North Korea remains one of the worst human rights catastrophes in the modern era. Yet in recent years, the momentum to bring human dignity to the citizens of North Korea has ground to a halt. The predominant focus has been on nuclear security issues to the exclusion of the human rights crisis in the country. But human rights ought to play a key role in any comprehensive policy toward the DPRK. This is the premise of APARC’s new volume, The North Korea Conundrum: Balancing Human Rights and International Security.
Edited by APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin and Ambassador Robert R. King, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Korea Chair and former special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State, the book draws on the work of scholars and practitioners presented and discussed at a conference on North Korean human rights held by APARC’s Korea Program. On October 28, 2021, APARC and CSIS gathered contributors to the volume for a book launch discussion of the intertwining relationship between the North Korean denuclearization and human rights agendas.
Studies of human rights in North Korea are even more important now, in light of North Korea’s response to COVID-19, said Shin at the opening of the discussion. The DPRK has kept its borders closed for nearly two years, resulting in reduced trade and worsening the economic and social situation of its population.
Ambassador King, who was also a 2019-20 Koret Fellow and Visiting Scholar at APARC, identified the guiding questions of the volume, indicating that “This conundrum that we talk about in the title is an interaction between security and human rights. Is there a tradeoff? If we focus on human rights, does that make it more difficult for us to deal with security issues? If we focus on security issues do we have to ignore human rights?”
An Error of Zero-Sum Thinking
While North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the security threat it poses have occupied the center stage and eclipsed other issues in recent years, the book’s contributors posit that human rights promotion remains an integral part of U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula. In his chapter, Victor Cha, Senior Vice President and Korea Chair at CSIS and former Koret Fellow and Visiting Scholar at APARC, analyzes the error in the zero-sum logic of North Korean human rights. "The United States sees a zero-sum relationship between pressing for human rights and denuclearization negotiations, while South Korea sees a zero-sum relationship between pressing for human rights and inter-Korean engagement," explains Cha. But the denuclearization and human rights agendas are inextricably intertwined.
The lost ground on addressing the North Korean human rights crisis is still recoverable, the contributors to The North Korean Conundrum believe. How could North Korea engage on human rights? The chapters in the volume lay out a number of ways. One opportunity to address human rights issues is through health and humanitarian assistance. Another way is to promote the economic and consumer rights of North Korean citizens to improve their quality of life and help foster a nascent civil society. And yet another way is to support information flow to the North.
Nat Kretchun, Vice President for Programs at the Open Technology Fund, examines in his chapter the changing information environment in North Korea, observing how the information control system North Korean authorities are constructing is broadly characterized by an effort to move communications and media consumption onto state-controlled networks via state-sanctioned devices. The central aim is to create a “clean” information environment in which North Korean citizens use approved networked devices that technologically prevent the consumption and spread of unsanctioned content. At the same time, North Korean authorities have come to terms with a more marketized economic future. "Mobile phones have the ability to facilitate market-based economic transactions, the primary driver of much of what (limited) internal economic growth the country is seeing," notes Kretchun.
The contributors all agree that the challenge of human rights in North Korea is a complex one. It is intertwined with a host of issues, including life in the North Korean police state, inter-Korean relations, denuclearization, access to information, and international cooperation—all topics the volume addresses. We frequently separate these issues for analytical purposes or because they are dealt with in different ways or by different entities. But in fact, they are inseparable. Recognizing this interrelationship is the first step toward moving forward in a way that addresses the very serious North Korean security concerns while at the same time bringing human rights and humanitarian concerns into the equation.