North Korea’s human rights record is a key factor in Washington’s policy toward the Communist state, said U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Improving human rights conditions is a top U.S. priority in our North Korea policy and it will have a significant impact on the prospect for closer U.S.-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] ties,” he said.
Visiting South Korea for a Nuclear Security Summit, the president responded to questions submitted to an “Ask President Obama” forum via social media. “The United States remains deeply concerned about the well-being of the North Korean people, the human rights situation in the DPRK and the plight of North Korean refugees,” Obama said in response to a question from a North Korean defector living in the South.
“The United States has led efforts around the globe to call attention to the human rights situation in North Korea,” he said. “Your personal story of courage is remarkable and a testament to the possibility for North Koreans to lead lives in freedom and dignity.”
The uncertain leadership transition in Pyongyang is both a problem and an opportunity, Obama said over the weekend.
“As you have a leadership transition you have an opportunity for change, and for things to move in a different direction,” he said. “You also have an opportunity for bad habits to fester.”
North Korea’s record offers little encouragement that progress can be made on human rights, writes Brookings Institution analyst Roberta Cohen, co-chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK):
Despite hopes, even predictions that Kim Jong Il’s death might usher in progress on human rights in North Korea, no change is yet discernible. North Korean defectors have long speculated that Kim Jong Un would not enjoy the same lockstep support commanded by his father and grandfather and might have to respond in some measure to popular needs and aspirations. The North Korean economy, moreover, might not survive without reform. Even though the government periodically clamps down on private market activity, the people, including some in the government, are increasingly showing themselves to be of a “market mentality.” Since they will not easily relinquish this reliance, it could pave the way toward greater economic freedom and ultimately political reform. New information technology is further eroding the isolation imposed by the regime.
Is this wishful thinking? Even assuming Kim Jong Un were inclined to promote change (a very big unknown), could he do it? He is surrounded by his father’s advisers and hard line repression continues while he consolidates his authority. As one expert put it, Kim Jong Un will not be able “to depart from his father’s legacy until he has fully established himself as the new ruler.” But “the longer he spends strengthening his position based on the same system of brutal repression, the less of a chance he will have to break away.” Arrests and purges have accompanied his ascension to power, reinforced by the support of those in the military, party and elite who stand to benefit from the regime’s continuation.
Tacit support has been given to Kim Jong Un by the international community. Wary of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and aggressive stance toward the South, and fearful of possible refugee flows and instability, China, the United States and other countries have made ‘stability’ their principal objective. However, in the process of doing so, they have largely sidelined the equally compelling need for justice and human rights.
Of course, unexpected changes can take place in countries deemed unlikely for human rights reform. They may arise less from external pressure than from the ripening of conditions inside the country toward openness and change. Or they may arise from governmental steps to institute reforms to ensure the regime’s survival and secure international aid.
Nonetheless, it is important to identify the signs to look for when trying to gauge whether Pyongyang’s new leaders are ready to head in new directions:
- Will North Korea take steps to establish a dialogue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights?
- Will North Korea invite for a visit the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK?
- Will North Korea agree to implement any of the recommendations made at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR)?
- Will North Korea provide information to other human rights bodies?
- Will North Korea amnesty political prisoners and make information available about those released?
- Will North Korea allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Program (WFP) or UNICEF into the penal labor camps?
- Will North Korea agree to release more abducted foreigners and give a full accounting of those held?
- Will North Koreans continue to suffer severe punishment for leaving their country without permission?
- Will North Korea introduce human rights education for its population and disseminate to schools, offices and institutions a Korean language text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and copies of the human rights treaties to which it has acceded?
- Will North Korea allow food aid to reach the hungry and take steps to increase the health and nutritional status of its population?
Still, it cannot be ruled out that at some point, its new leaders may find it beneficial to distance themselves from the terrible excesses and cruelty of the Kim Jong Il regime in order to salvage its economy, gain support at home, improve its international image or reap the benefits of stronger ties with the international community. Disagreement may exist within the North Korean power structure about the future directions of the country. One way to test the intent and mettle of Kim Jong Un and his advisers is to examine their actions in light of the above criteria.
The above extract is from a longer analysis available at 38 North, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (USKI), managed by Joel S. Wit, former U.S. State Department official and current USKI Visiting Scholar, and Jenny Town, USKI Research Associate. Feedback and questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) holds a one-day conference in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, 10 April 2012, entitled “Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Political Prisoner Camp System & Calling for Its Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement”. The conference is organized together with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, and will be hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics at the C. Fred Bergsten Conference Center (1750 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036).
Presenters include: Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-hyuk, authors of “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West”, Kang Chol-hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”, and Gordon Chang, author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World”.
Luncheon keynote addresses will be given by Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Human Rights, and Mr. Marzuki Darusman, UN Special Rapporteur on the North Korean Human Rights Situation.
Titles of the five panels are as follows:
1: Hidden Gulag 2: Born in the Hidden Gulag 3: Women and the Hidden Gulag 4: Lessons Learned from the Dismantlement of Nazi Concentration Camps and the Soviet Gulag 5: Seeking Legal and International Human Rights Remedies and Dealing with Prisoners’ Claims
For more information, please click on: draft conference agenda
Those wishing to attend should contact:
Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director Committee for Human Rights in North Korea 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 435 Washington, D.C. 20036 Phone (202) 499-7973 www.hrnk.org
Presented by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
RSVP to email@example.com
8:00 a.m. Breakfast and registration
8:45 a.m. Welcoming remarks: Roberta Cohen, Chair, HRNK, Non-resident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, HRNK.
9:00 a.m. Introductory remarks: Christopher Smith, Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives (invited)
9:30 a.m. Panel 1:“Hidden Gulag”
U.S. presenter: David Hawk, Author, “Hidden Gulag First & Second Edition”
Korean presenter: Yeosang Yoon, President, North Korean Human Rights Archives, NKDB
U.S. discussant: Gordon Flake, Executive Committee Member, HRNK
Executive Director, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation/HRNK
Korean discussant: Chanil An, President, World Federation of North Korean Refugees (WINK)
Moderator: Nicholas Eberstadt, Board Member, HRNK, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy, American Enterprise Institute
10:45 a.m. Coffee break
10:55 a.m. Panel 2: “Born in the Hidden Gulag”
Presenters: Blaine Harden, Author, Washington Post; Shin Dong-hyuk, Author, Former political prisoner
Korean discussant: Kang Chol-hwan, Author, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”, President, North Korea Strategy Center
U.S. discussant: Gordon Chang, Author, “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World”
Moderator: Marcus Noland, Board Member, HRNK, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute of International Economics
12:15 p.m. Book signing by Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-hyuk: “Escape from Camp 14”
12:30 p.m. Luncheon keynote addresses: Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Human Rights
2:00 p.m. Panel 3: “Women and the Hidden Gulag”
Korean Witnesses: Ms. Kim Hye-sook and Ms. Kim Young-soon, Former camp inmates
Korean presenter: Hyeonja Ku, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB)
U.S. discussant: Melanie Kirkpatrick, Senior Fellow, The Hudson Institute
Korean discussant: Hanna Suh, The Hans Seidel Foundation
Moderator: Suzanne Scholte, Executive Committee Member, HRNK, President, The Defense Forum Foundation
3:15 p.m. Coffee break
3:30 p.m. Session 4: “Lessons Learned from the Dismantlement of Nazi Concentration Camps and the Soviet Gulag”
U.S. Presenter: Professor Anna Holian, Arizona State University
U.S. Presenter: Professor Steven Barnes, George Mason University
U.S. discussant: Robert Williams, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Korean discussant: Dr. Hyun-Jin Son, Korea Legislation Research Institute
Moderator: Carl Gershman, Board Member, HRNK, President, National Endowment for Democracy
4:30 p.m. Coffee break
4:45 p.m. Session 5: “Seeking Legal and International Human Rights Remedies and Dealing
with Prisoners’ Claims”
Korean presenter: Kim Tae-hoon, ROK National Human Rights Commission/North Korea Committee of the Korean Bar Association
U.S. presenter: Jared Genser, President, Freedom Now
Korean discussant: Roh Jeong-ho, Columbia University Law School/Center for Korean Legal Studies, Columbia University
U.S. discussant: T. Kumar, Director, International Advocacy, Amnesty International USA
Moderator: Felice Gaer, Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute
6:00 p.m. Wrap-up
6:15 p.m. Reception
Hosted by: Lisa Colarcucio, Board Member, HRNK, Advisor, Impact Investments; Andrew Natsios, Board Member, HRNK, Professor, Georgetown University, Former Administrator, USAID.
7:30 p.m. Program concludes.