This year marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea. Over the past decade, the Commission of Inquiry (COI) has collected testimonies from North Korean defectors, which reveal grave violations of basic human rights within North Korea such as controlling the right to food, prison camps, and torture. Alongside the COI’s efforts, non-governmental organizations and governments have taken steps to enact laws and appoint special envoys to address North Korean human rights issues. However, in spite of international efforts to address these issues through the establishment of COI, the actual impact has fallen short of initial expectations due to North Korea’s refusal to cooperate with the COI and its denial of human rights abuses, viewing the COI as a scheme to subvert the regime. Thus, the human rights-centered approach toward North Korea has faced significant internal and external challenges, leading to a lack of substantial progress.
U.S. Internal Challenges: Juggling Between Human Rights and Denuclearization
The U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 during the George W. Bush administration. This legislation mandated the appointment of a special envoy for human rights in North Korea, tasked to “coordinate and promote efforts to improve respect for the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea.” However, it is important to note that the act expired in September 2022, and there have been no signs of reauthorization despite bipartisan efforts from the U.S. Congress to reauthorize it and extend it up to 2028.
In light of current circumstances, raising and addressing human rights issues is frequently perceived as a less prioritized agenda item compared to denuclearization efforts on the Korean Peninsula. When reflecting upon past summits between the United States and North Korea, it becomes apparent that the central agenda revolved exclusively around denuclearization, while human rights concerns were relatively forgotten. Indeed, the Donald Trump administration appears to have decided not to bring up human rights issues and rather aimed at negotiating North Korea’s denuclearization at the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. Proposing the topic of human rights at the negotiation table is often deemed impractical and inconvenient as it may raise concerns about diluting the core focus of the discussions around denuclearization, which will pose a continued challenge for the United States to address both North Korean human rights and denuclearization.
South Korean Internal Challenges: Contrasting Approaches to North Korean Human Rights
In South Korea, there has been a lack of consistent policy direction on North Korea, primarily stemming from the differing tones and approaches pursued by conservative and progressive parties. This lack of consistency is especially evident in the contrasting strategies for addressing human rights issues within South Korea. While South Korean conservative parties are inclined to advocate for resolving North Korean human rights as an integral component of North Korea policy, the progressive parties tend to prioritize inter-Korean reconciliation by “abandon[ing] the issues of protecting human rights in the DPRK.” For instance, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in demonstrated a reserved approach to North Korean human rights issues, characterized by his reluctant attitude toward “co-sponsoring annual resolutions at the United Nations” during his tenure to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiating table.
Conversely, current President Yoon Suk Yeol has actively incorporated North Korean human rights concerns into a significant component of his national security agenda. His administration promptly filled the long-vacant position of a special envoy for North Korean human rights issues and established the Human Rights Advisory Committee based on the North Korea Human Rights Act. Furthermore, preparations are underway for the launch of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation during his tenure. Unfortunately, this discord on North Korean human rights issues could send the unintentional message that human rights issues are being used solely for political purposes in South Korea.
External Challenge: Growing Diplomacy Hurdles for Addressing North Korean Human Rights
China and Russia have traditionally played significant roles as a “back door” to block UN Security Council meetings on human rights issues in North Korea. China has been reluctant to address North Korean human rights issues, citing concerns about “intensifying confrontation and antagonism.” Moreover, China has repatriated hundreds of North Korean defectors, primarily addressing their cases as matters of illegal immigration under Chinese domestic law rather than applying international humanitarian law.
Likewise, the relationship between North Korea and Russia complicates international sanctions efforts related to North Korean human rights violations. Following the summit between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin in September, Russia has intensified its support “in all areas” with the North Korean regime, driven by its national interest in strengthening its war efforts in Ukraine. This deepening military cooperation further reinforces the ongoing division between democratic and authoritarian countries, which could potentially diminish North Korea’s perceived necessity to negotiate with the United States. In short, the support from China and Russia has undermined the effectiveness of international sanctions and complicated efforts to address North Korea’s human rights violations and denuclearization via international forums.
External Challenge: Frontier Hurdles for Information Access to North Korea
North Korea is widely recognized as one of the most isolated countries in the world. Moreover, the regime has gained notoriety for its stringent surveillance apparatuses in civil society and strict control over the inflow and outflow of information, a measure aimed at preserving the security of the Kim family. While non-governmental organizations were allowed to enter the country for humanitarian assistance in the past, they were often restricted from conducting independent assessments or engaging in activities that might challenge the regime’s control. Hence, gaining access to accurate information about the reality of North Korea has become increasingly challenging due to the country’s restrictions on activities of humanitarian aid workers in the country and foreign media access within its borders since the pandemic, except for insights derived from North Korean defectors’ testimonies, human intelligence sources, and state-controlled North Korean media. Restricted access to and control of information poses significant obstacles to implementing comprehensive policies for North Korea’s human rights issues and overall understanding of the domestic condition.
Resolving human rights issues in North Korea has encountered various internal and external hurdles. However, it is essential to acknowledge that primarily focusing on deterrence against North Korea can undermine efforts for human rights. While it is anticipated that external diplomatic and frontier challenges will continue to influence the available solutions to North Korea’s human rights issues, the United States and South Korea should address these issues with a unified stance and coherent tone, rather than relegating them to secondary status behind denuclearization concerns or prioritizing political considerations and purposes. During the U.S.-South Korea summit in April 2023, Presidents Biden and Yoon reaffirmed their commitment to promoting human rights in North Korea by sharing the values of democracy and freedom within the rules-based international order. Fostering a unified and coherent approach toward North Korean human rights issues aligns with universal values and offers a more comprehensive and effective strategy for addressing these critical concerns, bridging the gap between internal and external challenges.
With a unified stance toward the issue, the approach to addressing human rights issues in North Korea should also be flexible and adapt to the specific diplomatic context. When relations between the United States and North Korea allow for direct discussions on human rights, a bilateral approach can be effective. However, in situations where bilateral diplomatic efforts have proven unproductive, it is advisable to engage multilaterally on North Korea to adopt a more assertive stance.
The international community should also push China to play a more active role in addressing these issues by emphasizing the significance of upholding international legal obligations and recognizing human rights as a universal value within the framework of international law, particularly in the context of adhering to the principle of non-refoulement. This step is crucial given China’s influence on North Korea and its potential to contribute to meaningful progress in human rights efforts on the Korean Peninsula.
Furthermore, with the continued growth in the number of North Korean cellphone subscriptions despite the regime’s surveillance, there is an opportunity for the United States and South Korea to explore innovative strategies that utilize this growing source of information flow into the country, potentially increasing awareness of information consumption among the North Korean population. By acknowledging both internal and external challenges and capitalizing on opportunities, the United States and South Korea can develop a more comprehensive and effective strategy to promote human rights in North Korea, bridging the gap between internal and external efforts.
Yuna Kim is the former fall 2023 intern for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Master of Science candidate in Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.