October 13, 2023

A Window of Opportunity: Addressing the Human Rights-Security Nexus in North Korea

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director

October 13, 2023

Photo Credit: travelview - stock.adobe.com

The following essay is adapted from virtual remarks delivered to an event hosted by HRNK Canada in Ottawa on September 28, 2023. The text has been updated to reflect recent developments. 

I gained an interest in North Korean human rights because I was born and raised in communist Romania, the one communist country in Eastern Europe that was closest to North Korea. Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il-sung were very close friends as well. I was on the streets in December 1989 when the Ceaușescu regime fell. I was 19 years old and a first-year student at Bucharest University majoring in English language and literature. More than a thousand of my peers, members of the same generation, died in the streets. I was old enough to be a part of that.
I then took exams for overseas scholarships and became the first Romanian ever to study in South Korea. I went to South Korea and received one year of language training, as well as a BA and MA, from Seoul National University. I worked in media broadcasting in South Korea for a few years. Then, I went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and in 2002 I relocated with my family to Washington, D.C., where I worked in international development for six years. After working at the Korea Economic Institute for three years, I have been executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) since July 2011.
This is a very personal issue to me. Ceaușescu wanted to turn Romania into the North Korea of Eastern Europe. Then I spent ten years on a divided Korean Peninsula while studying, working, and living in South Korea. Initially, I thought like many others that North Korea would collapse because communism had collapsed in so many other places, in Eastern Europe in particular. But then during the days of the Great Famine, the days of the gonan-ui haenggun (Arduous March), I came to the realization that this was an entirely different situation. That is when I acquired this interest in North Korean human rights, which was almost 30 years ago.

North Korean Human Rights: An Overview
North Korea is a party to multiple international instruments: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a UN member state; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. North Korea has a constitution that includes, amazingly, human rights as well, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression. And yet, each and every human right is violated in North Korea.
The worst human rights violations happen at North Korea’s detention facilities, including its kwan-li-so political prison camps, kyo-hwa-so reeducation-through-labor camps, and also at short-term detention facilities. If they are short-term, it does not mean that human rights violations do not happen there. We conducted a study with the International Bar Association and a law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, on short-term detention facilities. This investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that crimes against humanity are occurring at short-term detention facilities also. Egregious human rights violations, especially perpetrated against women forcibly repatriated from China, happen at these facilities.
We have identified several trends under Kim Jong-un through satellite imagery analysis and North Korean escapee testimony. Number one, some detention facilities that were close to the border with China have been shut down and detainees were moved inland. Detention facilities inland have expanded. Camp 25 is one such example. Second, women have taken the brunt of human rights abuse. During and after the Arduous March, the gonan-ui haenggun, women assumed primary responsibility for the survival of their families. They are the ones who go to the jangmadang, the market; the nongmin sijang, the farmers’ market; or the amsijang, the black market. They are the main market agents. They are the ones who are arrested and punished, sometimes tortured or imprisoned, for perceived wrongdoing at the markets.
Women also often cross the border into China without official approval. The goal is to end up in a third country and then in South Korea or other countries. They are in search of economic opportunity. We have a serious problem with China when it comes to North Korean refugees. China is a party to the 1951 Convention Concerning the Status of Refugees and the 1967 additional protocol. These North Korean refugees in China, eighty percent of whom are women, are returned to North Korea, where they are tortured, imprisoned, and sometimes killed. We have had terrible reports of forced abortions performed on women with children of Chinese men—infanticide. People of religious faith are particularly in danger. 
According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, if individuals return to a place where they face a credible fear of persecution, they qualify to have access to the process leading to acquiring political refugee status. There are at least 2,000 North Korean refugees in detention in China awaiting forcible repatriation now that North Korea is gradually opening its borders post-COVID, and there are reports from reliable sources that some of these refugees may already have been sent back to North Korea. There are many human rights groups that are doing their best to prevent the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.

The Human Rights-Security Nexus
The February 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea recommended the referral of the North Korean regime and its leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC). North Korea is not a party to the 2002 Rome Statute that established the ICC, so it would take a referral by the UN Security Council.
The UN Security Council is deeply divided. There are the status quo powers amongst the five permanent (P5) members of the Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. On the other hand, there are the revisionist powers, Russia and China. We all know the abomination of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the tremendous human suffering that this invasion has caused in Ukraine. A veto by a P5 member can block the referral, and it is practically certain that China or Russia would veto the referral of the North Korean case to the ICC.
If we look at recent history, there have been special tribunals such as the ICTY—the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Rwanda was another precedent. In each case, it required a resolution of the UN Security Council. Even if it is difficult, it does not mean we should give up. We should press for the referral. Every time China vetoes an attempt to refer Kim Jong-un to the ICC, it paints itself into a corner as a P5 member that aids and abets a regime that commits crimes against humanity. I think that the role of civil society is very important here. Civil society is very creative. Many of us have tried a lot of different ways and means, including mock trials. I think eventually that creative solutions will come from civil society.
North Korea’s human rights violations and crimes against humanity threaten international peace and security. There is a clear security-human rights nexus. Why? For two main reasons. Reason number one: the North Korean regime oppresses and exploits its own people at home and abroad to procure the resources it needs to develop its nuclear program. Reason number two: what the United States, Canada, and the international community want is CVID—complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. How can one have CVID if there is no access to the political prison camps? One camp in particular comes to mind. Camp 16 is very close to the nuclear test facilities at Punggye-ri. We are just about to publish a very interesting report that establishes a connection between the two facilities.
North Korean human rights violations threaten international peace and security because they are instrumentalized by the Kim regime to procure the resources it needs to develop its nuclear program. Since the regime does not admit to the existence of these camps, there is also the possibility of concealing equipment, for example. CVID is impossible without access to the political prison camps.

The North Korean Human Rights Act in the United States
We have a problem with the North Korean Human Rights Act in the United States. It has not been reauthorized yet. S. 4216 was introduced by Congresswoman Young Kim on the House side and by Senator Marco Rubio on the Senate side. It has not passed so far, and it is very unlikely that it will pass by the end of this month. The new reauthorized version would authorize the appropriation of $10 million each year. Initially, it was from 2023 to 2027. We hope the reauthorization will pass. It will probably be 2024 to 2028, $10 million each year for ongoing programs managed by the U.S. State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Agency for Global Media to improve access to information in North Korea, to promote democracy and human rights, and provide humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees.
What is my assessment of the bill so far? In terms of documentation of North Korean human rights abuses supported by the U.S. State Department—the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in particular—and the National Endowment for Democracy, the record is positive. We know much more about the North Korean human rights situation through the efforts of such agencies and organizations.
In the information field, there are groups that have been quite successful. There is a North Korean information firewall. Eventually, that information firewall will fall. Things were very difficult under COVID. North Korea cracked down very hard on information coming in from the outside world, those attempting to distribute such information, and those attempting to access such information. It is a difficult environment, and now we have a gradual opening of the border. We will see what impact that has on information.
In terms of the refugee element, we have not done too well. The number of North Korean refugees that have resettled in the United States after requesting asylum is very low, just about 240. There are many factors behind this. The U.S. debriefing process takes longer than the South Korean debriefing process. On the other hand, throughout their lives, they have been taught that the United States is the greatest enemy of Korea, and it is very difficult to get over this psychological obstacle.
In South Korea, the same language is spoken, and there are resettlement allowances and vocational training. The system is not perfect, but the people and the government have tried hard to assist North Korean refugees. Many of them have had trouble. It is a very different society, after all. This tells us that there is a need for information enhancing the understanding of the United States and what the United States stands for as we approach North Korean refugees who are in transit in third countries.

The North Korean Human Rights Act in South Korea
South Korea has enacted a North Korean Human Rights Act of its own, but it has not been fully implemented. The problem is with the Human Rights Foundation because of disagreement between the two sides of the aisle. This foundation has not become operational yet. To deal with this issue, the previous unification minister, Minister Kwon Young-se, established a Human Rights Promotion Committee with fifteen outstanding individuals with expertise in North Korean human rights.
There is disagreement over the board membership of the foundation. This is the fundamental issue. According to the law, the unification minister is tasked with nominating two candidates for the board of directors. The ruling party and the opposition parties are charged with nominating five candidates each. Due to disagreement between the two main political parties, no one has been appointed to the foundation’s inaugural board in the past seven years.
If you ask me whether there will be some movement and positive change here, the elections next April will likely be a decisive factor in the operation of the Human Rights Foundation. The unfortunate thing is that human rights is being politicized. Human rights in general and human rights in North Korea should not be politicized in democratic countries, such as the United States, Canada, or South Korea.

Human Rights Up Front: A Window of Opportunity
Canada has been a great champion of human rights in general and human rights in North Korea in particular. I think that the establishment of a Canadian special envoy for North Korean human rights would be a very important step. Coordination will be very important moving ahead. There could be political shifts in South Korea a couple of years from now, so we have a very narrow window of opportunity to coordinate on and address North Korean human rights.
President Joe Biden, President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Prime Minister Kishida had a very good meeting at Camp David. They mentioned human rights, but it is not necessarily an area where there is a coherent strategy. The promoters of North Korean human rights on the international scene and at the UN—the United States, South Korea, the European Union, Canada, and Japan—can definitely achieve even better coordination if Canada passes a North Korean human rights act, and in particular if it creates a special envoy position.
The United States passed a North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, and others—including South Korea—have passed such acts also. Human rights violations in North Korea will continue unless these laws become part of a coherent “human rights up front” policy that elevates human rights to a position comparable to that of political, security, and military issues. For more than 30 years, human rights has been sacrificed on the altar of political, military, and security issues. As I mentioned earlier, there is a clear security-human rights nexus when it comes to North Korea. Without addressing human rights, it is impossible to resolve the security issues.