Friday, April 11, 2014

North Korean Human Rights Concerns and Its Challenges

North Korea draws the world’s attention for its many idiosyncrasies: The Korean peninsula remains the last Cold War frontier with the Communist North and the capitalist South still at a war; the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea is one of the poorest nations, yet one of the proudest; it is one of the most sanctioned states, yet one of the most defiant; it is one of the weakest, yet one of the most resilient. This paradox sums up its presence in the world community.

As the globalization process unfolds, human rights concerns have emerged as a major variable in international interactions. The fashionable buzz words such as human security, humanitarian intervention, life security, and securitization of non-traditional security issues point to a gradual shift of focus from Hobbesian guns-and-bullets paradigm to Kantian moral-ethical interests. The general trend in Northeast Asia is, though, still preoccupied with national security priority over human rights protection. Here we have the North Korean problem confabulated with nuclear threats and human rights abuses.

The summary execution of Jang Sung-taek, the current North Korean leader Kim Jung-un’s relative and patron, on December 12, 2013 alerted to the systematic human rights violations which did not evade the highest echelon of Pyongyang’s ruling strata. It took only four days for the regime to execute Jang since his arrest on December 8 of that year. The expeditious execution implies the denial of defendant’s rights to attorney and total dismissal of legally stipulated procedures. This high profile case supports the existing testimonies of North Korean refugees on the arbitrary and summary executions in the totalitarian regime.

North Korea acknowledges universality of human rights, while advocating “socialist democracy” and “our theory of human rights.” The contradictions lie in the obvious gap between rhetorical claims as stated in the DPRK Constitution and empirical reality as testified by the refugees. One of the challenges in North Korean human rights lies with the fact that the Pyongyang regime is the violator as well as the potential protector of the rights. The concerned parties of international community, therefore, have to tread the precarious waters in inducing the North Korean government’s cooperation to abide by rule of law, while trying not further push it to a self-isolating, defensive corner.

Making it more challenging, North Korea sees human rights not as a norm to protect, but a politically motivated pressure tool. The regime calls for self-vigilance in facing the criticisms raised and voiced by the international community. The Pyongyang leadership dismisses the concerned voices of the “imperial powers” as unjustifiable interference into domestic affairs. North Korea’s self-perception as the weak surrounded by the hostile and powerful nations makes it ever more conscious of slight belittlement, imagined or real, of its sovereignty. The human rights violations add more complexity to the existing ‘North Korean problem’ where its primary concern lies with nuclear capability.

Pyongyang’s aversion to the human rights discourse originates from two primary reasons: overriding prerogatives to maintain a domestic ruling hierarchy and the suspicions towards Western-centric rights discourse. The world order perceived by North Korea derives from a struggle between the imperialists and the subjugated. The two exemplary imperialist countries in their perception are the U.S. and Japan, whilst member nations of the opposing camp which they identify with include Cuba, Egypt, and Indonesia. This simple dichotomy of ‘with us vs. against us’ are often demonstrated at the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions. On March 25, 2010, for example, North Korea refused to accept the Council’s final resolution by stating that it will either “take note of” or “reject” the 117 recommendations. 

The advancement of human rights is a noble enterprise. As democracy aims to amend the unequal distribution of power, universal rights is to respect the innate humanity of all regardless of external attributes. Human rights discourse in this regard can be both empowering and potentially subversive. The tension between heightened awareness and the tenacity of ancient regime explains one of the challenges of the 21st-century global society where North Korea raises concerns for its unique challenges.

Mikyoung Kim is Associate Professor at Hiroshima City University-Hiroshima. She was a Fulbright visiting professor at Portland State University, OR, and served with the U.S. State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea, as a public diplomacy specialist. She has published many articles on memory, human rights, and gender in Northeast Asia, and is the author of Securitization of Human Rights:North Korean Refugees in East Asia (Praeger Security International, 2012).