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Challenges for NGOs in Internationalizing North Korean Human Rights


By Greg Scarlatoiu

Since the days of the great famine, for more than two decades, 30,000 North Koreans escaped and resettled in South Korea. Others have resettled in other countries, including 211 in the United States by the end of 2016. They have been the heroes of the movement. Their testimony has informed investigators and empowered public awareness campaigns. They founded NGOs that conducted effective information campaigns and public outreach. Through their hard work and dedication, they made critical contributions to internationalizing North Korean human rights.

Continuing to internationalize the North Korean human rights issue is a critical task. Civil society in the United States, South Korea, and many other countries will continue to play a main role in this process. But many NGOs face significant resource limitations. South Korea, in particular, presents a challenging environment. In South Korea, the culture of charity is rather different from the United States. Individual contributions may be given toward scholarships and other educational goals. North Korean human rights organizations will find it hard to identify individual benefactors. Public funding in South Korea was hardly available for North Korean human rights NGOs. The Human Rights Foundation recently established pursuant to the ROK North Korean Human Rights Act could provide a lifeline to South Korean NGOs, but political tension and conflict between conservatives and progressives prevent it from becoming fully operational, for as long as its eleven-member board does not have quorum. Private corporations that donated to causes perceived as “conservative,” including North Korean human rights, during the decade of the Sunshine Policy, were penalized through tax audits and other more or less “unconventional” punitive means. Consequently, they were not overly enthusiastic to give to North Korean human rights defenders even during the past nine years, with conservative administrations in the Blue House. The political outlook in South Korea indicates that corporate charitable propensity toward such groups is unlikely to improve.

Human rights groups in South Korea, in the United States and even elsewhere will continue to depend on the same lifeline: The U.S. government, U.S. private foundations, and American individual donors dedicated to the North Korean human rights cause. The funding available to North Korean human rights groups, from both public and private sources, has been limited. The number of organizations fundraising for the cause in the United States has been on the increase. This group of organizations includes new entrants to the area, South Korea-based organizations now seeking fundraising opportunities in the United States, frustrated by the difficulty of this task at home, and organizations that didn’t use to have an interest in North Korean human rights, but have now joined the movement. This is a decidedly positive development, ultimately conducive to truly internationalizing the issue. What we haven’t seen so far is a worldwide campaign on North Korean human rights run by one of the large grassroots organizations. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have certainly made critical contributions to the movement, through their research, reporting, advocacy, and action at the UN. But a worldwide grassroots campaign on a par with other campaigns such large NGOs run is yet to take shape. Many NGOs, their staff, their board and advisory council members and volunteers have the know-how, institutional capacity and enthusiasm to translate this into reality. But adequate resources are needed to maintain momentum. Increasing currently available funding and broadening the donor base will be essential.

In the United States, awareness of North Korea’s human rights violations has recently been at its highest point ever. Unlike UN Security Council Resolutions 1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, 2094, 2270 and 2321, US Public Law No. 114-122 includes not only the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles in the North Korean behavior subjected to sanctions, but also human rights violations. In 2016, Congress made it a legal requirement that the State Department report on the status of North Korea’s political prison camps and ongoing developments within this vast system of unlawful imprisonment.

But securing the needed resources to highlight the North Korean human rights violations and bring freedom to the people of North Korea continues to be a challenge in the United States as well. A dedicated source of funding for North Korea programs will continue to be needed in appropriations. Moving forward, it will be the Administration’s responsibility to make the request, and up to Capitol Hill to make the appropriations. Especially while tackling so many daunting challenges other than North Korean human rights, the Administration may lack the necessary motivation, unless questions come from the legislative branch. Directives to the Administration supporting North Korean human rights programs, including efforts to research, report, and disseminate investigation results and recommendations as well as programs supporting the flow of outside information into North Korea will continue to be essential. While the legislative branch has by far been the most active branch of the U.S. Government on North Korean human rights, personal dedication will continue to be critical, both on the Hill and in the Administration. Governor (former Congressman and Senator) Sam Brownback set the standard, and other members of Congress, most notably Congressman Ed Royce, have carried the torch. To effectively address North Korean human rights, ever increasing Congressional support will always be needed.

During previous “surges” in funding for North Korean human rights NGOs, several initial problems were obvious: the funding was disbursed too quickly, and resulted in a proliferation of small NGOs with little absorption capacity, also lacking fiscal responsibility. While most NGOs funded by the U.S. Government today have overcome those initial issues, improving the grantees’ institutional capacity will be particularly important in the case of NGOs staffed and run by former North Koreans. Along those lines, training and human capacity building programs focused on young North Korean escapees will constitute worthy investments.

Greg Scarlatoiu is the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from David Maxwell’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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