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Human Rights in North Korea – Igniting the Pilot Light


By Mark Tokola

Since the United Nations’ “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (usually shorthanded to “COI” for commission of inquiry report) came out in September 2015, commentators have sometimes hypothesized that one of its positive effects could be that North Korean prison officials might moderate some of their brutality out of fear of eventually being held accountable.  We have now heard that this may be happening in reality.

A North Korean defector said during a presentation in Washington, DC on February 23 that she had recently heard from personal contacts in North Korea that prison guards have noticeably reduced their arbitrary beatings of prisoners, apparently because of their new awareness that the human rights abuses of the North Korean regime are under international scrutiny, and out of concern that they could be held personally responsible for their actions.  When asked about how much awareness there is of the COI in North Korea, the defector said that although there may not be detailed understanding of what is in the report, people in North Korea are well aware that a UN report has accused their government of crimes against humanity.  Part of this awareness comes from the DPRK’s own vigorous efforts to refute the report.  Middle and lower ranked officials are further aware that with international scrutiny comes the possibility of personal accountability.

Reinforcing the COI’s premise of accountability for North Korean officials, the new U.S. sanctions also include a human rights element.  It has been overshadowed by the legislation’s focus on slowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  It is, nevertheless, important for the promotion of human rights in North Korea because it creates the possibility of sanctioning individual North Korean officials who are responsible for human rights abuses.  Naming names, particularly in a time before Kim Jong-un has fully consolidated his power, will have the effect of concentrating the minds of North Korean officials on the possibility of someday standing before a court.

This has happened before in the history of regimes engaged in criminal behavior.  Before the end of World War II – well before the Nuremburg trials – Nazi officials sought to secretly negotiate terms of surrender based on immunity from prosecution for their crimes.  Toward the end of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, war criminals also sought to indirectly engage officials of the international community to plea bargain against their potential prosecution.  Most officials with enough wit to professionally survive within a brutal political system are both adaptable to circumstances and know how to calculate their odds.

The defector also had an interesting story to tell about the dawning of an awareness of human rights within North Korea.  She said that in her youth, neither the words nor the concept existed.  When markets began to develop, in a rudimentary way under Kim Jong-il and then in a more developed way under Kim Jong-un, the notion of private property introduced the idea of personal rights.  When everything belonged to the state, search and seizure by officials was part of the natural way of things.  But when the operators of stalls began to own their stalls, they began to feel that the police had no right to search their property without some legal process.  The development of human rights in North Korea may not be based on concepts of free speech or right of assembly, they may have found root in the simple idea that “my property is mine.”  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Most of the 800-year old Magna Carta is about property rights.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Mike Holloway’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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