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Engaging North Korea: Human Rights, Nuclear Weapons and a Path to Peace in the Obama Era Improving H

Presentation of Dr. Bo-hyuk Suh, Research Professor, Ewha University, and former senior researcher at the South Korea National Human Rights Commission.

Human rights discourse has a long history; and we have seen rising interest in the post-Cold War era. But discussion about human rights does not take place in a vacuum: it is tied to other issues such as development, peace, humanitarianism, and reconciliation. Problems of international concern have arisen due to diversity in values and priorities among nations. The situation in North Korea is one such case, and we have witnessed different approaches to different issues, particularly human rights issues and peace. There has been much unproductive dispute over which problem has to be resolved first: some say that human rights problems must be resolved before there can be talk of negotiating peace, while others say that an end to the Korean War must be the foundation for addressing other matters including human rights. To overcome this impasse, this paper proposes that peace be included in the category of human rights, and the security situation be considered in any strategy to improve human rights. Then we can find new directions in the discussion of human rights in North Korea. This paper explores ways to improve human rights in North Korea through consideration of the current situation on the Korean peninsula and the interrelation between human rights in North Korea and peace on the Korean peninsula.

However, there is a growing awareness that peace is a kind of right. On February 27, 1976, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution and announced that “Everyone has the right to live in conditions of international peace and security.” The United Nations General Assembly approved the ‘Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace’ on December 15 of the following year. According to article 23, paragraph 1 of the ‘African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’, which has been adopted by each state in Africa, it was the first regional human rights institution that recognized the right to peace. Eventually, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace’ in 1984. The declaration states that defusing the threat of war, especially nuclear war, interrupting the use of force, and settling international disputes through peaceful methods are required to realize the right to peace.

The right to peace and the right to human security have a lot in common. Human security starts with the observation that the existing nation-oriented security paradigm based on military power can’t contribute to positive peace. Human security is not for the citizens of one particular nation but for every individual in human society, and the goal of human security is not the conservation of the nation but an improvement in the quality of life of human beings. The main concern is not a power struggle or one-sided military action but multilateral efforts to curb violence, protect human rights, and provide social and environmental resources necessary to a dignified human life. Therefore, human security naturally is greatly concerned with human rights. The right to peace and security is very important because threats to human security stand in the way of protecting all kinds of rights.

However, while we might all be able to immediately agree upon some components of the right to peace, there are others upon which international society has yet to come to consensus. Specifically, some have said that it would be difficult to count the right to peace among the international human rights because the meaning of the right to peace itself is not clear enough to be designated as a right under current international law.2 That is, the right to peace has contents and categories which are incomplete and evolving, and which have to take shape over time. The right to peace is one of the third generation of rights known as solidarity rights as well as development rights. Of course, the fact that efforts to clarify the right to peace are still in process cannot be used as an excuse for reducing or delaying efforts to improve every aspect of human rights.3 Also, it is not right to identify the right to peace with absolute pacifism because the right to peace allows the just use of violence in particular cases such as humanitarian crises.4

Human rights in North Korea and peace on the Korean peninsula: Mutually interdependent universal values

It is clear that the North Korea nuclear crisis is directly connected to peace on the Korean peninsula. However, this problem, which is not only a military one but also tied to the reconstruction of the North Korean economy and to inter-Korean economic cooperation, has been treated too shallowly. The complexity of the North Korea nuclear crisis can be grasped if we consider the official position announced by North Korea with regard to its nuclear program. North Korea stated its basic position as “defusing threats to independence and the right to live” and offered three conditions for nuclear negotiations, namely U.S. recognition of North Korea’s sovereignty, assurance of nonaggression, and removal of obstacles to economic development.5 Also, North Korea included economic content such as provisions for economic cooperation and supplies of electricity and food, and proposed a so-called “package deal framework” and “simultaneous action order” for the comprehensive resolution of nuclear issues.6 The negotiation strategy of North Korea reveals that it uses weapons of mass destruction as a diplomatic strategy, within the context of a lack of economic resources.

After the advent of the Obama administration in 2009, North Korea has purposively chosen to foster an atmosphere of crisis. There was the launch of the rocket on April 5, its second nuclear test on May 25, and subsequent missile launches. To be sure, these actions are part of North Korea’s crisis diplomacy, but we must indeed understand them for what they are on face value: as moves to increase military power. On January 17, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said toward the Obama administration, “normalization of relations and the nuclear problem are different matters.” North Korea also asserted “the reason we made nuclear weapons was not to normalize relations with U.S. or to attain economic aid but to protect ourselves from the U.S. nuclear threat,” and gave notice of the nuclear test. Regarding North Korea’s actions, international society is pushing ahead with multilateral and unilateral sanctions. Prior to that, international society declared the rocket launch, which North Korea asserted as a peaceful use of space, as a military provocation. North Korea regarded international criticism as threats toward them and went ahead with the nuclear test, insisting that it was a self-defense measure. What we need to focus on is that these power contests between nations violate North Korean people’s and Korean people’s rights to live peacefully.

Meanwhile, the global community regards the situation of human rights in North Korea as poor. Human rights are universal, total, interdependent, and interrelated. Therefore, an approach limited to specific areas not only is against the basic character of human rights but is also of questionable effectiveness. International society needs to balance its efforts to improve human rights in North Korea. Thus far, the international community has mainly criticized them, and sometimes used humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip.

It is true that civil and political rights in North Korea are poor and it is necessary to continue monitoring this situation. But it is necessary to distinguish criticism from political pressure. A pressure-oriented approach could generate a backlash from a North Korean government that considers such an approach as a political offensive aimed at bringing about the collapse of the North Korean government, and could hamper efforts to improve human rights by reinforcing the North Korean government’s control over people and breaking off diplomatic exchanges and contacts. We should note that efforts to improve human rights could result in violations of human rights that we didn’t intend.

The right to survival in North Korea is in the same shape. North Korea has been going through a food shortage of over one million tons annually even after the “Arduous March,” the term people in North Korea use to refer to the worst period of the famine in the mid- to late 1990s. “Good Friends,” a South Korean organization addressing human rights in North Korea, reported that (1) People in North Korea who are safe from food storage are 10% of total population, 2 million, in August 2008; (2) some ten million people, which represents over half the total population, often have difficulty in getting even one full meal a day; and (3) over 3 million suffer from serious malnutrition and are at risk of starvation. In spite of this situation, humanitarian aid is decreasing and is being used as a political tool. Discontinuing or decreasing humanitarian aid aggravates the North Korean people’s right to live, as well as stymies collaboration opportunities between North Korea and the international community. Humanitarian aid should be given and be distinguished from nonhumanitarian aid. The problem of enhancing transparency has to be addressed in the process of providing humanitarian aid and should not be used as a reason for cutting off aid.

Improvement strategy of human rights in North Korea: A phase-in approach

We can see the mutual interdependence between peace on the Korean peninsula and human rights in North Korea theoretically and practically from the above discussion. The nuclear problem and human rights in North Korea are not separate matters that must be prioritized; rather they exist in complementary relation to one another and need to be resolved comprehensively.

We need to examine the foundation and direction of any approach to human rights in North Korea. Considering the complexity and sensitivity of human rights issues in North Korea, we should approach them by taking the situation and external environment in North Korea into consideration. The foundation for approaching human rights in North Korea includes (1) the observance of principles, (2) the practical improvement of human rights, (3) the cooperative improvement of human rights, and (4) harmony between human rights and peace.

The ways and paths toward the improvement of human rights in North Korea will depend on various actors’ understanding of human rights, their circumstances, and their capacity.7 The roadmap shown below presupposes some facts. First, there is the matter of the “issue hierarchy” between North Korea and the other primary nations concerned. North Korea aims to ensure the security of its government as its priority foreign policy goal and puts great emphasis on solving the food shortage and the rebuilding of its economy. The members of the six-party talks, including South Korea, U.S., China, and so on, pursue a denuclearized Korean peninsula as the first goal, and overall have granted human rights in North Korea relatively little significance. If we approach it from a different angle, according to Vitit Muntarbhorn, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, “No assessment of the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be complete unless its interrelationship with international human rights standards, democracy, peace, human security, demilitarization/disarmament and sustainable development is also taken into account.”8 Second, within a comprehensive view of human rights, human rights in North Korea covers various fields, but it is an undeniable fact that the guarantee of a minimum level of the people’s basic human rights is an overriding concern. The minimum level of the people’s basic human rights means the right to live and the right to security.9 Third, if promoting human rights is the common goal of all nations, when the international community is concerned about particular nation’s human rights, it should be accompanied with efforts for the actual improvement of human rights in that nation. Also, it is necessary for South Korea to approach “human rights on the Korean peninsula” in the context of its pursuit of unification with the North and lead the improvement of human rights in Asia.

On this roadmap for the improvement of human rights in North Korea, we can approach it on four levels: (1) the category of comprehensive human rights, (2) the correlation between human rights and other rights, (3) the assignment of each actor’s role, and (4) the continuation of the North Korean government.

The roadmap pursues the improvement of human rights in North Korea by a phase-in comprehensive approach. A phase-in approach is required because human rights in North Korea are relatively poor and related with other issues, and a comprehensive approach is needed because human rights in North Korea covers a wide range and there are many related actors. The steps to the improvement of human rights in North Korea start from the current situation and continue to the stage of formation of conditions — the stage of performance — the stage of completion, and every step has goals, variables, and roles for the actors.

There are two more points to understand the roadmap for the improvement of human rights in North Korea. Every step is made up of goals and variables. Also, the improvement strategy of each step is the main action plan and also is gradually promoted. For example, if the strategy in step I is still effective in step?, then a new strategy for step II can be added. The reversal toward the previous step will not happen in this situation.

<Table 1> Roadmap for the improvement of human rights in North Korea




Role of Actors


North Korea

International Community

South Korea

Step I

Recovery of the right to survival

Peace settlement

Increasing food production

Transparency in distribution

Establishment of human rights legislation

Humanitarian aid

Monitoring of human rights situations

Protection of North Korean defectors

Humanitarian aid

Resolution of humanitarian issues

Protection of North Korean defectors

Humanitarian situation

Military tensions

Step II

Establishment of human rights infrastructure

Conversion of the International Covenants on Human Rights into domestic legislation and signing on to it

Institutionalization of human rights education

Development aid

Human rights dialogue

Technical cooperation

Increasing economic cooperation

Beginning arms reduction in South and North Korea

Building peace regime

Step III

Protection of civil and political rights

Stop violating CPR

Conversion of military budget into civil one

Support civil society

(personal and information exchanges, education, etc.)

Accelerating reformation and opening

Step IV

Implementation of the International Covenants on Human Rights

Real protection of CPR

Separation of the three powers

Establishment of national human rights institution

Support for implementation of democratization


Peace is a requirement for the general realization of human rights as well as a human right in itself. Ongoing military tensions such as the armistice on the Korean peninsula, U.S. security threats toward North Korea, and North Korea’s nuclear development are challenges to peace and could make improvement of human rights in North Korea difficult. Therefore, it is meaningless to discuss peace on the Korean peninsula without the improvement of human rights and to discuss human rights in North Korea without peace on the Korean peninsula. Mutual interdependence of peace and human rights on the Korean peninsula is expected to deepen further.



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