November 20, 2020

Korea’s “Berlin Wall” Must Fall

By Kim Myong, Senior North Korean Escapee

Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

(Written for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea on the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall)

Thirty-one years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That historic moment gave hope for reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the Korean people still live divided in their once unified homeland. The dark clouds of the Cold War are still hovering over a wall even higher and more impenetrable than the Berlin Wall.

It is a wall of mistrust, hatred, and confrontation erected along the 38th parallel, which has separated, since 1945, a nation that lived united under the same political system for over 1,000 years. This is a nation that, for its 5,000-year history, shared the same blood, language, and culture.

Born in North Korea, the world’s most repressive country, I lived a brainwashed life under the successive rules of Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and grandson Kim Jong-un. Now, although late, my new life in the Free World has begun.

Back in my home country, I left the spirits of my parents and ancestors who died long ago, and my brothers and sisters whose whereabouts I do not know. I do not even know if they are still alive or not.

And there live my beloved fellow countrymen who are fooled by the regime's propaganda that their “leader and regime are the best,” and remain blindly loyal for generations to the world's worst rulers.

This is why every November I have mixed feelings, thinking of a question that obsesses me: can the democratic revolution in East Europe, sparked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, be replicated in North Korea?


North Korean Society Weakens the Minds of Its People.


Over the past seven and a half decades, North Korea has been pursuing an old-fashioned ideology that even Russia, the motherland of communism, abandoned almost three decades ago. They have turned the northern half of the 700-mile-long Korean Peninsula into a human rights wasteland, where the majority of people starve and live in extreme poverty.

Despite their recurrent lip service, those who control North Korea hate their “dear fellow countrymen” in the South, and seek every opportunity to unify them under communism.

Most of the North Korean people do not understand terms and concepts such as “freedom,” “human rights,” and “democracy.” The reason is simple: They have never experienced the essence of these terms in their real life.

Their ancestors, like all other Koreans, had long lived under the totalitarian rule of the feudal Chosun Dynasty for 500 years, and experienced Japanese colonial rule for four decades in the early 20th century. With the influence of Confucianism and other religious beliefs, they became more accustomed to living up to their obligations as subjects rather than exercising their rights as citizens, and to obeying the established rule rather than opposing it.

When Korea gained independence in August 1945, a communist regime was established in the North to support Kim Il-sung’s dictatorship, while a government aimed at liberal democracy was established in the South.

North Korean communists have distorted the concepts of freedom and human rights that exist in the human subconscious, claiming this is the privilege of the rich, who can get anything they want in exchange for money. They have also defined individuals as “members of a collective society guided by the leader,” completely denying the natural attributes of individual human beings as well as their basic rights.

In addition, they have perverted the essence of democracy, claiming it is a political tool representing only the interests of capitalists. Eventually, their “original” version of democracy was made into a mere tool to preserve the Kim family’s grip on power.

From early childhood, North Koreans are forced to sacrifice everything they have for the “greater good,” for society rather than for themselves, and for the “great leader,” who is defined as the “top brain” of society.

Furthermore, the people of North Korea are brainwashed into employing the “revolutionary perception of life,” which claims that a life devoted to society will continue forever, even after physical death. In the Kim family regime’s North Korea, absolute obedience to the supreme leader is the road to eternal life.

Along with brainwashing, North Korean communists keep society closed. They try hard to block the inflow of information from the outside world to prevent any internal seeds of democratization from germinating.

“There can be a space on the pavement for weeds to grow, but there should be no empty space in the people's brain for any (forbidden) ideology to penetrate.” According to this absurd logic, the regime injects only the ideology and policy lines of the “great leader” and his cult of personality into the brains of the people who are hungry for knowledge of the outside world.

Ultimately, many people in North Korea, who have neither seen nor heard of the outside world, are indoctrinated, fooled, and coerced into believing the lies and propaganda of the regime. They are not allowed to think, speak, or behave as human beings. They are denied their fundamental human rights to personal choice and individual opinion.


From the Roots of Dictatorship, a More Vicious Dictatorship Grows

History proves that the more generations of absolute rulers that a dictatorship creates and the longer it survives, the more vicious it becomes. During his 50-year-long term in office, Kim Il-sung purged all his political opponents and perfectly laid the groundwork for a one-man dynasty.

Kim Jong-il exiled his half-brothers to foreign countries. He thought that they threatened his leadership. Kim Jong-il purged most of the senior executives of Kim Il-sung’s era by framing them as American spies under the unprecedented 1997 “Sim-hwa-jo Sa-eop Incident (“Intensification Operation).”

Then, the Public Security Department picked “scapegoats,” officials who were blamed for sabotaging the country’s food supply and contributing to the famine. Eventually, 30,000 officials and their families were rounded up. Many of them were imprisoned or executed.

Kim Jong-il also spent all the resources of the country on developing nuclear weapons and on satisfying his unlimited greed to enhance his own wealth, regardless of whether millions of people starved or not.

Kim Jong-un, a young dictator in his 30s, who rules North Korea today, far outperforms his predecessors in terms of inhumanity and brutality. He acceded to the throne upon the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, unprepared and with little experience for assuming his role as supreme ruler of North Korea.

The North Korean people hoped that this young leader, who had studied abroad, would lead the country on a new path of reform and openness. In his early days at the helm, Kim Jong-un wanted to win the people’s confidence. He showed a seemingly open-minded personality to the public, by keeping his arms locked with his wife’s, allowing foreign songs and Mickey Mouse masks at national art performances, and inviting a former NBA player to Pyongyang.

However, it did not take long for Kim Jong-un to reveal his real personality. Paranoid and distrusting of the people around him, he executed a lot of them and recklessly even murdered his uncle and half-brother to consolidate his power. Just like his father before, he even executed people for watching South Korean movies.

Kim Jong-un does not care about the economy of the country, which is already on the brink of collapse. He has been pedaling towards the final phase of nuclear development. He believes that one day, he will have control over the fate of the entire Korean peninsula by threatening the lives of South Korean people with his nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

However, what the North Korean people want is not a country armed with nuclear weapons. All they want is simple, but so important for one’s personal happiness: a country where everyone can live peacefully with their neighbors, eat rice and soup with meat, wear a silk jacket and pants, and live under a tile roof.


The Embers of Human Rights and Democracy are Smoldering, but Alight in North Korea

Despite all the repression and hurdles, the admiration for the Free World, and the desire for democracy germinating quietly in the minds of North Koreans, they have been living for decades under the brutality and the repressive tyranny of the Kim family.

North Koreans are very envious of the remarkable economic prosperity that their compatriots in the South have achieved. While eating rice, choco pies, and tangerines from Jeju Island with “Made in Korea” labels, which were distributed after South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000, many North Koreans have dreamed that one day, they will be better off by being unified with South Korea. To them, the Free World, including South Korea, is a beacon of hope and information flowing in from outside is a nutrient that awakens them and opens their eyes.

When I was studying in Pyongyang, a senior student whom I held in the highest respect as my elder brother was suddenly arrested by the agents of the Public Security Department for being involved in an anti-government secret society. He never returned to school.

My friend’s brother, who lived in the same neighborhood, was taken away in the middle of the night with his whole family to a political prison for having written graffiti on a building’s wall, reading “Let’s overthrow Kim Il-sung!”

North Korean society looks peaceful when seen from the outside, and "Long live the great leader!" can be heard everywhere in public places. However, behind the scenes, barely visible embers are alive. There are people who want to overthrow the dictatorial rule of the Kim family.

The North Korean authorities, who fear that these embers will cluster together and turn into flames to overturn the regime, have dispatched their eyes and ears to monitor the ideological leanings of all people, wherever they may be. “Birds hear words during the day and rats hear words at night.” People are always aware of the meaning of this proverb, and never speak their mind at their workplace or at home.

However, just like magma, which long boils and moves deep underground prior to erupting into lava onto the Earth surface, the hidden anti-government sentiment of the North Korean people, who have been suffering for a long time under the oppression of their dictator, will explode one day with deadly, devastating energy.

The “Berlin Wall” of the Korean Peninsula Will Collapse when the North Korean Spring of Democracy Blossoms


On the occasion of the PyeongChang Olympic Games held in 2018, North Korea launched a peace offensive vis-à-vis the Free World as if their testing of nuclear weapons and missile firing belonged to a far-distant past.

Some people misunderstood the situation and thought that Kim Jong-un had made a comeback as a leader of a normal state to revitalize his national economy by receiving aid from the United States in exchange for giving up his nuclear weapons. However, what Kim Jong-un wanted was neither to abandon nuclear weapons nor to revitalize the economy. His real intention was to exchange the old Yongbyon nuclear reactor for an easing of economic sanctions, just to “protect his purse”. In addition, he wanted to gain as side benefits the cessation of loudspeaker broadcasting to North Korea as well as the suspension of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.

North Korea worked hard to “improve” inter-Korean relations first in order to initiate, as a next step, a summit with the president of the United States and to continue to execute fundamental Kim regime tactics.

In the end, the South Korean president was nothing more than just a bridesmaid who helped the North Korean dictator meet the U.S. president three times to engage in attempted fraud. It was fortunate that the United States did not accept Kim Jong-un’s offer and refused to ease the sanctions regime.

Even now, some political leaders in the Free World, including in South Korea, seem to believe that Kim Jong-un will give up his nuclear weapons if denuclearization talks continue, while ignoring North Korean human rights issues. That is a fanciful delusion.

Allegedly in order to maintain inter-Korean dialogue momentum under the Moon Jae-in government, South Korea has neither co-sponsored nor co-drafted General Assembly and other UN resolutions on North Korean human rights. This is, by no means, a gesture suitable to a country that has grown into a democracy.

If the Free World turns a blind eye, even temporarily, towards North Korean human rights issues, it will make dealing with North Korea ever more difficult, and the Spring of Democracy in North Korea will never come. The only person who will benefit from this neglect is the North Korean dictator.

The Free World should abandon any illusion that if denuclearization is realized, human rights issues can automatically be resolved. Human rights, denuclearization, and other security issues, are closely interrelated. They must all become part of the working agenda in all negotiations with North Korea.

It is vital to voice the concerns of the international community on the North Korean human rights situation at all United Nations fora, to put pressure on the North Korean government, and to press engagement with the North Korean regime to improve the human rights of their people.

The South Korean government should safeguard the existence and operations of non-governmental organizations that send information to North Koreans who are hungry for truth and news from the outside world.

The North Korean authorities should not turn away from the international community's requests to improve the human rights of their people. They should cooperate with the United Nations and its Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The safety of a nation can by no means be maintained with nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Rather, it is in the hands of the people, who will decide the destiny and future of the country.

If North Korea raises the status of all their citizens as equal members of society, and if it ensures and upholds their equal rights and liberties, there will be no country in the world that will threaten such a nation.

The “Berlin Wall” on the Korean Peninsula will finally collapse when the Spring of Democracy blossoms in North Korea. Dramatic improvements of the human rights and living standards of all North Korean people will certainly follow.

November 02, 2020

Natural Disaster Preparedness in North Korea or Lack Thereof

By Kim Myong

Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

In recent years, our planet has been witnessing extreme natural phenomena. The identified causes of recent natural disasters include climate change, air pollution, and the destruction of ecosystems. Earthquakes, typhoons, droughts and floods are happening at every hour somewhere on the globe, causing enormous losses to individuals and communities worldwide.

According to estimates by the United Nations, losses caused by natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific alone amount to US$ 148.9 billion every year, accounting for 54 per cent of the global losses. The scope and extent of these losses varies by type of disaster (see Fig.1).

Figure 1: Scope of global losses by type of disaster (Unit: percentage)

Source: United Nations, Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2019, Bangkok.

I escaped from North Korea a few years ago to be resettled in the Free World. Whenever I hear news of natural disasters in North Korea, I vividly remember what I experienced myself while living in my country of birth.

My earliest memories involve a flood I experienced at a young age for the first time in my life, in a summer of the late 1960s. This flood almost swept away our house in Pyongyang, where both the Daedong and the Botong rivers had overflowed their banks.

The Kim regime, which has driven North Korean’s population into starvation and absolute poverty, has been using the four-syllabled word “Ja-yeon Jae-hae” (“natural disaster”) as a shield to rationalize its politics and policies for decades.

Then, I ask myself: “Is the North Korean regime doing enough to protect its citizens from natural disasters?”


1. North Korea is among the world’s most vulnerable countries in disaster risk management.


Geographically, North Korea, where the most common disasters are drought and flood, is not located in a place with high exposure to disasters of the highest intensity or highest frequency as compared to other countries in the same region, such as earthquakes or tsunamis.

Yet, due to the lack of pre-disaster preparedness, an inadequate early warning system and response as well as the insufficient economic resilience, the country is highly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Therefore, the international community has classified North Korea as the 39th most vulnerable country in terms of disaster risk management among the world’s 191 countries. North Korea's INFORM index for risk management, averaging trends over the past three years for the period 2018–2020, is 5.2 out of 10 full points (very high risk). This index is calculated on the basis of each country's exposure to natural disasters and the government's risk management capabilities (see Tab.1).

Table 1: Grouping of 191 countries by risk level (from highest to lowest as measured by the INFORM Risk Index): North Korea belongs to the High Risk Group

Risk level

Number of countries

Country names (ISO3 Country Codes)

Very High (6.5-10.0)




High (5.0-6.4)






Medium (3.5-4.9)








Low (2.0-3.4)








Very Low (0.0-1.9)






Source: Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the European Commission, INFORM report 2020: Shared evidence for managing crisis and disaster, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020.

Large and small-scale natural disasters, which occur almost every year in the country, threaten the precious lives and homes of North Korean families and victimize them with tremendous human and material losses.

Recently this year, due to consecutive typhoons and heavy rain, thousands or tens of thousands of homes and large areas of farmland were flooded or completely destroyed in most parts of the country, including both South and North Hwanghae provinces, North Korea's “breadbasket” high-yield grain areas.

Due to rather blunt measures to address the new coronavirus pandemic that broke out earlier this year, the food shortages in North Korea had already reached a serious level, and people’s lives had been significantly affected. On top of that, natural disasters further aggravated the human insecurity of North Koreans. Some claim that the UN sanctions have also taken a toll on the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans. However, the only way to confirm or refute that claim would be to conduct rapid assessments and other surveys inside the country. So far, the North Korean authorities have been reluctant to allow transparent monitoring by the UN or international NGOs.

The North Korean authorities, as if they recognized the seriousness of the situation, decided to postpone, and possibly cancel, the implementation of the ongoing national economic development plan to focus on repairing the damage caused by natural disasters. New houses are being built in disaster-affected villages, and broken infrastructure is being fixed.

They even go further to brag about the building of new housing units, as if they were meant to provide assistance to people in the disaster-affected areas. However, these are not real post-disaster humanitarian interventions, but just just propaganda aimed to boost the leader’s cult of personality.

These statements by the North Korean government are meaningless. As Koreans would put it, what North Korean authorities are doing is just to “repair the cowshed after losing the cow.” Or, as Anglophones would say, “close the barn door after the horse has bolted.” Disaster preparedness was lacking. Post-disaster interventions were lackluster and meaningless. And regardless of how buoyant they are when they appraise their own work, nobody in North Korea will believe the distorted facts put forth by the North Korean authorities.

2. Natural disasters in North Korea are also Kim regime-made disasters

The government’s primary responsibilities in any part of the world is to protect the lives and safety of its people. Needless to say that each government should play a leading and coordinating role in preparations for mitigating the risks and effects of natural disasters that arise all of sudden, without notice. It is the government’s responsibility to mitigate risk and minimize the damage caused by natural disasters.

The North Korean regime has always adhered to the anachronistic political slogan of “self-sufficiency”, and opted for isolationism to keep itself away from the mainstream international society. The regime has also been prioritizing the “safeguarding of its system” over improving the living standards of the population.

Because of the regime’s wrong way of thinking and erroneous policies, natural disasters in North Korea have had a multiplier effect, inflicting serious blows to the staggering national economy, augmenting chronic economic hardship, and leading to the failure of public welfare and the worsening of the humanitarian crisis.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the economic crisis and food shortages dramatically worsened. Many North Koreans were forced to cut down trees in the mountains and destroy forests to expand farmland and obtain food and fuel necessary for cooking or house heating.

As a result, many forests were devastated and mountains became bare. Eventually, due to massive deforestation, the water storage capacity of the mountains and the soil declined sharply. Deforestation-induced soil erosion turned into soil depletion. Now, even when only a little rain falls, the soil slides down mountain and hill slopes, and the bottom of rivers and reservoirs rises, causing them to easily overflow.

Although the North Korean authorities have made forest rehabilitation as one of their top priorities, reforestation has not been that successful.

According to UN data, the total forest resources in North Korea have been continuously decreasing since 1990, from 6.91 million ha at that time to 6.03 million ha in 2020, representing an average loss of 30,000 ha per year (see Fig.2).

Figure 2: North Korea: Annual net change in area of naturally regenerating and planted forest, by decade, 1990–2020 (Unit: 000s ha)

Source: FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020 Main Report, Rome.

On the other hand, North Korea's rivers and reservoirs have lost their storage capacity and the water resources management system has become so weak that the country is not adequately prepared for floods or droughts.

In addition, due to the outdated technical equipment available, the lack of cooperation with foreign meteorological agencies, and the inconsistency of weather observation data with the international standards, North Korea’s weather forecasting capacity notoriously falls short of predicting any significant weather event. Thus, it is impossible to issue flood warnings in time to conduct evacuations or initiate natural disaster mitigation.

Despite the fact that up to fifty per cent of North Koreans live in rural areas and are engaged in agricultural work, there still exists a large gap in living standards between urban and rural dwellers. Many farmhouses are easily exposed to typhoons as they were built decades ago with low-quality and unstable building materials.

In a centralized society such as North Korea, where the state takes possession of all available resources and controls the supply and use of such resources, disaster risk management can be successful only if that is the will of the leader and the regime.

However, this is not the case in North Korea where a significant share of the national budget is spent for strengthening national defense capabilities. The overall economic structure of the country is organized around the military industry rather than the civilian industry, and enormous human and material resources are devoted to enhancing the military buildup.

North Korea's annual military expenditure as its share of the national GDP goes up and down around the 24 percentage line, which is 8 to 24 times higher than in neighboring countries or countries with a vested interest and presence in the region (see Fig.3).

Figure 3: Military expenditure in North Korea vs. in its neighboring countries, as percentage of Gross Domestic Product, 2007–2017 (Unit: percentage)

Source: US State Department’s online database on military expenditure, armed forces, GDP, population, labor force, and their ratios, 2007–2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared publicly in 2012, soon after assuming leadership, that "I will not let my people tighten their belts again”. However, the first nine years of his rule have proved that statement to be an empty promise.

North Korea offers an excellent potential for economic growth with abundant natural resources and a quality labor force. Nevertheless, due to the wrong policy direction dictated by policymakers, the economy has cratered into a deep and chronic crisis. Over ten million people, i.e. 40 per cent of the total population, suffer from chronic malnutrition and famine. A quarter century after the “Arduous March,” the great and tragic famine of the mid-1990s, the country remains a recipient of international humanitarian assistance. (see Fig.4).

Figure 4: Humanitarian assistance provided to North Korea by the international community, 2010–2020 (Unit: million US$)

Source: Financial Tracking Service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Still, the North Korean authorities pursue the so-called "Byung-jin Ro-son", a policy that simultaneously promotes the development of nuclear weapons and economic development.

In fact, the underlying concept of Byung-jin is founded upon the long-standing selfishness of the Kim family and North Korea’s elite groups who are only concerned about forever maintaining their ruling system regardless of what happens to the people, whether they starve or eat, whether they live or die.

While claiming to be to be a political and military power, North Korea has never claimed to be an economic power. Nor has the country ever published any decent statistics on its economic development. This is implicit proof that their policy direction is wrong and that their policies have failed. Unless the regime fundamentally changes course, North Korea will never accomplish the kind of economic prosperity that its neighbors including South Korea have already accomplished over the past few decades.

3. North Korea can cope with natural disasters by making the right policy decisions.

The North Korean authorities have issued harsh prescriptions for an “80-Day Campaign” to mobilize the entire population in overcoming the triple crises allegedly caused by the economic sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters.

The North Korean authorities should not place the blame on any abstract factors such as challenges posed by outside forces but on themselves. The regime must assume responsibility for repeatedly failing in disaster risk management and in state affairs. Responsibility for any failure falls on the North Korean leadership. That is the same leadership that failed to choose the right policy direction to repay the people for decades-long unconditional confidence and support.

To help the North Korean authorities in making the right decision, I am suggesting below a few recommendations.

First, the North Korean authorities must boldly choose denuclearization as required by the international community, stop the reckless arms race, and engage in a path for truly safeguarding their regime through taking care of their citizens’ lives, safety and welfare.

Second, the North Korean authorities should increase the transparency of government budgets and policies, reduce military expenditure and increase investments aimed at improving the welfare of their people.

Third, the North Korean authorities should develop strategies that integrate poverty reduction, livelihoods, education, health, regional development, and human security including climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation, with the aim of reducing disaster risk and exposure and increasing the resilience of local communities.

Fourth, the North Korean authorities should establish national development strategies and policies by defining the protection of their citizens’ lives and safety from natural disasters as a main objective of these strategies.

Fifth, the North Korean authorities should incorporate a human-rights-based approach in disaster risk reduction and management and focus on marginalized populations, the elderly, persons with disabilities, women and children, the poor, IDPs, and people in detention, political prisoners in particular.

Sixth, the North Korean authorities should improve the quality and quantity of information available on disaster risk, increase access to such information, improve the early warning system, and involve the broad-based participation of local communities and vulnerable populations in all phases of disaster risk reduction and management, including preparedness, response, prolonged displacement, relocation, recovery and reconstruction.

October 27, 2020

The Current Context and Projections for Promoting Human Rights in North Korea

By David Hawk



The following is an annotated and updated version of remarks delivered on February 22, 2020 at Princeton University for a conference hosted by PNKHR (Princeton for North Korean Human Rights).


Efforts to promote and protect human rights in North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), have come a long way since the UN Human Rights “Sub-commission” first criticized the human rights situation in the DPRK in 1995. For the last several years, however, human rights concerns have been greatly overshadowed by the nuclear weapons crisis. The flurry of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile tests in 2016 and 2017 were followed by UN Security Council condemnations and sanctions. This, in turn, was followed by the highly theatrical summits and stymied negotiations of 2018 and 2019. Presently, negotiations and engagement with North Korea seem to have stalled once again. Efforts to promote human rights in North Korea also seem to have reached an impasse. Can either of these initiatives be revived?


To address this question, I would like to explore the economic and political context for human rights progress in North Korea; the posture of the DPRK toward international human rights issues in terms of the tactical openings revealed at the UN following the 2014 Commission of Inquiry (COI) report; and areas where human rights may be raised in the process of negotiation and reconciliation with North Korea in the event that negotiations resume. I will also discuss which actions should be prioritized in terms of addressing the human rights situation in North Korea.



The Context for Human Rights Improvement: Models of Development 


I would like to begin by looking at the current situation from a wider perspective: what academics would term the “political economy of human rights.” It was once believed that if North Korea could be persuaded not to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, and if it wanted to repair its collapsed economy and join the modern world, then Pyongyang would have to engage with the United States, South Korea, Japan, and international economic institutions—such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO)—which have a variety of human rights and governance “conditionalities.” Under this scenario, North Korea could follow the modernizing path blazed by the East Asian “tiger economies” of South Korea and Taiwan—dramatic and sustained economic growth, accompanied by a growing respect for human rights, the rule of law, and even democracy.


But North Korea may not want or need any of this. Notwithstanding South Korean dreams for the synergistic combination of North Korea’s mineral resources and an educated but low-wage labor force with South Korean investment, technology, management, and global trade connections, there are alternative paths. North Korea shares a 900-mile border with China, which is now the world’s second largest economy. Perhaps North Korea can retain political sovereignty and its present social system while recovering from the economic collapse of the 1990s by becoming, in economic terms, the 24th “province” of China, or perhaps a southern economic extension of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.


So, there is another potential modernization scenario. If North Korea does not follow South Korea or Taiwan, perhaps it can follow the path of China’s “reform and opening” (Gǎigé kāifàng) and Vietnam’s “renovation” (Đổi_Mới): sustained levels of high economic growth combined with the continued political monopoly of communist party control, but with greater personal freedoms for its citizens. These liberties include freedom of internal travel; the ability to obtain a passport and travel abroad for education, business, or tourism; the ability to communicate domestically and internationally by phone, letter, email, or internet; and enough freedom of association to form a variety of civic associations and initiatives that are not under the complete control of the totalitarian party-state.


However, we also need to consider the possibility that Kim Jong-un, as the Chairman of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), may well have a completely different vision for the country’s future. North Korea habitually emphasizes its socioeconomic and political projects as being conducted “in our style.” Modernization in North Korea may be pursued more along the lines of ‘reform without opening’, economic renovation without social renovation, perestroika without glasnost, and continuing marketization from “below” and “above,” but within a still “closed society.” Why might this be the case?


Kim Jong-un and his advisors likely understand that China and Vietnam achieved rapid economic growth only after settling decades of hostile relations with the United States. Kim seeks to use his nuclear arsenal for coercive diplomacy toward that same end. But there is a more fundamental issue that he cannot avoid, however. What if the existential threat to the Kim regime is not American imperialism or the U.S. “occupation” of South Korea, as the DPRK often alleges, but a prosperous, free, and democratic South Korea that is an economic, technological, and cultural powerhouse on the international stage? South Korea’s population is twice as large as that of North Korea, and its economy is thirty, forty, or even possibly even fifty times larger.[1] Would Pyongyang ever allow its citizens freedom of movement, expression, and communication with such an economically, politically, and culturally vibrant South Korea?


Realizing the freedoms of expression, communication, movement, and association in the DPRK may be a very tall order. But North Korea has changed considerably in the last twenty years, and it will continue to change. It is an open question as to whether the internal control and security institutions of the Kim regime—the KWP Organization and Guidance Department and the Ministries of State Security and Public Security—will be able to control the social forces accompanying these changes, even with the likely acquisition of Chinese surveillance technology.


One way to understand potential changes is to consider the following questions: first, can North Korea transition from a deformed Stalinist totalitarian regime to a “developmental dictatorship” (perhaps, for example, à la Park Chung-hee)?[2]Second, can the DPRK shed some of the repressive, premodern, and feudal deformities that Kim Il-sung instituted following the Korean War?


Delayed De-Stalinization?


When creating the “people’s democracy” that became the DPRK, the Soviet Union bestowed on Pyongyang the usual institutions of a “republic”—an executive branch, a (nominally) elected parliament, a judiciary, and a constitution, parts of which were taken almost word-for-word from the 1936 “Stalin Constitution.” The Soviet-gifted North Korean constitution stipulated “rights” to “the people,” but with the provision that these “rights” were defined by “law.” Once promulgated, those laws essentially defined these rights out of existence, or at least out of their conventionally understood meanings and definitions.


Furthermore, as Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il made abundantly clear, those constitutionally stipulated “peoples’ rights” were not to be extended to “enemies of the people.” This initially included large landowners and those who collaborated with the Japanese colonial authorities. The categories of rights-undeserving “enemies of the people” grew enormously as the Kim regime evolved. These categories are now quite obsolete, and there may be conditions under which the Kim regime can revise this policy and move toward a more contemporary model of authoritarian rule.[3]


Mitigating Feudal Deformities?


Kim Il-sung created his own “ism” after the Korean War, termed Kim-Il-Sung-ism, much in the same way that Stalin and Mao had their own “ism.” Kim and his closest allies reached back to “pre-modern Korean political, social and cultural traditions”[4] before the imposition of Japanese colonialism and reinstituted socio-political phenomena from the 500-year-long Joseon dynasty.[5] This included “hermit kingdom”-style isolation from the rest of the world; a “one and only monolithic ideology system;” a reconfigured, semi-hereditary class structure (songbun); a system of collective punishment under guilt-by-association spanning three generations (yeon-jwa-je); and, last but not least, rule by dynastic succession.


Short of health-related issues or other sudden contingencies, dynastic succession under the Kim family is likely secure for the next several decades. The other pre-modern practices instituted under Kim Il-sung—which resulted in considerable repression in their wake—are now even more outdated than Stalinist totalitarianism. Are there circumstances in which these repressive “deformities” could be reconsidered? This may, in fact, already be happening. Some close observers of the DPRK, including former North Korean political prisoners now living in South Korea, believe that the yeon-jwa-jesystem of collective punishment has already been substantially curbed.[6] Recently, there have also been brief but intriguing reports that Kim Jong-un may be interested in revising the songbun system of social classification.



Social Change in North Korea After the Great Famine of the 1990s


Questions about future de-Stalinization and the removal of feudal practices are necessarily speculative. What is not speculative are the considerable changes that have occurred in North Korea since the turn of the millennium:[7]

·      “marketization from below,” which emerged during and after the severe famine of the 1990s;[8]

·      measures that reduced agricultural work units and allowed farmers to sell more of their produce in the markets (increasing agricultural production);

·      the resultant monetization of the North Korean economy; 

·      the emergence of an economic middle class and many North Koreans whose food does not come from the Public Distribution System and whose family income does not depend on the planned economy or proximity to the KWP;

·      much greater knowledge among the population of the outside world in general and,  in particular, of the thriving wealth of South Korea because of the spread of IT, mobile phones, and Korean-language music, movies, and TV shows from the South.[9]


It seems likely that these changes have led to “new mentalities” and rising expectations among segments of the North Korean populace.


The key issue is to what extent these social changes, which are not likely to abate, will catalyze the greater realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. In particular, we should examine whether these social changes can mesh with the tactical changes made by North Korea in its approach to human rights policy after the 2014 UN COI report, and bring about improvements to the human rights situation.



The 2014 Turning Point in North Korea’s 

International Posture toward Human Rights 


Before the COI report and the overwhelming Member State support at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly for the COI’s findings and recommendations,[10] North Korea’s standard policy statement on human rights was: “There can be no human rights problems (or issues) in our people-centered socialism.” There was no room for further discussion. This inflexible posture was reflected in North Korea’s refusal to cooperate with nearly all UN human rights mechanisms and procedures.[11]


In 2014, North Korean diplomats labored mightily to prevent the General Assembly from endorsing the findings and recommendations of the COI. When this failed, the Kim regime seemed to have realized that it had to respond, in some way, to the human rights concerns expressed so strongly and overwhelmingly by the international community. Pyongyang has so far shown that it is willing to address children’s rights, women’s rights, and the rights of persons with disabilities. Additionally, it has permitted a limited amount of “human rights discourse” and possibly opened the door to human rights training and education. To be sure, these are limited tactical openings.[12] But they have significantly increased the DPRK’s interactions with the various UN human rights mechanisms.


Specifically, the DPRK ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and invited the Special Rapporteur on disability rights to visit Pyongyang. It has also renewed its cooperation with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.


Moreover, North Korea retroactively reversed its non-cooperation with the first cycle of the UN procedure known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It participated in the second and third cycles of the UPR, where it endorsed a number of the recommendations made by fellow UN Member States to improve human rights in North Korea. The recommendations “supported” by the DPRK include, most recently, a recommendation made by Ireland to “grant immediate, free and unimpeded access to international humanitarians to assist the most vulnerable groups, including prisoners.”[13] In “noting” other recommendations to improve human rights, the DPRK now uses language, such as “[some recommendations] cannot be implemented easily in the near future, that correspond to the international trend for promotion and protection of human rights…[And] full implementation…will be considered as the conditions and environment are provided in the future.”[14]


The DPRK Foreign Ministry also signed an agreement with all twelve UN resident and non-resident agencies that work inside North Korea that stipulated the following. Not so long ago, North Korea would not have signed on to this kind of language.


To ensure improved compliance with international norms and standards, notably in the field of human rights, the UN stands ready to provide support to the Government in meeting its global commitments to, and reporting on, international human rights commitments under the [international human rights conventions ratified by the DPRK], and the accepted recommendations made through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). …. UN support may involve technical cooperation, policy dialogue or providing capacity building, including training to DPRK officials and institutions in the implementation of international norms and standards, as embodied in many treaties and conventions as negotiated and ratified by Member States, including the DPRK.[15]


Lastly, prior to the COI report, North Korea rebuffed efforts by successive UN High Commissioners for Human Rights to even discuss “technical cooperation,” which is the UN’s term for human rights education and training. In 2019, North Korean officials, who traveled from Pyongyang, participated in a training program in Geneva conducted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).


Again, these are modest tactical openings.[16] No doubt, some human rights advocates will think these measures are so exceedingly modest that they do not warrant a different diplomatic policy toward North Korea. That is, aid should continue to be withheld, and multilateral and unilateral sanctions against the DPRK should be strictly enforced, if not increased. Others will think these openings should be pursued. The possibility that North Koreans inside North Korea can engage in human rights discourse and talk about human rights might have something of a “ripple effect.” Consciousness about how few rights are actually enjoyed by North Koreans will inevitably follow increases in human rights discourse. In reality, helping some North Koreans cannot be postponed until human rights protection can be provided to all.


The UN has long recommended a two-track approach to the situation of human rights in the DPRK: the accountability track and the engagement track. Both require a robust international coalition of “like-minded countries,” which has weakened in the past few years.[17] I will later return to the fraying of this international coalition. First, I would like to closely examine the engagement track. North Korea’s willingness to engage with other members of the international community on human rights will remain extremely limited, unless it is part of a broader engagement on geopolitical and humanitarian issues.





This brings us to an unavoidable issue in any discussion of promoting and protecting human rights in North Korea: its relation to negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, the establishment of a “new relationship” between the United States and the DPRK, and “building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”[18]


There is a lot we do not know or, more precisely, I do not know, about the current U.S.-DPRK relationship. Little is known of what President Trump and Chairman Kim discussed at their three summit meetings. Little is known of the details of the letters they have exchanged in the interim. We lack a clear picture of the disconnect between the high-level and working-level discussions surrounding the Hanoi summit. The United States has been tight-lipped about what terms it might have put on the table at the working-level negotiations in Stockholm in October 2019, except that the North Koreans apparently thought they were not sufficient to make up for what Kim perceived as a humiliating snub by Trump in Hanoi.


We do not know if Trump will attempt another meeting during his present term in office. It is unclear if the next administration will pursue negotiations or let this troublesome matter drift under such slogans as “strategic patience” or “maximum pressure” until the next North Korean provocation, such as resumed testing of nuclear warheads or long-range ballistic missiles. In the past, such incidents have induced policymakers to grapple with North Korean demands.


We do not know if U.S. policymakers will seek to include human rights in the next round of negotiations. What is clear is the path that a denuclearization process almost surely has to take, as the DPRK likely will not have it any other way. What is also clear is the stage at which humanitarian and human rights issues could most naturally be raised.


Since the DPRK has become a de facto nuclear weapons state, the necessary components of denuclearization have been relatively clear:

·      ending the tests that improve the nuclear warheads

·      verifiably freezing production of the fissile material that enlarges the arsenal

·      verifiably dismantling production facilities

·      verifiably disabling and dismantling existing nuclear warheads


According to an estimate by Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear scientist who is familiar with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, this process would take over a decade to complete.[19] Many also fear that it will be difficult for negotiations to meaningfully progress beyond the “first phase” of denuclearization—an arms-control agreement to dismantle all fissile production facilities in exchange for some form of sanctions relief. In effect, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will remain largely intact as the likelihood of further multilateral sanctions decreases.


There is also a widespread belief that Kim is never going to give up his nuclear weapons. While the issue is usually posed in security terms, these nuclear weapons are Kim Jong-un’s claim to fame, stature, and prestige as a statesman and North Korea’s claim to be a virtuous, dignified, self-reliant, and powerful nation-state.[20] How many people around the world know the names of the presidents or prime ministers of countries that are as poor as North Korea? Without nuclear weapons, who would pay attention to North Korea except for human rights activists, South Koreans, ethnic Koreans in China, and the diaspora of Koreans who still have relatives in the North?


There are, to be sure, serious Korea-watchers who argue that even a “first phase” arms-control agreement would be worthwhile. It would help reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and may facilitate greater exchanges between the two Koreas. What makes denuclearization beyond a “first phase” arms-control deal difficult to envision is the lack of clarity about what denuclearization actually entails. U.S. officials often talk as if what North Korea agreed to is “the denuclearization of North Korea.” This is now frequently referred to as “Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization” (FFVD), in place of the previously used “Complete, Verified, [technologically] Irreversible Denuclearization” (CVID). Both formulations are flawed.[21]


Furthermore, what Kim and Trump agreed to in Singapore was the complete “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” not the “denuclearization of North Korea.” And there was only an agreement to “work toward” that end. Over the past three decades, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials provided two different scenarios for “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” One calls for an end to the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, including an end to “extended deterrence”[22] and the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and, in some iterations, even from other areas of Northeast Asia.[23]


The other proffered North Korean scenario is an alliance, de facto or even de jure, between the United States and the DPRK in which U.S. forces stay in South Korea, repurposed, more or less, as peacekeeping forces (maybe even, as presently, under nominal “UN Command”). The United States would not only guarantee to defend South Korea against another North Korean invasion, but also guarantee not to pursue “reunification by absorption” in North Korea. By this reckoning, the United States would replace the Soviet Union as the great power ally that Pyongyang can rely on to counterbalance against Beijing. By this reckoning, North Korea would no longer need its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.[24]


North Korea’s official position is that U.S. forces must be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula. However, Kim Jong-il reportedly told South Korean presidents at the 2000 and 2007 inter-Korean summits that U.S. troops could stay in South Korea if the United States became North Korea’s “friend,” in which case the United States could balance the much closer and historically contending great powers—China, Russia, and Japan—whose interests have often collided on the Korean peninsula.[25] Might Kim Jong-un share his father’s ambivalence? Has he shared his opinion with U.S. negotiators?


Either of these scenarios will face stiff political opposition in the United States. These issues need not come up in a “first phase” arms-control agreement, but sooner or later, Pyongyang will insist on measures to protect the security and longevity of the Kim family regime.



Human Rights “Down the Road”


It is not clear that negotiations will reach a “first phase” agreement, let alone move beyond it. If they do, it is not naïve to hope that human rights considerations can be raised in subsequent negotiations, if the United States and other negotiators are willing. For decades, North Korean negotiators when asked about human rights concerns have said that they would be dealt with “down the road.”


This diplomatic formulation could easily mean “never.” It could also mean, “if others are seriously considering North Korea’s perceived and articulated security concerns, North Korea will seriously consider the concerns of others about human rights.” This proposition has never been tested.[26]  


North Korea sometimes refers to international human rights concerns as a “racket” and sometimes insists that the United States drop its “human rights racket.”  This simply cannot be complied with. At some point the United States will have to make clear to North Korea that the long-noted human rights concerns of the international community are entirely legitimate and that the DPRK has to take these into account if it wants acceptance as a normal state.


If negotiations ever get far enough, there are three areas where discussion of human rights concerns could naturally take place: 1) full normalization of diplomatic relations; 2) the construction of a “peace regime” for the Korean peninsula; and 3) the provision of aid and investment in North Korea in the event of an ongoing denuclearization process.

Normalization of U.S.-DPRK Relations


Media reports indicate that there have already been discussions about the possibility of “opening a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang.”[27] If implemented in the future, this could then be followed by discussions leading to full political and diplomatic normalization, which would involve upgrading the liaison offices to full-fledged embassies. A “human rights dialogue” with the United States was part of the political normalization process with China and Vietnam.[28] It seems plausible that North Korea could be persuaded that a human rights dialogue has to be part of the normalization process.  


Liaison offices can be established by the executive branch. However, Congress will eventually have to be brought into the process, as ambassadorial appointments require Senate confirmation. Support for human rights progress in North Korea runs very wide and deep in both houses of Congress. It is possible that the North Korean negotiators already know that human rights issues will have to be addressed “down the road.” It would be wise for U.S. negotiators to indicate without delay, if they have not done so already, that the “new relationship” with the United States will have to include addressing human rights concerns.[29]


For the moment, North Korea’s insistence on sanctions relief is directed specifically at the multilateral UN Security Council-imposed restrictions on coal, textiles, and seafood exports, and investments and cash transfers into the DPRK. There are also bilateral U.S. sanctions, many Congressionally imposed, including some which deal with human rights issues. While some are largely symbolic in nature, North Korea will insist that these bilateral sanctions are incompatible with the new relationship “for peace and prosperity” that President Trump agreed to in Singapore.[30] Given its track record, it is hard to imagine that Congress will stay silent on human rights issues if there is movement towards diplomatic normalization.

A “Peace Regime”


While sometimes previously referred to as a peace “treaty,”[31] the current construction of a “peace regime” for the peninsula is supposed to follow an “end-of-war declaration.” [32] Declaring that the Korean War has ended ought to be straightforward.[33] On the other hand, constructing a “peace regime” involves sorting through a slew of difficult issues.[34] Furthermore, it would be a very superficial and constricted “peace regime” that does not have a “basket” for greater interactions between the peoples of countries whose interests are invested in the “peace regime.” If full, “free exchange of information and people” seems to be too much of a stretch initially, Korean Workers’ Party-controlled exchanges of delegations could serve as a starting point, with expansions envisioned and allowed as the “peace” takes hold. 

Humanitarian and Development Assistance


North Korea’s most insistent demands are for an end to multilateral sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the peninsula. Pyongyang appears to believe that the United States promised these steps in Singapore, only to renege on them since. However, the Singapore agreement references “prosperity” as part of the “new U.S.-DPRK relationship.” Most likely, President Trump intimated, if not actually promised, some sort of “pot of gold” for North Korea at the end of the denuclearization “rainbow.” The progressive administration in South Korea is also anxious to channel aid and investment into Pyongyang as soon as UN sanction waivers allow.


In theory, U.S. humanitarian food aid is independent of geopolitical considerations. Previous U.S. attempts to halt the North Korean nuclear program were accompanied by large transfusions of humanitarian food assistance.[35] USAID officials were able to negotiate robust end-use monitoring provisions. A renewed humanitarian aid program to North Korea, cogent enough on its own terms, might enable the human rights provisions of the DPRK-UN agencies’ strategic framework agreement referenced above.[36]



Immediate and Continuing Tasks to Promote Human Rights in North Korea


These are, of course, longer-term issues that may well have to wait for a variety of reasons: the current global pandemic, the U.S. elections, and potentially a new administration figuring out its policies and priorities. Sooner or later, an unsatiated North Korea will provoke attention.[37] In the meantime, several things can and should be done, including some that do not require North Korean assent or cooperation:


1.     Monitoring and documenting human rights violations remains a bedrock imperative. While the flow of North Korean refugees is smaller than it was several years ago, there are enough recent arrivals for South Korean human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to track the DPRK’s compliance with international conventions and its “supported” recommendations from the UPR.[38] It is still possible to interview refugees who were recently released from the kyo-hwa-so (re-education through labor camps) and forced-labor facilities operated by the Ministry of Public Security for political offenses.[39]

A new round of satellite imagery review of known and suspected kwan-li-so prison camps administered by the Ministry of State Security is also overdue. There have been no known releases from these prison camps since 2007. Comparing satellite imagery from different time periods is thus the only way to ascertain if those camps are growing, shrinking, or remain unchanged.

2.     Humanitarian NGOs continue to face the complications of the sanctions-exemptions process, but will persevere as travel and import limitations permit. North Korea’s refusal to accept 50,000 tons of rice from South Korea in order to express Pyongyang’s displeasure at Seoul for its refusal to disregard UN Security Council sanctions continues to cloud over humanitarian aid prospects.

At present, while mostly closing its borders with China, North Korea has claimed that there are no cases of COVID-19 in the country. South Korea has such an outstanding record in responding to COVID-19 outbreaks that perhaps Pyongyang may consider accepting assistance from Seoul in this matter if the situation worsens.

3.     The adage “Information in, North Koreans out” should continue to apply. Efforts by escapee groups to send in outside information will surely continue, given the popularity of South Korean music, movies, and TV programs inside North Korea. If a “first stage” arms-control deal becomes possible, and there is any multilateral sanctions mitigation, another look should be given to the prohibitions against North Korean overseas laborers. The amount of profit made by the Kim regime needs to be weighed against the benefits that accrue for those North Korean workers and their families back in North Korea.[40]

Perhaps the most significant geopolitical task vis-à-vis human rights promotion is the restoration of the presently frayed international coalition for human rights protection at the UN. As noted above, in response to the human rights attention at the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council, the DPRK dropped its blanket assertion that there cannot be human rights problems in North Korea and has made modest tactical openings.

It should be noted, however, that the DPRK still claims that allegations of severe violations are a U.S.-led “human rights racket” to tarnish the reputation, insult the social system, and offend the dignity of the DPRK. Leadership on North Korean human rights issues at the UN has previously come from the EU and Japan. The large majorities in favor of the resolutions on the “situation of human rights in the DPRK” are sustained by the votes of the EU member states and the Latin American democracies. The participation of the United States and South Korea has also been a crucial component, as these states are the most directly involved parties on the Korean peninsula. For various reasons, as discussed below, the United States, South Korea, and Japan have “gone wobbly” in the past two years, to use Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase.


The United States Wobbles


During the preliminary consideration of the 2018 General Assembly resolution on North Korean human rights, the United States temporarily withdrew its sponsorship. This may have been because the resolution referenced the International Criminal Court, which the then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton strongly opposed. The temporary withdrawal was reversed, and the United States remained a cosponsor. However, during the internal debates about sponsorship, the United States did not lobby for the support of other members of the Security Council to obtain the nine votes needed to put the North Korean human rights situation on the Security Council’s agenda.[41]


In 2019, the U.S.-DPRK denuclearization negotiations broke down in Hanoi, and subsequent working-level negotiations were stiff-armed by North Korea in Stockholm. In November and December 2019, the EU pressed for a North Korea human rights discussion at the Security Council, which had been held every year from 2014 to 2017. The United States was set to chair the Security Council in December. The DPRK’s Ambassador to the UN very publicly stated that any Security Council discussion of its human rights would be a “serious provocation,” and shortly thereafter added that the U.S. would “pay dearly” for “malicious words” about the DPRK human rights situation.[42] Challenged by the DPRK to use its position as Chair of the Security Council to keep North Korean human rights off the agenda, the United States backed down. As of 2020, despite the recommendation from the General Assembly, there was no Security Council discussion on the situation of human rights in the DPRK in 2019.

Japan Wobbles


Since 2005, Japan had been the primary mover on North Korean human rights issues at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, along with the European Union. Recently, Japan announced it would withdraw its sponsorship of the DPRK human rights resolution at the Human Rights Council, most likely because then Japanese Prime Minister Abe wanted to join the summitries of 2018 and 2019.[43] The continued lack of progress in addressing the long-standing issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea may have also played a role. At least for now, Prime Minister Suga appears to be following in the footsteps of his direct predecessor.


South Korea Wobbles


From 2009 to 2017, South Korea had been an important cosponsor of the North Korean human rights resolutions at the Human Rights Council and General Assembly. It also supported the human rights discussions at the Security Council from 2014 to 2017. After the progressives won the South Korean presidential elections in 2017, it was widely expected that President Moon Jae-in would not include human rights concerns in South Korea’s bilateral approach to North Korea, except perhaps for the reunions of separated families.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister initially announced that South Korea would continue to support the human rights efforts of the international community. However, in late 2019, as Pyongyang harshly spurned South Korean efforts to continue engagement with the DPRK, Seoul’s Blue House seems to have overruled the Foreign Ministry. South Korea withdrew its support for human rights measures at the UN. The Moon government has also cut back funding for NGOs in South Korea that address North Korean human rights. Like the United States, South Korea has declined to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights, a position mandated by the ROK’s 2016 North Korean Human Rights Law.


These setbacks did not affect the end result at the 2019 General Assembly. The resolution on North Korean human rights was adopted by consensus on December 18, 2019.[44] The vacillations by the United States, Japan, and South Korea are deeply troubling to human rights advocates and run counter to the strong recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur, human rights NGOs, and, interestingly, the former U.S. nuclear negotiators with North Korea that the opening of negotiations and engagement with the DPRK create opportunities to advance human rights issues. These countries should not retreat from them.[45]


Recently, over 60 international human rights NGOs, joined by several UN human rights officials, wrote to the South Korean President and Japanese Prime Minister, encouraging them to rejoin human rights efforts at the UN.[46] Regardless of the election results, new political leadership in the U.S. following the presidential election will likely redress the recent policy lapses. If not, Congress should weigh in.


South Korea Caves


In July, South Korea’s retreat on human rights worsened considerably. In June, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, appeared on North Korean state media and launched vicious over-the-top verbal attacks on North Korean refugees/defectors who have found asylum in South Korea. In particular, she demanded that Seoul stop these refugees/defectors—who are now South Korean citizens—from sending information and media into North Korea. These activities are intended to promote the right to freely access information, which is stipulated in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19).


The Moon administration has been persistent in its efforts to resume inter-Korean dialogue, even in the face of extreme provocations by North Korea, such as the blowing up of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong on June 16. It chose to comply with Kim Yo-jong’s demands. The Ministry of Unification promptly announced that it would take measures to stop defector-led NGOs from sending leaflet balloons and rice-filled bottles across the border. Subsequently, the Ministry revoked the operating licenses of two defector-run organizations that have carried out these activities. The government has also put considerable pressure on other South Korean NGOs that work on North Korean human rights issues. The Ministry announced on July 16 that it would conduct office inspections of 25 such organizations, and also demanded on July 17 and 20 that 64 such organizations must submit documentation to maintain their legal registration with the Ministry. And the ROK Ministry of Unification has restricted South Korean NGO access to the most recently arriving North Korean refugees/defectors, whose information on conditions in the DPRK would be most up-to-date.


The South Korean civil society organizations, some of which are run by North Korean refugees/defectors, engage in domestic and international advocacy on North Korean human rights and also help other refugees/defectors adjust to their new lives in South Korea. They have long assisted international NGOs, including the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), and its researchers, including myself, in documenting human rights abuses in North Korea. They have also played a vital role in supporting the work of the United Nations.


If South Korea chooses not to raise human rights issues with North Korea, that is entirely within the Republic of Korea’s sovereign rights as a democratically elected government, as regrettable as that policy may be. Restricting the rights of expression, assembly, and association of its own South Korean citizenry at the behest of, on behalf of, and in support of North Korea’s violations of its citizens rights is an entirely different matter.  In theory, engagement with the DPRK is supposed to help open North Korea. Under President Moon’s leadership in Seoul, it seems to be going in the opposite direction.



Conclusion: Back to the Present


We have looked briefly at the substantive difficulties that lie beyond a “first phase” agreement with North Korea to a time at which human rights concerns would most naturally be included in negotiations, and the issue areas where sustained engagement might be possible. We have also considered how the recent tactical changes in North Korea’s stance towards human rights might come into play, and possibly even intersect with the considerable ongoing, possibly accelerating, changes in North Korean society. This would be the context most favorable for modest, but progressive, reform.


I would like to conclude by returning to the possibility of not being able to get to the stage where any of this may get off the ground: the impediments to a “first phase” agreement that would dismantle the facilities involved in the production of fissile material.


The first impediment is the possibility that North Korea may overreach. Kim Jong-un is on a nine-year roll. He has murdered potential challengers within the “royal family” and purged officials deemed too close to his father and dead uncle. He raced to finish the long quest, initiated by his grandfather and continued by his father, for nuclear warheads and long-range ballistic missiles.


Kim then shed his cocoon to emerge as a statesman on the world stage, meeting multiple times with President Moon and the leaders of the nuclear weapons states whose interests intersect on the Korean peninsula. He even got a U.S. president to say they “fell in love” and, less ephemerally, to agree to North Korea’s formula for denuclearization.


It would not be surprising if these successes did not tempt Kim to demand more than can be reasonably accommodated. He may well believe that he can endure and “wait out” the severe but permeable sanctions, continue to increase the quality and quantity of his arsenal, and then seek or provoke a return to negotiations when the United States offers better terms. Recent events, including Kim Yo-jong’s attack on North Korean defectors and the demolishment of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong, seem to indicate that North Korean overreach is hardening into churlish retrenchment.

Sooner or later, we will find out what happened and did not happen in Hanoi and Stockholm. Diplomatic signaling and two or three days of negotiations are not nearly enough to reach an agreement on sanctions relief or nuclear disarmament, let alone discuss any further steps. The current lead U.S. negotiator is on top of his briefs and enjoys the confidence of his political superiors, as does the current lead DPRK negotiator. Presently, they are of equivalent diplomatic rank.[47] North Korea’s unwillingness to respond to the plainly and openly expressed desire of the United States to resume negotiations strains credulity and invites political pressure to augment sanctions.


There are also impediments on the American side. There is, among those close to the policy-making process, a well-considered opinion that a first-phase agreement that enables engagement would also essentially be the last possible agreement. Thus, a few years of sustained or strengthened sanctions are worth trying to see if that might compel North Korea into making a more tangible commitment to a future without its “treasured” deterrent.

Not all contingencies can be ascertained and planned for. Perhaps the stalemated situation will catch a break in America’s favor. If not, in due course, U.S. goals can be brought into a more realistic alignment with its power if. For example, it appears that China cannot be compelled to allow North Korea to be brought too close to its breaking point.


Beyond this, there are also institutional and psychological impediments to flexibility. U.S. policy was set when the goal was to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapons state. A DPRK without nuclear weapons is written into U.S. law. The old “CVID” formula was written into UN Security Council resolutions. However, policy and institutional inertia is likely to continue, even though North Korea is now a de facto nuclear weapons state with a growing nuclear arsenal. There is, not far below the surface, an attitude that even summit meetings, let alone political accommodations or transfer payments, with a rogue and despotic North Korea demean America’s national honor.


It is possible that misplaced North Korean pride and overreach—in combination with U.S. policy inertia and deep-seated policy divergences—may leave us, at least for the time being, back to square one, stuck with the default policies of containment and deterrence. In that case, the prospects for promoting human rights protection in North Korea will likely remain constrained and minimal. The only exceptions would be thorough documentation of human rights violations and a continuation of information campaigns aiming to empower the people of North Korea.


Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director; Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor; Amanda Mortwedt Oh, HRNK Human Rights Attorney; Raymond Ha, HRNK Editorial Consultant; Benjamin Fu and Hayley Noah, HRNK Research Interns

[1] 2018 estimate from the Bank of Korea, available at

[2] It should be noted that South Koreans and international human rights advocates vigorously protested and struggled against the “developmental dictatorship” in South Korea during the 1970s and 1980s.

[3] There was a debate in North Korea about de-Stalinization occasioned by Khrushchev’s “revisionism” (peaceful coexistence, the restoration of “socialist legality,” and an end to personality cults). Kim Il-sung sent North Korean revisionists to prison camps along with their entire families. Kim also sent those in the party, the army, and the government who were deemed excessively enamored with Mao to the prison camps. For historical background on these issues, see Charles Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Andrei Lankov, Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005); Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Balázs Szalontai, “The Matrix of North Korean Despotism,” in Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[4] Szalontai, Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, 210. 

[5] The Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) came under intense pressure from Russian and Japanese rivalry toward the end of the 19th century. It was briefly succeeded by the Korean Empire, which collapsed with Imperial Japan’s de jure annexation of Korea in 1910.

[6] Yeon-jwa-je is a system of collective punishment for dealing with presumed or suspected wrongdoers and wrong thinkers by banishing up to three generations of their family to political prison camps. If this practice has been curbed, then the number of deaths in detention will exceed the number of new incoming prisoners, and the overall kwan-li-so prison camp population will decrease. There are still reports of individuals disappearing (extrajudicially) into the Bo-wi-seong’s (Ministry of State Security) kwan-li-so prison camps, but not of entire families. Unlike former political prisoners from the kyo-hwa-so prisons and camps administered by the An-jeon-seong (Ministry of Public Security), of whom there are now hundreds currently living in Seoul, there have been no known releases from the kwan-li-so prison camps since 2007. Currently, the only way to track developments in these prison camps is through satellite imagery.

[7] The human rights situation remains largely as described in the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry. See UN Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/HRC/25/CRP.1.

[8] There were sporadic attempts by the regime under Kim Jong-il to forcibly reverse this trend, but this does not appear to be the case under Kim Jong-un.

[9] Is it conceivable that Parasite, which has won multiple accolades on the international stage, and the songs of BTS are not circulating widely in North Korea?

[10] Namely, that some of the DPRK’s clear and consistent patterns of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights constituted crimes against humanity, and that North Korea’s violations should be referred by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court.

[11] The minor exceptions were the occasional and halting participation with the human rights conventions that North Korea ratified in 1981. A forthcoming HRNK monograph by the present author, Human Rights in North Korea: The Role of the United Nations details North Korea’s desultory interactions with the UN on human rights.

[12] The DPRK continued to insist that allegations of severe violations were a U.S. sponsored “human rights racket” based on the lies of “traitorous scum,” which is North Korea’s term for the North Korean refugees who provide details on North Korean human rights violations.

[13] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the UPR, DPRK, UN Doc, A/HRC/42/10. Previously, the DPRK had accepted recommendations regarding vulnerable groups but never before including a specific reference to prisoners. “Persons in detention,” along with women, children, and disabled persons, have long been recognized by the UN as “vulnerable groups.” This stipulation almost surely only applies to prison camps, prisons, and forced labor detention facilities known as kyo-hwa-so and ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae operated by the Ministry of Public Security, and not the kwan-li-so prison camps operated by the Ministry of State Security, whose existence North Korea continues to deny. If this policy is implemented in practice, this recommendation—accepted and “supported” by Pyongyang—would make an enormous difference, as anyone who has interviewed former kyo-hwa-so prisoners will readily understand. Of course, it might be the case that what is agreed to in Geneva by DPRK Foreign Ministry officials might not be honored or implemented by police, court, or prison officials in Hoeryong or Chongjin. 

[14] UN HRC, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: DPRK, Addendum, UN Doc, A/HRC/42/10/Add.1, par. 3.

[15] United Nations and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Strategic Framework for Cooperation between the United Nations and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: 2017-2021, 22

It is a “strategic framework” rather than the typical UN in country agreement known as a “country plan” because the UN budget for the DPRK is substantially underfunded, owing to grave and unmet humanitarian crises elsewhere around the globe and “donor fatigue” that is specific to North Korea, especially due to its nuclear and missile tests. Presently, about 20% of the UN humanitarian aid program for the DPRK is funded.

[16] To put these openings in perspective, consider that North Korea “rejects” or “rejects as slander” recommendations that are made at the UN to address its most serious human rights violations. North Korea cooperates with the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, but not the more comprehensive Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. While North Korea cooperates with the UN implementation committees for women’s, children’s, and persons with disabilities rights, the DPRK has again formally asserted its “de-ratification” (i.e. de-recognition) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has not cooperated with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights since 2003. In other words, North Korea has nominally accepted women’s, children’s, and disability rights, but not the fundamental freedoms of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights.

[17] The accountability track has faced a setback in the last two years. North Korean human rights violations have not even been discussed at the UN Security Council, as had been the case from 2014 to 2017. There has thus been no occasion for China to avow its “non-support for a discussion outcome” (diplomatic language for the veto) to a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, as recommended by the General Assembly resolutions on the DPRK. 

[18] A “peace regime” would certainly include South Korea, as North Korea will not peacefully engage with South Korea unless the United States is concomitantly peacefully engaging with North Korea. China, Russia, and Japan are included as well in many potential scenarios for a “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula.

[19] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “North Korea Nuclear Disarmament Could Take 15 Years, Expert Warns,” The New York Times, May 28, 2018.

[20] Some argue that North Korea already has a reliable deterrent against U.S. or South Korean attack in the 12,000 long-range artillery batteries just north of the DMZ that can turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” and that the major purpose of the nuclear arsenal is “compellence” or coercive diplomatic leverage against the U.S. Even if so, why would they give that up?

[21] Denuclearization cannot be technologically “irreversible” because North Korea has mastered the science and engineering of both nuclear fission and multi-stage rockets. Even if they were to dismantle production facilities, they can rebuild them. Further, nuclear warheads are easy to conceal, and North Korea is a very mountainous country. The argument for a “freeze” is that if they can produce enough fissile material for six or more warheads per year, in another five or ten years they might have 70 to 120. It is impossible to know how much more can be negotiated if there is no first phase agreement. Opponents counter that, even so, it is preferable to maintain or even increase pressure until North Korea provides a more tangible commitment to denuclearization.

[22] In this reckoning, South Korea still has a nuclear weapons deterrent, even if the U.S. possesses control over the nuclear weapons. The U.S. removed its nuclear warheads from South Korea in 1991, but no one doubts that it has the capability to deliver nuclear strikes on Pyongyang. The U.S. frequently reminded North Korea of this by flying nuclear-capable aircraft nearby as part of joint military exercises with South Korea, which were carried out to reassure worried South Koreans that the “nuclear umbrella” is still in place.

[23] This sort of North Korean definition has been presented at numerous so-called “Track 1.5” meetings between high-level North Korean officials and U.S. policy experts, academics, and former U.S. negotiators with the DPRK.

[24] Back in the days of the “Agreed Framework” under the Clinton administration, when North Korean diplomats were not subject to the current travel restrictions within the U.S., those diplomats came to Washington D.C. and plied the halls of Congress with exactly such a scenario. Cynics and sceptics might think this scenario so imaginative as to be unimaginable. For a serious examination of the issue, see Morton Halperin et al., From Enemies to Security Partners: Pathways to Denuclearization in Korea, NAPSNet Policy Forum, July 6, 2018,

[25] See Lim Dong-won, Peacemaker: Twenty Years of Inter-Korean Issues and the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Stanford: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2012) for a first-hand account of Kim Jong-il’s assertions.

[26] The DPRK’s tactical openings at the UN, described above, are an obvious starting point for such discussions. Even beyond those starting points, negotiators could ask their North Korean counterparts for an explanation of the areas enclosed by fencing and guard towers in the DPRK that are plainly visible on Google Earth and described by former North Korean prisoners as forced labor facilities. Until now, North Korea has denied the existence of political prison camps. If it was possible to discuss extrajudicial executions directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia, is it impossible to discuss extrajudicial detention with North Korean diplomats?

[27] “Singapore to Hanoi: The bumpy diplomatic road since Trump and Kim first met,” Reuters, February 13, 2019.

[28] In the beginning, the China-U.S. human rights dialogue was quite instructive and even somewhat productive. China did accede to a fair number of U.S. human rights “asks.” In fact, those dialogues continue to this day, but with President Xi Jinping’s growing accumulation of power, they have degenerated almost to the point of a charade.

[29] Waiting to raise this risks the likelihood of being accused of “moving the goal posts.”

[30] The White House, “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” June 12, 2018.

[31] North Korea has long wanted a peace treaty with the United States because, in 1950, when MacArthur’s troops forged north of the 38th parallel after repulsing the North Korean invasion of South Korea, U.S. policy was enlarged to seek a “unified, independent and democratic Korea”—a formulation that leaves no space for the DPRK. North Korea thus wanted a legally-binding peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice, which is technically only a military ceasefire. In a peace treaty, the United States would formally agree that North Korea has a place on the Korean peninsula, and that U.S. policy and diplomacy is not (to invert Clausewitz) the continuation of the Korean War by other means. Needless to say, to many, a “unified, independent, and democratic Korea” remains an attractive idea, even if its realization remains elusive. There were Four-Party Talks regarding a peace treaty that involved China, the United States, North Korea, and South Korea during the Clinton administration, but these fizzled-out. The idea has emerged once again, but in the form of a “peace regime” that would also include Russia and Japan as adjacent powers who once fought a war in and over the Korean peninsula. North Korea still regards itself and the U.S. to be the primary parties, and Trump agreed to “join their efforts to build a stable and lasting peace regime.”

[32] A “regime” is usually thought to be more comprehensive than a “treaty.” A “regime” does not necessarily require the two-thirds Senate supermajority vote, which is almost impossible in this hyper-partisan political age.

[33] It is in no country’s interest to resume a devastating conflict on the peninsula. The 1953 armistice has largely held for almost seventy years, despite deviations by various signatories.

[34] For a recent evaluation of these issues see Frank Aum et al., “A Peace Regime for the Korean Peninsula,” U.S. Institute of Peace, no. 157 (Feb. 2020),

[35] During the era of the Agreed Framework and the Six-Party Talks, the U.S. also provided free oil before those negotiations and agreements broke down. The stillborn “Leap Day Agreements” in 2012 promised substantial food aid.

[36] Some humanitarian aid providers in North Korea have been hesitant about associating human rights issues with humanitarian concerns, but it is possible that humanitarian aid organizations are insufficiently aware of North Korea’s post-2014 posture on international human rights.

[37] For example, see “N. Korea blows up joint liaison office in Kaesong,” Yonhap, June 16, 2020, Please see below for a more detailed discussion of these recent events.

[38] See, for example, Choi Sun-young et al, The UN Universal Periodic Review and the DPRK: Monitoring North Korea’s Implementation of Its Recommendations (Seoul: NKDB, 2017) and Hannah Song, Second Chance: North Korea’s Implementation of Its Recommendations During the Second Universal Periodic Review (Seoul: NKDB, 2019).

[39] See, for example, Joseph S. Bermudez, Greg Scarlatoiu, Amanda Mortwedt Oh, and Rosa Park, North Korea’s Long-term Prison-Labor Facility Kyo-hwa-so No. 1, Kaech’ŏn, (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2020).

[40] These overseas laborers work under wage systems that are not compatible with international norms, as stipulated by the International Labour Organization, and often in reprehensible conditions. Unlike the wage system in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where South Korea used to pay the Kim regime in U.S. dollars for the laborers who worked in the South Korean-managed factories, while the workers were paid only pennies on the dollar in non-convertible North Korean won, North Korean workers abroad are paid in convertible foreign currencies and return home either with much more savings than could be earned working in North Korea or with TVs and other consumer goods to sell for profit in North Korean markets. Despite the harsh working conditions of these overseas work sites, North Koreans compete, and often pay bribes, in order to get the highly valued, profitable opportunity to work abroad. Numerous observers believe that the overseas workers, despite the surveillance and control, obtain access to smartphones, which they use to search the worldwide web for Korean language information and programs. These programs and Korean-language websites come, of course, from South Korea, one the world’s most wired countries.

[41] From the outset, the Trump administration declined to fill the Congressionally mandated State Department post of U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues. Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official in the Bush administration official and deputy U.S. negotiator in the Six-Party Talks, posits that the absence of this point person contributed to the U.S. “dropping the ball” at the 2018 Security Council. Victor Cha and Lindsay Lloyd, Regaining Lost Ground in the North Korean Human Rights Movement, The Korea Society, podcast audio, March 26, 2020,

[42] William Gallo, “North Korea Slams ‘Reckless’ US Remarks on Rights Record,” VOA News, December 21, 2019.

[43] Some of North Korea’s successful missile tests traversed Japanese airspace or landed close to Japanese waters. North Korean provocations and the exchange of verbal taunts and threats with the U.S. in 2016 and 2017 were followed by multiple rounds of highly theatrical summit diplomacy in 2018 and 2019: three meetings with U.S. President Trump; three with Chinese President Xi; four with South Korean President Moon; and one with Russian President Putin. Unsurprisingly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe thought it was not in Tokyo’s interest not to be part of this summitry. Hence, a putative olive branch was offered to Pyongyang, although, as yet, to no avail.

[44] UN General Assembly, Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/C.3/74/L.26, (Oct. 31, 2019).  (“Consensus” means that no member state requests a recorded vote on the resolution, usually because there is overwhelming support for the resolution by the member states.)

[45] See Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci, Toward a New Policy and Strategy for North Korea, George W. Bush Institute (2016),

[46] See “Japan: Stand Firm on Rights in North Korea,” Human Rights Watch, February 18, 2020,; and “South Korea: Stand with North Korean Victims,” Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2020,

[47] Deputy Secretary of State and First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively.