling human rights abuses than its nuclear weapons program or the strange habits of its leaders. Attention to the repressive conditions under which North Koreans live is on the agenda of international leaders in a serious way, but relief still appears to be a long way off.
In February of this year the United Nations Human Rights Council released a 372 page report detailing the dire human rights situation of the DPRK. The report contains hundreds of interviews with North Korean defectors along with satellite imagery and other types of evidence demonstrating the depth and scope of violence and repression in North Korea. The report itself said little that informed observers did not already know or suspect. Indeed one can find similar assessments and formulations in scholarship on North Korea dating back to at least the 1970s. Nevertheless, the document is indispensable not only because it systematically catalogues conditions in the DPRK but also because it has focused the world’s attention on the country’s human rights situation. The situation is grim for many in North Korea, and the UN report details the specifics of the “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations [that] have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
The report prompts at least two questions. First, what explains the sudden attention to human rights in North Korea? The UN report seemed to have come out of nowhere, but from another perspective it can be seen as the culmination of long and careful work by numerous civil society, religious, and intergovernmental organizations. Much of this has been made possible by the drastically increased numbers of North Koreans leaving the country. Before the mid-1990s the numbers of North Koreans escaping and making it to the South could be measured in the dozens. These were often more elite individuals and their stories about North Korea were sometimes treated as unreliable or unrepresentative. After a disastrous famine in the mid-1990s led to widespread starvation in many parts of the DPRK, ordinary citizens began to escape in larger numbers. By the mid-2000s there were over 1500 North Koreans arriving in South Korea every year, reaching a high of almost 3,000 in 2009. There is now a total of over 26,000 North Koreans living legally in South Korea, with tens of thousands more in living illegally and precariously in China. These defectors bring their stories with them, which allows researchers, civil society organizations, and the UN to learn more about North Korea. The fact that defectors’ stories are remarkably similar in many respects lends them credibility. These factors have facilitated an accumulation of human rights knowledge about North Korea cultivated by a variety of actors and culminating in the UN’s detailed report.
Second, what comes next? Unfortunately options are limited. There are already a variety of sanctions on North Korea designed to hinder the DPRK’s nuclear program but the human rights impact of sanctions is ambiguous at best. In a non-binding vote earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Committee urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Security Council is unlikely to do so because China will almost surely attempt to quash such a resolution, if necessary by using its veto as a permanent member. This raises the question of why China supports North Korea to the extent that it does despite the private grumblings of Chinese diplomats and political leaders that North Korea is an embarrassing anachronism. China wants stability on its borders and fears that regime change in Pyongyang might lead to an influx of unwelcome North Korean refugees and nuclear materials that could be looted amid the chaos. North Korea may also provide a cheap source of minerals and other materials for China’s development, although surveys of Chinese businesspersons who deal with North Korea reveal significant frustrations with the institutional and regulatory structure of the DPRK. Geopolitically some in China may fear that if Korea is to unify it will surely be a case of South Korea absorbing the North, meaning that a unified Korea would place a United States ally which hosts American troops directly on China’s border. Combined with extant US military commitments to Japan and Taiwan and the Obama administration’s professed ‘pivot’ to Asia, a US-friendly unified Korea may be too much for policymakers in Beijing to countenance.
Despite China’s reticence to push North Korea on human rights, the notion that China could flick a switch and get the DPRK to act as it wishes is probably overblown. Historical research based on newly available sources from archives in post-Soviet countries reveals that North Korea has long been adept at maneuvering among great powers with the aim of protecting its own autonomy. Nevertheless China does have more leverage over the DPRK than any other country and ultimately could press for human rights improvements in North Korea if it prioritized such an approach. Short of that, it is clear that sanctions and imposed isolation are unlikely to encourage North Korea to begin treating its people better. More engagement might be part of the answer, but North Korea is a notoriously opaque and persnickety partner. One potentially (and paradoxically) encouraging aspect of the recent attention to North Korean human rights abuses is the fact that the DPRK government responded to them publicly and at the UN. Granted, North Korea’s response has been full of vitriol, self-serving arguments, red herrings, and half-truths, but at least now leaders in Pyongyang cannot say that they did not know that much of the world condemns their human rights practices. For now, in a situation with few unambiguously appealing diplomatic and policy options, let alone quick fixes (beyond, of course, political will in Pyongyang), the relatively new attention to human rights in North Korea in addition to the nuclear issue is a welcome but nascent step.
Alexander Dukalskis, Ph.D.
Lecturer, UCD School of Politics and International Relations
2014-15 East Asia Institute Fellow on Peace, Governance, and Development