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More Real Than Unicorns: The ‘Inextricable Link’ between Human Rights and Security in North Korea
Last month, North Korea claimed preposterously to have discovered a “unicorn lair” in an ancient burial site. This month, there are deadly-serious reports of a successful missile launch. And so the world lurches again from laughing at North Korea’s curious totalitarian theme park and wacky dictator, to wondering with concern whether this leader, like the capricious child with superhuman powers in the science-fiction story “It’s a Good Life,” will destroy the world.
There’s seldom any middle ground, nor is there serious reflection about how to move past these disjointed extremes and reassert the comprehensive policy approach that has proven so effective in other settings. When speaking this month about the nearly 40-year-old Helsinki Accords process in Eurasia, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invoked “an inextricable link between the security of states and the security of citizens.” The idea was first championed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, along with their colleagues in the citizens’ Helsinki movement. Without civil society’s control over the government, they argued, disarmament is not possible. It is now a staple of U.S. foreign policy that efforts to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles can and should proceed simultaneously with criticism of ongoing human rights problems in Russia. Yet while the human rights situation in North Korea is far more deplorable, the linkage between rights and peace is never made, and never becomes part of the public discourse.
Last April, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights convened a conference in Washington with an ambitious title—Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Political Camp System and Calling for Its Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement. North Korea was hardly expected to heed this audacious call, although those who opposed the Nazis or worked to dismantle the Soviet GULAG could provide helpful precedents. The conference featured a devastating report on North Korea’s prison complex, Hidden Gulag by David Hawk. Activists pressed the U.S. State Department to raise the release of the system’s inmates and demand the closure of the abusive facilities.
The State Department’s response on May 1 was limp: “The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in the DPRK, including forced labor camps. Promoting human rights is a key component of our policy toward North Korea, and how the DPRK addresses human rights will have a significant impact on the prospect for closer U.S.-DPRK ties.” But activists had hoped the plea would be made directly to the North Koreans in face-to-face talks. Sadly, human rights are not brought up explicitly, even quietly, as a matter of policy. Instead they are left to special envoy Robert King to raise in other settings.
There are a number of indications that Washington should be more forthright on the issue. More than 20,000 defectors have managed to escape North Korea, helping to raise awareness of the appalling conditions inside the country. And a new generation of South Korean human rights advocates—politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and researchers—are tackling the looming issue of North Korea’s totalitarianism in a new way. They are reaching out to the global human rights community and attempting to internationalize the problem, avoiding the traps of North-South political dynamics and the Cold War categorizations that turn off the general public, particularly young people. In June, the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a government-sponsored think tank founded to work toward a peaceful settlement, convened both international experts and South and North Koreans to raise internationally the issue of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in the North’s prison camps and rampant, ongoing abuses against them including deprivation, torture, and rape.
As one Korean activist explained, part of the effort to bring a new universalist focus to North Korea’s problems involves strengthening South Korea’s own civil society, addressing its domestic human rights issues, and tackling its reluctance to confront the harsh realities in the North. For the first time, invoking UN principles, South Koreans have protested at the Chinese embassies in Seoul and Washington to urge Beijing not to repatriate refugees from North Korea.
While frustrated official negotiators never raise human rights frankly with North Korea, they do tie progress on missiles to food aid. Shipments were resumed last February after Pyongyang announced a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, then suspended again in April after another missile launch. But as Roberta Cohen of the Brookings Institution has written, “The linkage of issues to nuclear progress, understandable to be sure given North Korea’s provocative behavior, still has the effect of holding all other issues hostage.” In other words, the narrow, mechanical linkage between food shipments and missile tests obscures the much broader connection between human rights and security, which diplomats are afraid to make.
How will change come to North Korea? There are various models of reform, whether the state-initiated, incremental steps under international pressure that led to breakthroughs in Burma—still very incomplete—or the eruptions of popular protest that have led first to progress, then to backsliding in places like Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan. Some have suggested that an increased flow of information from the outside could affect North Korean society, often highlighting the fact that a million North Koreans now have 3G mobile phones. But most of these tightly controlled devices are in the hands of the loyalist elite, and very few residents have access to the global internet. Asked by a reporter if North Korea might change slowly from the top down, perestroika-style, or whether the essential fragility of despotic rule could produce a more dramatic “spring,” former North Korean prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk replied philosophically that to pose these questions is to give oneself excuses not to take action. He counseled those concerned about North Korea to keep speaking out everywhere, particularly at the United Nations, for which Pyongyang has some regard. Wherever the levers for change in North Korea are, we should behave as if we can ask matter-of-factly for the labor camps to be shut down. This means continually attempting to get the issue on the agendas of world meetings, where usually only nuclear missiles are addressed.
Shin’s personal journal, Escape from Camp 14, provides not only an inspiration but a kind of moral imperative. In the first years of his exile, out of deep shame, he refrained from describing how he informed on his own mother and brother to keep himself alive, and they were executed. He ultimately fled from the camp, then from North Korea, even though he knew his father would likely suffer reprisals. So at the cost of great personal suffering, he confronted both the regime and his own fears. With that kind of example, the international community should do no less in linking the issues of human rights and nuclear weapons. The way forward will involve the enhancement of the “inextricable link” that was recognized in the Soviet era and is still relevant today.
* Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a New York–based freelance writer, Russian translator, and consultant on Eurasian affairs.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.