June 06, 2017

North Korea’s Tactics of Human Rights Deception

By Robert Collins

The United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, visited North Korea May 3-8 to discuss her area of responsibility as it applies to North Korea. This was the first trip ever by a UN Special Rapporteur to North Korea. One of the arguments put forth by UN member states that do not support the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK Human Rights Issues is that they oppose country-specific mechanisms. It will be interesting to see if the precedent created by Ms. Aguilar’s visit has an impact on the chances of SR Tomás Ojea Quintana to conduct a country visit, despite statements to the contrary issued by North Korean propaganda. But the recent visit was also a trip that played right into the Kim Regime’s hands in their dealing with the international community on human rights issues.

As background, in December of 2016, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) Supreme People’s Assembly ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[1] Article 2 of this convention states that “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or their parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status."[2]

In typical form, North Korean officials took advantage of the opportunity of Aguilar’s visit to insist that it would “promote the rights and conveniences of those with disabilities and strengthen international cooperation.” In that sense, Aguilar’s visit made progress in a limited way regarding human rights in North Korea. Some may see this as advancement of the cause but a closer look shows its limitations.

First, the rights of those with disabilities are the easiest to demonstrate proof of implementation because of the physicality of the issue and its much smaller role in North Korean society compared to overall human rights abuses. There is evidence that North Korea attempts to assist those with disabilities and there is some photographic evidence of prosthetics production and rehabilitation facilities.[3] Secondly, the North Koreans took Aguilar to an orphanage in South Hwanghae Province. Why there? The province borders Pyongyang to the south, but are there no orphanages in Pyongyang? [4] It has often been reported that those with disabilities are moved out of Pyongyang by the party-state.[5] Finally, the Kim Regime’s ability to stage events to deceive foreign diplomats and visitors is renowned…just ask the International Atomic Energy Agency and any humanitarian NGO that operated in North Korea in the 1990’s. 

There is significant testimony from North Korean defectors concerning overall human rights abuses, including those against individuals with disabilities.[6] Although North Korea insists that it will not tolerate the testimony of 30,000 defectors,[7] the reality is that human rights denial is the express policy of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). It should be evident to the most casual of observers—and unfortunately it is often not—that while the DPRK Government projects human rights observance, it is not any branch the DPRK Government, but the KWP, which runs the country and on which the Kim Regime is based, that determines all policy within North Korea. The KWP Charter states this 35 times.[8] Yet the international community ignores this dynamic to its perpetual disadvantage by believing engagement with DPRK Government officials—rather than the applicable KWP officials—will make a difference. We should also notice that the Korea Central News Agency stated during Aguilar’s visit that “we shall never acknowledge the United Nations special rapporteur on the DPRK human rights issues…”[9]

All Kim Regime policies are shaped by the Ten Great Principles of Monolithic Ideology (TPMI) which puts all regime values, policy shaping, and citizenship guidance in the focus of servitude to the supreme leader. It is this creed that shapes the regime’s true approach to human rights and not the state constitution or state civil law.

There are those who believe North Korea’s voluntary changes to its national constitution in 2009 and to its civil law were designed to provide more specific attention to human rights in North Korea.[10] They would state that international efforts to confront DPRK officials with non-binding resolutions and personal confrontation at various committees within the United Nations have thus been effective. But those that draw attention to these so-called “successes” and “improvements” do not understand that their efforts have merely provided the North Korean party-state and party officials with “human rights language” whose inclusion in reformed DPRK laws gives the veneer of compliance to international human rights norms and standards.

Yes, signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a positive step and can be seen as a small victory in a large battle. However, any belief that these changes to the language in their laws actually result in changes to human rights conditions inside North Korea is not only misplaced, but also misinformed about the Kim Regime’s nature and political will to retain power at any cost, including the sacrifice of the North Korean people, especially their human rights. Understanding the nature of the Kim Regime is simple enough—security of the absolute dictator is paramount; whatever sacrifices have to be made to ensure that security will be made. There are several litmus tests that provide ample evidence to this principle:

· The prioritization of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs and the North Korean military over the general economy and the population’s health and welfare;
· Numerous violations of and withdrawal from international conventions;
· Sacrificing the operational and efficacy competence of the industrial and agricultural sector;
· The existence of political prison camps that are based on the TPMI and guilt by association, thus ensuring the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands who committed a crime that does not exist in any law elsewhere save the most despotic of regimes.

But as most informed people know, human rights conditions in North Korea are worse than that. Political prison camps, socio-political classification of the population, healthcare, employment and housing assignments based on that classification, and food shortages are all substantiated elements of the Kim Regime’s policy of human rights denial.[11]

Projecting legitimacy on international stages such as the United Nations by DPRK diplomats is a front to disguise and hide the Kim Regime’s crimes against humanity. When compelled to accept external aid and assistance, foreign workers of all types are sequestered and continuously monitored to ensure “they don’t collect state secrets.” But this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of human rights violations.

It is the mission of North Korean diplomats and government representatives to play the front man when dealing with officials such as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These diplomats take their guidance from the KWP, not their government supervisors. The collection of information on human rights organizations strategies and dialogue talking points enables the party to redirect DPRK vernacular to satisfy those so willing to believe North Korea is cooperating.

Any place else in the world, change is the illusion of progress but in North Korea the illusion of change is progress in the eyes of the supreme leader and the KWP.


[1] Yonhaps News, “N.K. attaches importance to int'l cooperation in human rights,” May 10, 2017. URL: http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2017/05/10/0401000000AEN20170510002300315.html.
[2] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. November 20, 1989.
[3] Katharina Zellweger, “People with Disabilities in a Changing North Korea,” Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, 2014. URL: http://aparc.stanford.edu.
[4] Dagyum Ji, “North Korea willing to “faithfully implement” intl. human rights treaties: KCNA,” NKNews, May 10, 2017. URL: https://www.nknews.org/2017/05/north-korea-willing-to-faithfully-implement-intl-human-rights-treaties-kcna/.
[5] For Instance, see “North Korea Puts Handicapped in Camps, U.N. Report Says,” Mail Online, October 20, 2006. URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-411648/North-Korea-puts-handicapped-camps-U-N-report-says.html; see also testimony of refugee Lee XX during an in­terview at KINU, 2006 White Paper, 106; see also U.S. Department of State, 2010 Country Reports on Hu­man Rights Practices: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2011.
[6] Julian Ryall, “North Korea's disappeared: regime 'performs experiments on disabled people before leaving them to die,' Telegraph, December 11, 2014. URL. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/11286517/North-Korea-leaves-disabled-to-die.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2ASituation%20Report&utm_campaign=Sit%20Rep%20December%2012%202014; see also Lee Aeran et al, “Disabled in North Korea Confined to Homes, Expelled from Capital,” Radio Free Asia, June 13, 2007. URL: http://www.rfa.org/english/korea/nkorea_disabled-20070613.html.
[7] Dagyum Ji, “North Korea willing to “faithfully implement” intl. human rights treaties: KCNA,” NKNews, May 10, 2017. URL: https://www.nknews.org/2017/05/north-korea-willing-to-faithfully-implement-intl-human-rights-treaties-kcna/.
[8] For an explanation of North Korea’s regime approach to policy-making and decision-making processes, see Jun Hyun-jun, Jeong Yeong-tae, Choi Su-yeong and Lee Gi-dong, 김정일 정권 등장 이후 북한의 체제유지 정책 고찰과 변화 전망 (Considering Policies For Maintaining North Korea’s System After Kim Jong-il and the Outlook For Change) (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification, KINU Research Report 08-08, December 2008); pages 201-219; see also the Korean Workers’ Party Charter (in Korean), 2010, provided by the Republic of Korea Ministry of Government Legislation’s North Korea Laws Information Center. URL: http://world.moleg.go.kr/KP/law/24980?astSeq=580.
[9] Dagyum Ji, “North Korea willing to “faithfully implement” intl. human rights treaties: KCNA,” NKNews, May 10, 2017. URL: https://www.nknews.org/2017/05/north-korea-willing-to-faithfully-implement-intl-human-rights-treaties-kcna/.
[10] For a review of those changes, see Lee Kyu-chang, “김성은 후계구도와 북한 인권 – 인권 관련 법령 정비를 종심으로 (Kim Jong-un’s Succession Structure and North Korean Human Rights – Focus on Changes to Laws Concerning Human Rights), Korea Institute for National Unification, Online Series CO 11-11, April 6, 2011. URL: http://www.kinu.or.kr.
[11] Food is a critical shortcoming in North Korea and millions suffer accordingly everyday if not every hour. The great famine in the 1990’s killed at least a half a million if not twice that during a time when U.S. and ROK aid to North Korea combined were at one of their highest points, as was the degree of interference by North Korean officials in the humanitarian work of international NGO workers trying to alleviate famine conditions inside North Korea.