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Human Rights: When North Korea Speaks, Part 1


North Koreans visiting Baekdu Mountain

Editors note:

Human rights have all too often served less as a neutral vocabulary to describe North Korea’s conditions than as an instrument of power wielded by successive U.S. administrations to justify non-engagement, a policy intended to promote the isolation and eventual implosion of North Korea.  In a recent departure from this approach, however, President Obama evidently “reached out” to North Korea and got results.  The subsequent release of three U.S. citizens, Jeffrey Fowles, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who had been detained in North Korea, is the first positive interaction between the United States and that country in years and in this regard a milestone for the current administration. In U.S.- North Korea relations there remain many successes yet to be achieved, but each step toward engagement is a cause for celebration, and each is an opportunity for learning. As Betsy Yoon notes in her article below, the experiences at the end of both the Clinton and Bush administrations ­and now this current episode ­demonstrate that North Korea can and will engage in dialogue and negotiations.  The only way forward is to continue the efforts towards increased diplomacy.

By Betsy Yoon* | November 3, 2014 [Originally published in Zoom In Korea, October 28, 2014]

In her examination of King Phillip’s War, Jill Lepore identifies war as “a contest of injuries and interpretation.” Her analysis thus centers on how the narrative of the war both impacted the war as it was happening and then determined how the war would be remembered afterward. Before setting forth her historical analysis, she asks, “If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to those perfect instruments of empire, pens, paper, and printing presses?” The 17th-century colonists produced letters, diaries, and chronicles of the war, while the American Indians left little of a written record behind—this imbalance shaped the subsequent understanding of the war as a struggle between savagery and civilization. Today, these perfect instruments of empire now include mass media, which, in the contest for meaning, has a reach that far exceeds that of the American colonists, and which has overwhelmingly determined the narrative of North Korea.

What do we (think we) know about North Korea?

There are many observations of North Korea that are taken as factual. Two of the most common are the belief that North Korea does not negotiate in good faith (so why bother), and that North Korea does not properly distribute food aid (again, why bother). The first of these is based on the belief that North Korea has conducted “an endless series of bad-faith negotiations,“ starting with the Agreed Framework in 1994. The basis of this assumption generally goes unquestioned in the dominant narrative–however, scholars of North Korea diverge somewhat from the narrative. For example, in examining past negotiations between the two countries, Leon Sigal wrote that “Pyongyang’s bargaining tactics led many to conclude that North Korea was engaged in blackmail in an attempt to extort economic aid without giving up anything in return. It was not. North Korea’s strategy was tit for tat, cooperating when the United States cooperated, retaliating when the United States reneged, in an effort to end enmity.” North Korea’s failure to follow through on certain commitments (often in response to the U.S. reneging on a commitment) is all that is remembered, while North Korea’s highly visible destruction of Yeonbyong tower–a gesture of good faith–is largely forgotten.

The second assumption regarding the diversion of food aid not only reinforces the first assumption that North Korea is acting in bad faith, but also leads those to question whether it is humanitarian to even provide food aid in the first place. The rationale is that, if the food is just going to the elites, then food aid itself helps to strengthen the regime (what sometimes goes unspoken in this argument is the assumption that not providing food aid will hasten the collapse of the North Korean regime. This argument will be examined in later articles, but suffice it to say that Iraq has suffered considerably since its liberation). Those who make this argument tap into the dominant narrative on North Korea, and therefore do not have to provide facts–the statement itself is thought to be factual. However, this assumption does not match up with the experiences of those who have worked in providing food aid on the ground in North Korea. For example, Sanghyuk Shin and Ricky Choi wrote in an article for Critical Asian Studies that “[t]he claim that international aid is distributed based on social classification also runs counter to reports from humanitarian workers on the ground.” There are many official statements, but for those who are more curious about the human side of this debate, Erich Weingartner has written an excellent three-piece series of articles on his experience with monitoring food aid in North Korea for a unit of the UN World Food Program.

These two assumption epitomize the sometimes shaky factual ground on which assumptions about North Korea are based, and the only conclusion to be reached by these assumptions is apparently that North Korea is not to be trusted, and that whatever is said by North Korea lacks any legitimacy. This is in part because of the belief–described by Christine Hong–that North Korea represents “an inhumanity and atrociousness so total and thoroughgoing, so totalitarian, that these attributes defy evidentiary analysis.” In other words, a lack of evidence is as damning as actual evidence. In such an environment, accusations directed at North Korea take on the mantle of truth, while North Korea, whether it denies or ignores such accusations, cannot be anything but guilty.

Why the COI report cannot speak for North Korea

However, even if we did live in a black-and-white world where North Korea is the villain par excellence (described by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”), this perception should at least be based on factual evidence. With talk of invasion and regime collapse, there is a straight line between misuse of facts and widespread human loss. As I said earlier, we have seen this play out before, most recently and memorably with Iraq.

And yet, despite the stakes involved, the UN Commision of Inquiry’s (COI) report on human rights in North Korea has been reported on as if it were a primary source document, rather than a report that identifies its own standard of proof as “lower than the standard required in criminal proceedings to sustain an indictment.” Indeed, the report itself makes no claims to infallibility, and in fact, Hazel Smith observed that “What is most striking about the UNHCR reporting on the DPRK is the almost complete absence of reference to relevant data from other UN agencies, donor governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to the extent that the UNHRC reporting seems unaware of the existence of reports on the DPRK from within the UN system itself.” She notes that instead, the investigators used only one report from a UN agency, and that the way it is used in the COI report “distorts the findings of the original report and misleads the reader.”

In addition to not making full use of the available data on North Korea, the report incorporates news articles on conditions in North Korea as though these articles were themselves primary sources. This creates a feedback loop in which news coverage of North Korea’s malfeasance is cited by the report as factual statements, which are then cited by subsequent news articles. The narrative has become self-reinforcing. In one notable case, a New York Times op-ed was centered entirely on the COI’s assertion that Kim Jong-un has spent $645,800,000 on luxury goods. The op-ed makes concrete policy recommendations based on this finding. Because the New York Times was using a so-called official resource, and because the finding coheres nicely with the commonly shared view that North Korea wastes money on luxury items for the leadership while its people starve, this figure now has factual legitimacy. But, as demonstrated in the start of the article, commonly shared views are not proxies for the truth, and so this claim is worthy of further investigation.

This report’s figure of $645,800,000 was not calculated by the investigators–the figure actually comes from an article in the Telegraph that cites “a report submitted to the South Korean parliament” as its source. Here we must now question the Telegraph for unquestioningly citing a figure from a report that we know nothing about from a country that remains at war with North Korea. A reporter with OhmyNews, an online news site that publishes “citizen reporting,” also thought it suspect that this fact originated from South Korea and decided to investigate further. He contacted Mr. Yoon Sang-Hyun’s office, the parliament member who submitted the report. It turns out that Yoon’s office was citing a Chinese customs report, which does not even have a category for luxury items. When the reporter pointed out that it was problematic to first identify these goods as luxury items and to then say that they were destined specifically for Kim Jong Un, Yoon’s representative replied, “You could see it that way, but it is a fact that North Korea imports a lot of luxury items.” In other words, because it is a given that North Korea imports luxury items, the verifiability of this particular data was not that important. In sum, not only did the COI not include relevant data, but the sources that were used were not necessarily vetted for accuracy. And in fact, news articles are not included in the list of sources that the commission considered as first-hand information. Given that the bulk of the reports findings are based on verbal testimony, one would think it important to treat verifiable information with some rigor. (Hazel Smith’s detailed analysis of the COI’s methodology can be found here.)

This is another example of how the perception of North Korea can shape the narrative — despite the fact that there was, at least in this case, a way to fact-check cited information, it is often assumed that nothing about North Korea can be verified. In this type of environment, sources therefore take on a credibility they would not have in other cases. This particular exercise is put forth not as proof that the entire COI report is based on incorrect data and should therefore be thrown out, but rather as a reminder that the findings in the report cannot by themselves serve as a spur to action, and that journalists should use the report responsibly.

North Korea Speaks

It is in this context that Botswana, Australia, and Panama organized a UN session on North Korean human rights, held October 22. Benny Avni at Newsweek covers the session in an article titled “North Korean Diplomats Get an Earful at the U.N.” The question of North Korean human rights has become increasingly prominent, and these narratives serve to bolster common beliefs. In this sense, news articles about North Korea become less like journalism and more like the missives of the English colonists, who sought to characterize the Algonquins as a clearly defined Other. This is not to say that the English colonists or that Benny Avni attempt to draw these boundaries with conscious ill intent. Rather, just as the shift in settlers’ perceptions of the Algonquins from compassion to contempt was not a conscious project, but rather part of an emerging, collective narrative that began to shape the war itself, Avni is simply (and lazily) tapping into the current cultural consensus on North Korea.

His article (and the wider assumptions on which it is based) is problematic in a number of ways. Setting aside the fact that the phrase “getting an earful” evokes the idea of an adult lecturing a misbehaving child (North Korea is often characterized as either overwhelmingly evil or overwhelmingly childish), the title itself does not accurately reflect the actual content of the article. The focus of the article quickly shifts from describing passive recipients of a moral lecture to examining the ways in which the diplomats did not simply sit back for their earful, which is what Avni seemed to find most interesting (or “unusual”). To make clear the extraordinary nature of this session, he first invokes the Orientalist phrase “hermit Kingdom” to describe North Korea, and then characterizes the delegates responses as “verbal attacks.” This identifies the delegates as representing a place of mystery and as exhibiting behavior that deviates from the norm. The strangeness has been established. But then the next sentence describes the North Korean response as “long” and “formal” and the North Korean delegates as “patient,” neither of which seem to fit the description of “verbal attacks.” There is a clear shift from when Avni relies on tired assumptions (verbal attacks) to actual descriptive reporting (long, formal). Then, with some note of surprise, he comments on the representatives’ “fluent, plain English,” which leads me to wonder whether fluent, plain English among foreign diplomats is so rare that it is worthy of note in a major news outlet. Or is it more because North Korea is assumed to be so different from every other nation that it is remarkable when diplomats–whose job it is to interact with foreign countries–can speak one of the six official UN languages?

Avni then gets some face-to-face time with one of the diplomats, Cho Yong-Nam. He describes their conversation without much extraneous comment, but he cannot help but conclude this section with a comment on his affect, saying that Cho was “getting as animated as a man wearing a pin bearing the smiling face of his leader, Kim Jong-un, on a jacket lapel can.” In Avni’s mind, the pin symbolizes an ideological weight so oppressive and profound that the bearer cannot possibly make use of the full range of human emotions, if he even has them. If the North Koreans cannot be distinguished from the rest of the world through language, then it is necessary to find other ways in which the North Koreans can be defined as different from “us”, and is part of a general tendency to strip North Koreans of any humanity. Again, this is not to say that those who write about North Korea in this way intentionally seek to demonize and dehumanize with the explicit agenda of making military action more palatable to the general public. Instead, these impulses come from a subconscious need to identify difference, as well as the desire to satisfy the public’s fascination with the spectacle that is North Korea.

The Ongoing Contest for Meaning

Ultimately, it’s not clear whether Avni found their mere participation to be surprising and “extraordinary,” or whether he might have instead been thinking about his surprise that the North Koreans were patient and spoke fluently. Perhaps it is assumed that the diplomats memorize stock speeches and are actually incapable of holding a free-flowing conversation. At any rate, this has not been the DPRK’s only foray into the conversation on human rights. Prior to this, the DPRK published its own report on the history and current state of North Korean human rights on its website. North Korea also sought to be included in a ministerial meeting of the UN General Assembly on North Korean human rights, organized by John Kerry (their request was denied). This raises the question: Why does North Korea bother? Why did they want to be included in Kerry’s ministerial meeting, why did they bother publishing an official report on human rights, and why did they bother to attend and speak at this latest UN session? With the general narrative so firmly against them, and their statements treated as meaningless propaganda, North Korea cannot by itself change the narrative.

I believe that North Korea continues to participate in the human rights discussion because North Korea understands Lepore’s assessment of war: “wounds and words–the injuries and their interpretation–cannot be separated.” How the story is told is part of how the war both unfolds and is later remembered. This report, and North Korea’s participation in the UN session, are only the latest in North Korea’s determination to not let the dominant narrative go unchallenged–not out of foolish and misguided pride, but rather out of human dignity and the desire to self-represent in this ongoing contest for meaning.

Articles and assumptions such as the Newsweek article only hinder the development of genuine dialogue between North Korea and the world, which then hinders any actual progress toward improved human rights. Past experience (the end of the Clinton administration and the end of the Bush administration) has shown us that North Korea can and will engage in dialogue and negotiations. If we continue to propagate the belief that North Korea is no longer qualified to speak, then the only rational recourse becomes military force. Jill Lepore noted that the colonists saw the Algonquins as knowing only the language of violence–thus justifying the the colonists’ own use of brutal violence. North Korea can speak languages other than violence and is populated by human beings that are not as different from us as we might like to believe. Let’s not forget this as we discuss solutions to North Korean human rights.

*Betsy Yoon holds an MA in International Relations from Columbia University. She is a regular contributor to Zoom in Korea – Critical News and Analysis of the Korean Peninsula, and member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development. She co-organizes Nodutdol’s annual exposure and education program and has led two delegations of Korean Americans to North Korea.


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