June 22, 2023

North Korean Human Rights: The Path Ahead

By Dr. Kim Dong-su, Senior Advisor to the Institute for National Security Strategy

June 22, 2023

Dr. Kim Dong-su, Senior Advisor to the Institute for National Security Strategy, is a former North Korean diplomat who last served at North Korea’s mission to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome before defecting in 1998. Since arriving in South Korea, he has written extensively on North Korea’s foreign policy and regime structure. He recently served as an advisor to the Yoon Suk-yeol Presidential Transition Committee and a visiting scholar at Waseda University. Dr. Kim has a B.A. in Political Science from Dar-es-Salaam National University and the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Kyungnam University.

The following text is adapted from remarks delivered at "North Korean Human Rights: Is There Still a Way Forward?," a conference hosted by HRNK, the Hoover Institution, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on May 18, 2023 at NED’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. 


The Kim Jong-un regime presents a challenge of the utmost urgency to the international community. Without denuclearization and fundamental political change in North Korea, peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula will only be an illusion. Likewise, the values of freedom and human rights on the Korean Peninsula will not be truly realized either. To achieve denuclearization and internal political change, we first need to carefully assess the situation the Kim Jong-un regime is facing, as well as the steps that it may take. 

The current situation in North Korea is defined by four characteristics: i) rapid nuclear advancement; ii) severe economic hardship; iii) deepening public discontent and widening social unrest; and iv) intensifying coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment against the population.

As most of the national budget is spent on developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and missiles, the North Korean people are facing an economic catastrophe. Moreover, in the past few years, North Korea has been battered on three fronts: sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and natural disasters. This has exacerbated the shortage of goods and food supplies. Recently, there have been cases of starvation.

This has given rise to greater public discontent in North Korea. The regime is losing popular support, and the influence of South Korean popular culture is expanding across the country. Under these circumstances, the Kim Jong-un regime has intensified its reign of terror as it commits egregious human rights violations. It has enacted unjust laws such as the “Anti-Reactionary Thought and Culture Act” and the “Youth Education Act." 

In this way, the Kim Jong-un regime's excessive obsession with nuclear weapons leads to a vicious cycle of severe economic difficulties, greater suffering among the people, deepening popular discontent, and harsher surveillance and repression.


The Future of North Korea’s Human Rights Diplomacy

Over the past decade, many international entities and countries, including the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK , the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the UN, the European Union (EU), the United States, and Japan—together with many other NGOs in South Korea and elsewhere—have persistently advocated for and promoted North Korean human rights.

Through such efforts, the human rights situation in North Korea has been exposed to the world. This includes the situation in North Korea’s kwan-li-so (political prison camps), kyo-hwa-so (long-term prison labor facilities), and jip-kyul-so (short-term detention facilities), where detainees are publicly executed, and egregious human rights violations are committed. Violations of women’s rights and children’s rights have been brought to light, including the use of children for forced labor.

There have been more opportunities for North Korean escapees to testify on the international stage, resulting in greater international attention toward the issue. This has made it considerably more difficult for North Korea to address the issue through diplomacy.

Through the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Seoul office, which specializes in investigating North Korea’s human rights violations, there is now a greater capacity to document and collect evidence of human rights violations in North Korea. Meanwhile, the Kim Jong-un regime continues to purge and execute officials and take severe measures to block the inflow of outside information.

Following the release of the UN COI report in 2014, North Korea largely ignored human rights on the international stage. However, the international community has been more assertive toward North Korea on this issue. Specifically, the work of the UN COI and NGOs such as NKFC and HRNK in Seoul, London, Washington, D.C., and Tokyo helped to investigate and document the human rights situation in North Korea. The willingness of many North Korean escapees to provide testimony seemed to indicate that the Kim Jong-un regime’s days were numbered. 

Going forward, North Korea’s diplomacy on human rights is likely to focus on preventing Kim Jong-un’s name from being directly tied to documentation and accountability initiatives. To do so, North Korea will firmly shut its doors. It will cease contact, exchange, and dialogue with international human rights institutions, human rights organizations, and human rights activists.

At the same time, however, North Korea will seek to counter international pressure on human rights by seeking help from its close allies on the international stage. Pyongyang will engage with individual states and do everything it can to prevent Kim Jong-un’s name from being included in UN human rights resolutions. 

In particular, North Korea will frame criticisms of its human rights record as a scheme to subvert the regime, and thereby further justify the development of nuclear weapons as a means of protection. It will heighten political tensions and pressure South Korea to break away from international efforts to address North Korean human rights.

Over the past few years, efforts to address North Korean human rights on the international stage have been successful in several ways. The UN has taken a proactive role in comprehensively investigating human rights violations in North Korea. Specifically, the presence of the OHCHR’s Seoul office provides a lasting, institutional basis for systematically documenting North Korean human rights issues. It appears that North Korea is paying very close attention to these efforts by the international community to address the human rights issue.

Going forward, North Korea will react aggressively to the international community’s action on human rights, which it regards as part of a “peaceful transition strategy” to overthrow the regime. At the same time, North Korea will try to fundamentally block the West’s calls to improve human rights, emphasizing its "political autonomy" and "right to development." Moreover, to deflect criticisms of its human rights record, North Korea will persistently raise human rights issues in South Korea, the United States, and Japan.

How to Raise the Profile of North Korean Human Rights

From now on, we must develop and execute an intensive campaign of psychological warfare to blow the wind of freedom and truth into North Korea, which stands on a sand castle of the worst lies and fabrications in the world. Comprehensive psychological warfare against the highly closed North Korean regime will be more powerful than nuclear weapons.

We have the responsibility to raise awareness among the international community about the worst human rights situation in the world. At the same time, we must also seek ways to inform the North Korean people about freedom, democracy, and human rights, so that they can resist the tyrannical regime. For this purpose, the Yoon Suk-yeol government must place the protection of the North Korean people’s human rights, as well as the improvement of their economic rights, at the very center of its North Korea policy.

The people of North Korea, who are citizens of the Republic of Korea (ROK) pursuant to the ROK Constitution, are dying away as slaves of the Kim family. No objective—be it unification, exchange, cooperation, or peace—can take precedence over the North Korean people's right to live or their human rights. In other words, any policy towards North Korea which ignores the suffering of the North Korean people is bound to be hypocritical.

If the North Korean people are neglected, any related act and even unification itself are bound to be hypocritical. This is because the ultimate purpose of North Korea policy or unification policy is not to maintain peace or secure power, but to firstly liberate the North Korean people from slavery. If that is not the goal, then there is no reason to deal with North Korea or seek unification. It would be enough to protect ourselves and ensure our own safety.

The experiences of the past half century and recent years have clearly shown that the Kim dynasty will never change its ways. Moreover, considering the Kim regime’s nature, history, and institutional structure, it is meaningless to seek reconciliation, negotiation, compromise, or coexistence with the Kim regime. It is also clear that the Kim dynasty remains the source of all evils that arise from the division of the Korean Peninsula, including nuclear and missile issues, human rights violations, threats to national security, and the “South-South divide” in South Korea.

In this context, I believe it is necessary to set a basic direction for international efforts to promote human rights in North Korea. It is necessary to actively raise the issue of human rights through the UN and other related institutions which North Korea has joined. In addition, it would be productive to discuss North Korean human rights in the context of economic & security cooperation. Creating a new regional human rights body in the region would also provide a forum for discussing North Korean human rights.

It is especially important for the Yoon administration to work together with the rapidly growing network of domestic and international human rights NGOs to call for improvement of human rights in North Korea.

There are three priorities in this regard. First, it is necessary to raise North Korean human rights issues more proactively at the UN. Second, it is critical to discuss human rights in North Korea within the framework of economic or security cooperation. A new regional human rights body could be created for such discussions as well. Third, it is of paramount importance to institutionalize cooperation with human rights NGOs, and to actively support human rights NGOs led by North Korean escapees.

The North Korean human rights issue is critical because the action we take on this issue can catalyze changes in not only the consciousness and ideology of the North Korean people, but also the political system in North Korea. To facilitate political change in North Korea and address its serious human rights situation, it is imperative to develop a strategy aimed at specific segments of the population: the ruling elite; the middle class, who are forced to blindly obey the regime; and the lower class, which Kim Jong-un ignores.

To realize these objectives, we need a massive information campaign to send information into North Korea about what is happening in South Korea and the world; about freedom, human rights, and the superiority of democracies; and about reform and opening. This can be via radio broadcasts, print media, movies, music, and other means. It is important that the North Korean people, including soldiers, develop an accurate understanding of freedom and democracy.

By doing so, we can empower the North Korean people by enabling them to clearly recognize the repressive nature of the Kim Jong-un regime and become the driving force of opening and reform, which will lead to unification under a liberal democratic form of government. There is a surging demand for information among the North Korean people and North Korean soldiers.

To the key ruling elite of North Korea, we need to disseminate information about high-ranking North Korean officials, possible succession scenarios after Kim Jong-un, South Korea’s policy toward North Korea, and how this policy is being implemented.

To the leadership of the Korean People’s Army, we specifically need to send in information about the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance, President Yoon’s recent state visit to Washington, the nature and objectives of the Kim regime, the capabilities of the ROK military, and the ROK’s military strategy.

To the North Korean population, including the youth, it would be valuable to disseminate Korean cultural content and American movies (such as action and martial arts movies), games, the Bible and other religious materials (including print materials), and documentaries on human rights.


In light of growing international interest in and action on North Korea’s human rights situation, it is becoming increasingly critical for the Yoon administration to pursue a North Korean human rights policy.

To raise the profile of North Korean human rights issues on the international stage and facilitate political change in North Korea, the Yoon administration must closely cooperate with NGOs led by North Korean escapees. This is an urgent priority, just as much as the nuclear issue.

Many escapee-led organizations have long dedicated themselves to bringing freedom to North Korea, with an emphasis on human rights. These organizations have the capacity to be a strategic asset for the Yoon administration, which has proclaimed a principled approach to North Korean policy.

The General Association of North Korean Human Rights Organizations, a coalition of 23 organizations based in South Korea, is carrying out a wide range of activities for the cause of human rights and democracy in North Korea.

Escapee-led organizations which many of you know well, including the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, Free North Korea Radio, Free North Korea Movement Alliance, North Korea Strategy Center, and North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, are preparing for a new leap forward after enduring a hostile political atmosphere under the previous administration.

Mr. Kim Seong-min, the founder of the General Association of North Korean Human Rights Organizations and the leader of Free North Korea Radio, stresses that “North Korean escapees have a responsibility to fight for the North Korean people’s right to know, which is crucial for North Korea’s democratization and the unification of the Korean Peninsula as a free and open country.”

Park Sang-hak, Heo Kwang-il, Kim Heung-kwang, and Jang Se-yool, who are part of the General Association of North Korean Human Rights Organizations, sent hundreds of thousands of leaflets and 5,000 USBs to the North via balloons on April 12. This was in direct opposition to the so-called “Anti-Leaflet Law,” an unjust law that was passed under the Moon Jae-in administration. 

Kim Seong-min and other leaders in the escapee community have all said that Suzanne Scholte’s Defense Forum Foundation provided invaluable support when the Moon administration harshly suppressed the activities of North Korean escapees. They have also said that the sending of leaflet balloons these past few years would not have been possible without the support of Ms. Suzanne Scholte’s NKFC and individual American citizens who were driven by a sense of justice.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Suzanne Scholte, whom many escapees regard as the godmother of the North Korean human rights movement. 

I would also like to express my gratitude and respect for all American citizens who have lent their support to the work of North Korean escapees in our struggle for freedom and democracy in North Korea.

Thank you very much for your attention.