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North Korean Human Rights

Image: “Friendship, Peace” poster, Choson magazine, February 1988. Photograph courtesy of Joo Ok Kim.


As an industry, North Korean human rights emerged in the immediate wake of 9/11 when George W. Bush nominated North Korea as part of an infamous “axis of evil,” lined up with Iraq and Iran as targets of post-Cold War U.S. intervention. Governments that pose a security risk to the United States, Bush reasoned, pose a risk to their own people, thus framing obliterating U.S. armed aggression as a form of altruism on the global stage. During a “sunshine policy” era when South Korean president and Nobel Peace Prize awardee Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il took strides to foster inter-Korean reconciliation, Bush signaled the permissibility of an eclipse policy against North Korea. Through a spectrum of “soft” and hard options aimed at North Korean regime change, from sanctions up to renewed military intervention–all of which were justified under a mantle of professed concern about North Korean human rights–the United States moved into a new phase of the unending Korean War. Security studies scholarship about North Korea endorses a narrative that either characterizes the republic primarily as a terroristic nuclear threat or otherwise regards North Korea exclusively in relation to the United States, which does not formally recognize North Korea. This narrow optic toward North Korea marginalizes not only its internationalist affiliations, including its Third Worldist connections to other formerly colonized nations around the world, but also, decolonial and socialist conceptions of human rights.


“North Korea watching”

Celebrity defector

National Endowment for Democracy

Regime change

“Liberation” technology

“Safe houses”

Study Materials

[Article] Han, Ju Hui Judy. “Beyond Safe Haven: A Critique of Christian Custody–Missionaries and North Koreans in China,” Critical Asian Studies 45:4 (2013): 533-560.

From providing the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter to facilitating travel for those seeking refuge, decentralized underground Christian networks in China have assisted countless undocumented North Korean migrants in situations both dire and desperate. However, with no systems for transparency or accountability in place, and with conservative religious agendas structuring spaces of aid and advocacy, these networks also produce troubling paradigms of custodial confinement and strict regulation. Drawing on field research in the United States, South Korea, and China, this article examines the way a Christian missionary safe house in China illustrates a political theology of custody through its employment of care and control as well as its attention to and detention of vulnerable populations. Han shows that missionaries justify their custodial authority by stressing good intentions and a pastoral prerogative, but deny the unequal power relations that undergird the very structure of their missionary activities for undocumented North Korean migrants.

[Article] —. “Manufacturing Dissidence: Arts and Letters of North Korea’s ‘Second Culture,’” positions: asia critique 23:4 (2015): 743-784.

Reading North Korean defector memoirs and Korean American “roots” narratives as forms of “second culture” relative to North Korea, namely, an alternative US-oriented culture whose representational authority is held as exceeding that of the socialist state of origin, this essay examines the ongoing Korean War as the backdrop for the neoconservative emergence of human rights critique of North Korea. Examining the transnational funding matrix behind the publication and international circulation of the North Korean defector memoir, specifically the National Endowment for Democracy's role in sponsoring such “human rights” writings, this essay reads the latter as weaponized forms of expression, defined by their instrumentality within an uneven global landscape of power and rendered lethal by the state of unresolved hostilities between the United States and North Korea. Positing the illegitimacy of North Korea, the defector memoir has been marshaled toward sovereignty-challenging, or regime-change, ends. Widely read as “human rights” literary forms, the defector memoir, alongside the Korean American “roots” narrative of North Korea, this essay argues, have served in the geopolitical arena as vehicles for “dissident” North Korean voices in place of an extant samizdat literature.

[Article] —. “The Mirror of North Korean Human Rights: Technologies of Liberation, Technologies of War,” Critical Asian Studies 45:4 (2013): 561-591.

Turning on the logic of the spectacle, U.S.–based campaigns on North Korean human rights, in calling for intervention, have wielded two images aimed at outing North Korea’s “hidden truths”: the image of the starving child circa the 1990s and the contemporary satellite image of what appear to be labor camps. Focusing on the use of online virtual geo-imagery programs like Google Earth in the human rights mapping of North Korea, this essay situates post–9/11 “liberation technology” within the framework of the unending Korean War, a war whose failed “liberation” of Korea from the global forces of communism haunts North Korean human rights critique today. By examining mid-century bomber photographs and contemporary human rights satellite images of North Korea, this essay inquires into the homology between technologies of militarized intelligence and war, on the one hand, and technologies of human rights that aim to expose North Korea, on the other. Both modes of apperception, this essay argues, strive to delegitimize and destroy rather than faithfully represent the enemy.

This essay offers a historicized overview of the consolidation of contemporary human rights as the dominant lingua franca for social justice projects today and applies it to the debate over human rights in North Korea. Highlighting what the rights framework renders legible as well as what it consigns to unintelligibility, it examines the antinomies of contemporary human rights as an ethicopolitical discourse that strives to reassert the dominance of the global North over the global South. Relentlessly presentist in its assignment of blame and politically harnessed to a regime change agenda, the human rights framing of North Korea has enabled human rights advocates, typically “beneficiaries of past injustice,” to assume a moralizing, implicitly violent posture toward a “regime” commonsensically understood to be “evil.” Cordoning off North Korea’s alleged crimes for discrete consideration while turning a willfully blind eye to the violence of sanctions, “humanitarian” intervention, and the withholding of humanitarian and developmental aid, the North Korean human rights project has allowed a spectrum of political actors—U.S. soft-power institutions, thinly renovated Cold War defense organizations, hawks of both neoconservative and liberal varieties, conservative evangelicals, anticommunist Koreans in South Korea and the diaspora, and North Korean defectors—to join together in common cause.

[Longform political analysis] Weingartner, Erich, “Reconciling the Human Factor: Understanding the North Korean Human Rights/Humanitarian Divide,” 38 North, May 28, 2013,

Written by a former humanitarian aid worker–and human rights specialist–who lived in Pyongyang during the 1990s’ famine, this essay in 38 North makes plain the irreconcilable cleavages between “humanitarian” and “human rights” approaches to North Korea. With his belief in humanitarian food aid as a human right, the author concedes that his is “a minority position in both the humanitarian and human rights camps.” Hinted at, but undeveloped in this short piece, are the structures of colonial violence on which humanitarianism and human rights rely. Critical here is a gesture toward the fact that the North Korean human rights industry is invested in regime change by any and all means–in other words, in humanitarian catastrophe as a means of effecting political transformation in North Korea.

[Longform Political Analysis] Hong, Christine. “The Fiction of the North Korean Refugee Orphan,” 38 North, September 19, 2012.

Modeled on a failed series of North Korean human rights bills that stretch back to 2003, the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011 proceeded from an outdated portrait of on-the-ground conditions and distorted premises. Empirically speaking, the bill misrepresented the reality of the children whom it purported to help. As a placeholder for children who were, by and large, not North Korean, not refugees, and not orphans, the “North Korean refugee orphan” served as a dangerous fiction whose elastic license with the truth imperiled the welfare of the children this legislation stood to impact. The bill’s alarmist image of “thousands of North Korean children [who] are threatened with starvation or disease” did not, in point of fact, correspond to the reality of the children who—albeit often poor and sometimes in the care of a grandparent—actually had families, had household registration papers, attended schools, were relatively well-nourished, and were Chinese citizens. Strategically loose on the supply-side details, this bill construed these children as adoptable when, in fact, they were not.

[Documentary] Shin Dong-hyuk Changes His Story, The Fifth Estate, CBC News, February 18, 2015,

After the publication of “his” memoir, Escape from Camp 14–which was authored by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden–Shin Dong-hyuk emerged as arguably the most famous defector on the world stage. A defector-turned-human rights agitator, Shin was presented as living breathing evidence of North Korea’s brutality. The building blocks of his narrative would crumble when North Korea aired footage of his father challenging core elements of his narrative. As this CBC investigation reveals, Shin’s fellow defectors in South Korea corroborated many of North Korea’s claims. As Kim Hye-sook states, “Shin’s father is right. Shin has lied about everything.” Chung Kwon-il similarly points out that “Since I lived in North Korea, I know for a fact that it is impossible to escape from camp so I didn’t believe him from the beginning. …I personally see it this way: he didn’t escape from Camp 14…[b]ut he wanted to claim himself as a political prisoner and become famous.” Weighing in on the controversy, well-known North Korea watcher Andre Lankov stated, “His admissions…warrant a near-complete rewriting of the book,” noting that “North Korean refugees–and their assistants” are incentivized “to deliver more dramatic and, if necessary, embellished stories in order to win some attention in a rather crowded media market.”


  1. Erich Weingartner writes that with its end-goal of regime change by any means necessary, human rights advocacy toward North Korea is incompatible with international humanitarian policies, including support for food aid. At the same time, he alludes to the fact that both forms of politics are colonial in origin. What are the differences between human rights advocacy toward North Korea and humanitarian policies? Are there points of overlap?

  2. What does it mean to be a North Korean watcher? What are the politics behind this kind of geopolitical surveillance?

  3. To what degree can North Korean human rights be understood as “war by other means”?

  4. In recent years, a number of North Korean celebrity defectors have been exposed for having fabricated significant aspects of their stories. Is truth the singular goal of their stories? If not, then how do we understand their narratives and the contexts in which they are cultivated?

  5. What role have South Korean and Korean American evangelicals played in North Korean human rights advocacy?

  6. The “Friendship, Peace”full-page image from the February 1988 issue of Chosun depicts multiracial visions of anti-imperialist, feminist solidarity. How does this image exceed the post-9/11 discourses of the human rights regime around North Korea? What visions of decolonial, revolutionary human rights are suppressed by human rights regime optics? Finally, what might this image suggest about the summer Olympics hosted by South Korea in 1988?

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