December 16, 2022

Up Front: The Role of Civil Society in North Korean Human Rights

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director

December 16, 2022

NOTE: This essay is adapted from remarks delivered by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director, at an International Dialogue on North Korean Human Rights organized by the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Wednesday, December 14, 2022 in Seoul. He spoke during Session 2, which addressed “Roles of Civil Society and International Cooperation.” The other panelists were Professor Eun-Mee Kim (President, Ewha Womans University), James Heenan (Representative, UN OHCHR Office in Seoul), Joanna Hosaniak (Deputy Director-General, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights), and Bum-Soo Kim (Executive Director, Save NK). The recorded livestream of the event can be viewed at this link.

Ambassador Lee Shin-Wha, thank you very much for the kind words and for the invitation to join this august group. I also would like to thank the Ministry of Unification for organizing this conference.

Many words of wisdom have been uttered today. During the first session, Ambassador Lee Jung-Hoon and Professor Victor Cha mentioned a very important endeavor. How do we get Hollywood on board? How do we get celebrities on board?

Remember that not too long ago, before their temporary hiatus, BTS met with President Joe Biden at the White House. Was there one word uttered about North Korean human rights? None. BTS is not just a K-pop band. BTS is a global cultural phenomenon. What a great opportunity. Where are the K-pop artists?

Parasite was the first foreign movie to win the Oscars. They had the world's largest stage. Was there one word uttered about North Korean human rights, or the suffering people of North Korea? Not one. These are the type of challenges we are dealing with. This is where civil society must come in, and push as hard as we can.

Of course, we understand that there are other important issues—political, security, military issues. We understand that there is a certain bias within the national security and diplomatic environment against this issue of human rights, which is sometimes perceived as a nuisance. As Joanna [Hosaniak] was mentioning, we are on the fringes. North Korean human rights is a fringe issue, practically.

In order to understand North Korea, one has to look through the lens of a realist theory of international relations, if you will, even through the lens of offensive realism. From that viewpoint, I suffer from professional cognitive dissonance. I also spend my time as a Wilsonian liberal, trying to affect change through the improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea.

These are all difficult issues that we have to address. We have to compete against other very important human rights crises across the world. This is not to discount the importance of attending to the other human rights crises. The North Korean human rights crisis—in particular, the North Korean refugee crisis—is a slow-motion crisis. There is somehow the impression that this is not as serious as the other terrible things happening in the world. This is where the role of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and civil society organizations (CSO) is very important.

Yesterday, I was having a very interesting conversation with colleagues from the Ministry of Unification about the "three tribes." Ours is the human rights tribe. There is a humanitarian and engagement tribe. There is an unconditional peace tribe as well. Is it possible to bring the three together for the common cause of human rights, democracy, peace, prosperity, reconciliation, and eventual unification for Koreans?

Our distinguished keynote speaker this morning, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has provided us with two answers to how these three groups can be brought together. One of them is what he said this morning. Peace without human rights is meaningless. We have seen attempts at a peace declaration and peace resolutions for the Korean Peninsula. Of course, we are all in favor of peace, and there can be no peace without human rights. That is why the role of civil society is very important. We must remind everyone that there is no such thing as peace devoid of human rights.

While he was Secretary-General, His Excellency Ban Ki-Moon on was very keen on the concept of "Human Rights up Front." As James [Heenan] knows very well, we have been using this term quite liberally in Washington, D.C. We have used this term to refer to an approach to national security and other issues that also factors in human rights and places it up front. In the case of the UN, of course, what it originally meant was that humanitarian interventions must be cognizant of the human rights situation.

I would argue that progress on North Korea is no longer possible without factoring in human rights. We have been using the same methods to address North Korea for more than 30 years now, whether that involves the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, the "Leap Day" agreement, or the summit meetings of the past few years. In a different shape and form, the same errors were committed again and again. Human rights is sacrificed on the altar of security, military, and political issues, which are—of course—very important. Where did that get us?

I hear this all the time: "Oh, human rights in North Korea, that must be a short conversation." Well, I do not mean to take the problem lightly, but how about the nuclear weapons and missiles? How is that going? While not factoring in human rights, the North Koreans have reached the point where they have the capacity to launch 25 missiles during one single day. Perhaps it is time for a different approach that also factors in human rights.

There are responsible UN member states, including the United States and our great allies in the Republic of Korea, that have a keen interest in preserving and improving the international system as we know it. We have nothing better in place. On the other hand, there are also revisionist powers that try to challenge it.

U.S. NGOs and CSOs also feel the pressure. My organization was fortunate to acquire UN ECOSOC consultative status. My good friend Nam Ba-Da and our colleagues at PSCORE also have that consultative status and know how difficult it is to obtain it. Why do pro-democracy and pro-human rights organizations have such a hard time getting in? The answer is simple. Because revisionist powers, who are not exactly beacons of human rights or democracy, hold the key to access to the UN system through the NGO Committee. The only way to do it is to get rejected at the NGO Committee and then overturn it at ECOSOC. This takes support from many member states, including the United States, Canada, and the European Union. NGOs are also feeling this pressure, and North Korean human rights NGOs are also feeling this pressure.

Very important issues have been mentioned today. CSOs can play a very important role in the implementation of these issues at the United Nations. For a few years now, the North Korean human rights issue at the Security Council has been discussed as "AOB," any other business. As Joanna [Hosaniak] was saying, crimes against humanity do not qualify as "any other business." They are much graver than just that. Following the UN Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the issue was placed on the agenda of the UN Security Council for several years. This is a procedural matter. It takes 9 out of 15 votes of permanent and non-permanent members to hold a discussion. I can assure you that my colleagues in the audience and on the podium know that CSOs play a very important role in liaising with UN member states and UN agencies. Documentation is very important, and also providing this type of information is extraordinarily important.

In the United States, we need a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights to play the extraordinary role that Ambassador Robert King played until February 2017. He was more than just a Special Envoy. We in the NGO community know that he was our best friend and our cheerleader. It was very important to have that cheerleader in that position because of the difficulties we face.

Here in South Korea, there is the eternal drama of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation. This issue has been politicized for far too long. Our South Korean friends, allies, and partners need to move beyond this. It will be for the benefit of not only NGOs based here in South Korea that address North Korean human rights, but also to all NGOs that work on the issue.

Fundamentally, what we need is a paradigm shift, a paradigm shift that continues to address all of these important issues that threaten the lives of millions in Northeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific, and beyond. As we address these issues, it is also very important to include human rights in this new paradigm.

This, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, is our greatest challenge moving forward.

Thank you very much.