How to Successfully Engage North Korea On Human Rights

UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas Aguilar on a site visit in the DPRK in May 2017 (Uriminzokkiri)

North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country in the world, except perhaps Eritrea and Syria. There is, however, a curious exception to this record: disability rights. This case offers a powerful counter-example of successful engagement in an arena where the country normally experiences nothing but universal condemnation.

For nearly two decades, outside NGOs have been working with Pyongyang to improve conditions for the nearly two million people with disabilities in the country. Over the course of this engagement, North Korea has altered its conduct in three important ways: It has cooperated with the United Nations to bring its disability policies more in line with international standards,  has permitted the growth of the very first shoots of civil society focused on the rights of the disabled,  and has allowed more contact between its citizens with disabilities and the outside world.

At a time when tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased dramatically and the United States in particular has pushed to isolate the regime even further, can this kind of engagement become the new normal?

Dealing with the UN System

It’s not easy to visit North Korea if you work on human rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly rejected the requests of UN human rights officials to tour the country. Even the three people who have served as the special rapporteur for human rights in the DRPK over the last 13 years have had to write their reports without ever setting foot in the country.

This past May, Catalina Devandas Aguilar became the first independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council to visit North Korea. Devandas Aguilar is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Not only did she meet with a wide range of North Koreans during her trip, but she received virtual celebrity coverage in the country’s media.

“Just the fact that a woman with a disability from Costa Rica is seen on national television in the DPRK running around on a scooter and being very modern and talking brings a different perspective and even hope to persons with disabilities in a country that has been in such isolation,” Devandas Aguilar said.

The United States has generally viewed the UN human rights system as another stick with which to beat North Korea. The Obama administration, for instance, supported the UN-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the conclusion, in its 2014 report, was that the leadership of the country committed crimes against humanity (among other transgressions). In the wake of the report, the Obama administration also imposed its first human-rights-related sanctions against the DPRK.

North Korea has signed the UN convention on the rights of the disabled. The otherwise scathing COI report barely mentions disability rights, other than to urge ratification of the convention, which North Korea did this last December. It also notes that “there are signs that the State may have begun to address this particular issue” of discrimination against the disabled—one of the few signs of progress in the report.

By signing the convention on the rights of the disabled—as well as those on women and on children—the DPRK has committed to submitting regular reports and interacting with various UN human rights personnel. In this way, it learns both the language and the substance of human rights practice. Whether it translates that knowledge into practice is another matter.

“While we welcome the engagement, writing reports is not progress on the ground and we haven’t seen any real improvement in women or children rights yet from this renewed willingness to deal with the UN treaty bodies,” cautions Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert who was one of the three experts on the commission, believes that the DPRK’s divergent approaches to the UN human rights system are actually related. “The release of the COI report had an enormous impact worldwide, and the DPRK was aware of that,” she says. “For the first time the human rights situation was revealed to the world in a very comprehensive way, and it was shocking. Because of that, they invested effort in improving their image by signing the convention on disabilities.”

But even before the COI report, North Korea was moving in the direction of engagement on disability rights and, arguably, showing “progress on the ground.”

Signs of a Civil Society?

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world without any significant civil society. It lacks public dissidents, opposition parties, even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When President Obama made a commitment to meet with civil society representatives around the world, even in places like Cuba, North Korea was not on the list. There was no one in North Korea with whom he could meet.

Engagement on disability rights, however, has produced some perhaps unexpected results. Foreign organizations working on disability issues inside the DPRK cooperate with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), an organization that bills itself as an NGO though it functions more like a government agency. However, the Federation, which started up in the late 1990s, has encouraged the creation of groups run by the disabled to advocate for themselves.

The Federation, Devandas-Aguilar points out, “promotes the creation of groups of women with disabilities, also deaf people and blind people, which they call associations. Those associations seem to be more independent from the Federation and from the government. These groups deal with income-generation activities. They are dealing with sports, with arts.”

The US government, through its funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, has devoted considerable resources to supporting operations that beam information into North Korea via radio broadcasts and other means—to expose North Koreans to news of the outside world.

Yet, without any US government assistance, organizing around disability rights has brought quite a few North Koreans in contact with foreigners. Handicapped International has been working in the country since 2001, collaborating with the KFPD in the field of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation. The World Federation of the Deaf maintains an office in Pyongyang staffed by a fourth-generation deaf German, Robert Grund, who has helped popularize sign language services and greater educational opportunities for the deaf.

Kathi Zellweger has been traveling back and forth to North Korea since 1995, first with the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and now with her own NGO based in Hong Kong. In December 2016, her organization brought four North Korean women to Hong Kong for 10 days “to expose them to a wide variety of services for intellectually challenged children.” The key task was to provide training in assessment. “Once you have assessed children properly,” she continues, “then you can design for each child the needs for health, education, and how you work with parents and caregivers.”

Over her more than 20 years of work in the DPRK, Zellweger has witnessed a change in attitudes inside the country. “Up to a few years ago, you would see very few people with disabilities in the streets,” she observes. “Now that has changed. You see more people in wheelchairs, on crutches, parents with special needs children.” She credits the KFPD with helping to transform public attitudes, but it’s also a function of relationships established with outsiders.

“Every year, the country celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a lot of local officials attending,” Zellweger notes. “It’s a big thing. We suggested that they should include special needs children. When I was there the next year, they had a small group of special needs children performing. Sometimes you just need to give them some ideas of what to do.”

That some of the people affiliated with the nascent civil society around disability rights have travelled outside North Korea is unusual for a country that rarely grants permission to travel abroad for anyone other than a government official, an athlete, or a guest worker. More unusual still, some North Korean teenagers with disabilities have even made the trip. In 2015, a youth ensemble of two blind musicians, two amputee vocalists, and eight dancers with hearing impairment traveled to the United Kingdom and France at the invitation of the UK-based organization DULA International. This Para-Ensemble returned for another tour this year.

It wasn’t easy to make the visit happen. “With disability welfare and awareness still in its developmental stages, many North Koreans at first felt that this young, disabled group of performers were not the country’s best representatives,” explains DULA International’s director, Lee Seok-Hee. After considerable persuading, the DPRK government agreed and cooperated.

The exchange, in turn, had a transformative impact. “Whereas the DPRK public—and even the Para-Ensemble performers—largely misunderstood issues of disability before the tour, awareness of disability grew following it,” Lee continues. “Performances of the first tour, and the reception of international audience, were aired on national TV in the DPRK. This led an increasing number of people contacting the KFPD and inquiring about how they could get involved.”

Moving Forward

Although North Korea has had laws on the books related to people with disabilities going back to the 1990s, it has stepped up its activities in the last few years. The first North Korean Paralympic athlete, for instance, participated in the 2012 games in London. The KFPD has been releasing periodic disability surveys. And the government has allowed disability organizations from around the world to partner with the KFPD.

Given the opacity of the North Korean government, it’s not easy to figure out definitively why it treats disability rights differently than it does many other human rights issues. But observers can make some educated guesses.

“First of all, progress on the disability issue is not a threat to the regime,” points out Robert King, former US special envoy for the issue of North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017. “It’s not like freedom of speech or access to television from South Korea. It’s not going to undermine the claims of legitimacy of the government.”

King also suspects that people high up in the regime have children or siblings with disabilities. In China, for instance, the disability issue acquired a much higher profile when Deng Pufang, the son of former premier Deng Xiaoping, actively promoted it. A paraplegic thanks to an assault by militant Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled in 1984 and won a UN human rights award for his work in 2003. “A few people like that could make an appeal to the leadership and have some effect in getting some programs to benefit the disabled,” King says.

The overall human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire. Some North Korean defectors dispute that the government has changed its policies at all, and rumors abound of horrific treatment. Some experts on human rights in North Korea also argue that advocacy of disability rights is largely cosmetic.

“I’ve spoken with many UN officials, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion of a dramatic sea change in North Korean human rights,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country has ignored other issues, he points out, such as “the terrible things done to political prisoners in the camps, the utter lack of freedom of expression, freedom of association, any conceivable human right. But in this case, they selected [disability rights] as a point of contact where they can make some cosmetic changes and get away with it—or who knows, perhaps go a little deeper and make some serious changes and see where it takes them.”

However, organizing international support for human rights in North Korea around disability rights demonstrates that engagement can yield positive benefits for North Koreans and still advance certain US goals. It’s also a good example of how human rights work can promote more connections with the international community rather than fewer. “Especially in the current context of escalating tensions, the human rights system needs to put its energy into promoting dialog and discussion,” says the UN’s Devandas Aguilar. “That is the only way forward to avoid armed conflict or confrontation.”


Disarmament Shouldn’t be a Precondition for Negotiations with North Korea


(Image: Robin Atzeni / Shutterstock)

“We have to acknowledge that North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear capability as a precondition for negotiations,” foreign policy expert John Feffer said on Intercepted, “Why on Earth would they?”

North Korea’s nuclear ambition is best contextualized in history. Following the separation of the Koreas, both countries adopted different political-economic systems.

South Korea became more deeply embedded into the global economy and North Korea turned inward—a dichotomy that set the two countries off onto wildly divergent economic outcomes.

“It’s really exaggerated or aggravated by the collapse of communism,” Feffer said. When cheaply-supplied oil from the Soviet Union stopped entering North Korea, its agricultural and industrial capacity collapsed.

By 1995, a series of natural disasters set off a multi-year period of famine the country has yet to recover from.

“It was necessary for North Korea to find some other fuel source,” Feffer says, tying its nuclear ambition to its oil crisis. “But there was a military component as well.”

Not only was the South Korean economy flourishing in this time period, but its military capability was bolstered by American technological aid.

“North Korea fell behind rather rapidly. To level the playing field,” Feffer said, nuclear capability was seen as a cheap way of “coming up to speed.”

It also provided deterrence against “any possible U.S. intervention—either bombing or actual physical intervention into the country.”

“If they had not developed nuclear weapons. North Korea probably would not exist today.”

In contemporary diplomatic relations, Feffer argued, “We have to come up with different kinds of security guarantees in the process of negotiating with North Korea. We also have to acknowledge  that they’re not going to give away nuclear capability after a week of negotiations.”

“It’s going to take a while for this trust-building exercise to have any kind of impact,” Feffer said.

Listen to the full interview on Intercepted.


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North Korea fires rocket seen as covert missile test
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Darkness at High Noon in Korea


Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (Photo: White House)

As the world focuses on the war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the primary slugfest in the United States, the two Koreas are heading toward a catastrophe in the Far East.

Although relations on the Korean peninsula have been deteriorating for the better part of eight years, the last six months have been particularly tense. North Korea recently conducted its fourth nuclear test and followed up with a satellite launch using a long-range rocket. The international community reacted in its customary fashion, with condemnations and the imposition of more sanctions. South Korea joined in the chorus of disapproval.

But this time, South Korea went a step further. It severed its last important economic link with the North.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex was the only legacy remaining of the “sunshine policy,” the Nobel-Prize winning project of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. Established in 2004, the economic zone brought together South Korean businesses and North Korean labor in a business park located just north of the Demilitarized Zone in the ancient Korean capital of Kaesong.

Last week, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye pulled the plug on Kaesong. North Korea expelled the South Korean employees and froze the assets. The North also cut the communications hotlines that had connected the two countries. In this way, the two sides cooperated one last time to extinguish the final fading rays of sunshine.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification initially claimed that the proceeds from Kaesong helped the North fund its nuclear and missile programs. The minister subsequently walked back that claim, admitting that the government had no such evidence. That didn’t prevent President Park from repeating the same claim the next day.

The nosedive in relations on the Korean peninsula is already having a regional impact. North Korea has announced, in response to a new round of sanctions from Tokyo, that it’s suspending its investigations into the people it abducted from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. Both China and Russia are concerned that South Korea will adopt a new missile defense system in the wake of North Korea’s actions. And the United States has sent four F-22 stealth fighters to fly over South Korea in addition to an aircraft carrier already on its way for upcoming exercises.

But it’s the suspension of Kaesong that remains most troubling. The project represented the only real example of Korean reunification avant la lettre: a model for how the two very different countries could gradually work together toward common goals. Kaesong had survived for more than a decade despite North Korea’s nuclear tests and South Korea’s shift to the right. It symbolized the triumph of pragmatism over propaganda.

Park Geun-Hye has abandoned all her earlier talk of a “trustpolitik” policy of engaging the North. “We now need to find a fundamental solution to effectively change North Korea, and it is our time to be brave,” she said this week. Those sound a lot like fighting words.

Optimists always say that it’s darkest before the dawn. But we’re well past dawn on the Korean peninsula. We’re heading toward a showdown at high noon. And yet the sky seems to be getting darker and darker. Can all the parties concerned somehow avert a total eclipse of the sun?

The Importance of Kaesong

At its height last year, the Kaesong Industrial Complex employed over 50,000 North Korean workers and over 800 South Korean managers at 124 firms. As a result, 2015 was a very good year for the economic zone. For the first time since it started over a decade ago, the complex generated more than $ 500 million in economic output. That’s a lot of shoes, overcoats, and electrical products, many of which are sold in South Korea.

North Korean workers, mostly women, earned $ 150-160 a month. The North Korean government took approximately 70-80 percent of that total, which led many outsiders to conclude that the place was a “sweatshop,” even a place of “slave labor.”

But $ 30-48 a month, given North Korea’s depressed economy, is a lot of money for a North Korean — not to mention the other benefits, such as lunches and snacks, that came with the job. The average worker at a state enterprise only makes about $ 1 a month. The working conditions at Kaesong, meanwhile, were a lot better than anything you’d find in other North Korean factories. Although North and South Korean workers ate separately and kept their interactions to a minimum, the complex nevertheless provided an unprecedented opportunity for each side to humanize the other.

As North Korean defector Je Son Lee recently wrote, “When I was still living in North Korea, people used to say, ‘If you have one person in the family who works for Kaesong Industrial Complex, it can feed the mouths of everyone in their family.’”

Unfortunately the international community largely treated Kaesong as the bastard child of inter-Korean relations. God forbid that any Kaesong products might have sneaked into other countries covered by free-trade agreements with South Korea. As I wrote back in September:

Despite trade union concerns, the FTA — which went into effect in 2012 — has not extended any benefits to Kaesong. The United States — along with the EU and Turkey — relies on a panel to determine if any products from Kaesong are eligible under the FTA. So far, the panel has nixed every product.

Nor was North Korea able to attract significant foreign investment into the zone beyond that from the South Koreans.

And yet ironically, here was something that U.S. and South Korean conservatives should have been rushing to support. It was a clear capitalist encroachment into what many consider one of the last bastions of communism in the world (though I prefer to think of North Korea as an example of corporatist nationalism). It was a non-union zone, and conservatives love to talk about how much they hate unions (except, of course, in countries where they want workers to organize and effect regime change).

And the zone was smack dab in the middle of one of North Korea’s invasion routes into the south. As of last week, the North Korean military has taken control of the area. In what possible way could the closure of Kaesong represent a win for Seoul and Washington?

The North Korean Threat

When pressed by Chuck Todd of MSNBC at one of the Democratic debates to pick the biggest threat to the United States — Russia, North Korea, or Iran — Bernie Sanders chose North Korea.

That in itself wasn’t such a strange answer. After all, the United States continues to cooperate with Russia on a number of issues and has recently concluded a nuclear agreement with Iran. No one in Pyongyang or DC was going to get angry at Bernie for that.

In fact, Sanders’s full response revealed not so much his ignorance of foreign policy — a favorite evaluation of media savants — but how thoroughly mainstream his approach is:

Clearly North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one, who seems to be somewhat paranoid. And, who had nuclear weapons.

And, our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure [as possible]. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China. I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.

Sanders supports increasing sanctions against North Korea and wants to pressure China into doing likewise. Again, this puts the Democratic presidential candidate in good company. The Senate passed the most recent sanctions legislations 96 to 0, and the House did the same by a margin of 408 to 2.

But here’s the problem with this position. First, if isolation is what makes North Korea so dangerous, why would more international sanctions make the country any less of a danger? Second, if China has resisted pressure for more than two decades to turn the screws on its neighbor, why would it change its position now?

I’m not happy that North Korea has a nuclear weapons program. And believe me, China isn’t happy either. But registering our opposition to the program will not magically eliminate the North’s nukes. Nor will additional sanctions convince the leadership in Pyongyang to change their minds, any more than the economic embargo against Cuba transformed the system there. North Korea is convinced that the outside world wants to destroy it — which is not mere paranoia — and a nuclear weapon is its only security blanket.

The cynical will say that the international community has tried both isolation and engagement, and neither has worked. But that’s not really true. The international community has put its body and soul behind isolation and has been, at best, half-hearted about engagement. If only to make the obligatory nod toward non-proliferation, politicians condemned North Korea for its nuclear tests and missile launches.

But at some point, again in the interests of non-proliferation, the key players have to get back to the table with North Korea and negotiate a freeze of its nuclear capabilities at their current rudimentary level. More importantly, we have to multiply the points of engagement, not shut them down.

The North Korean regime is noxious in many ways. But one thing is for sure: Even though it’s outgunned, it won’t stand down in a showdown at high noon. And unless we start using our words, East Asia will be plunged into a darkness far more profound than the one that so famously exists north of the DMZ at night.

The post Darkness at High Noon in Korea appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer directs Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.


After Iran, Is North Korea Next?

Kim Jong-un

(Image: Flickr / Prachatai)

During the George W. Bush years, pundits and journalists were constantly speculating whether North Korea would be next in line for regime change. After all, Bush had included North Korea in his “axis of evil” speech in 2002. One year later, the Pentagon invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a member of the trio of tyranny. Perhaps North Korea would be the next undemocratic domino to fall.

But the Bush administration didn’t invade North Korea. The neoconservatives in ascendance in Washington were largely focused on the Middle East. With its many artillery positions, North Korea could quickly retaliate against any attack by destroying much of the densely populated South Korean capital. And there was no government-in-exile that could plausibly take over in Pyongyang if U.S. troops managed to dislodge the Kim dynasty.

Jump ahead a decade, and the question again arises: will North Korea be next? But this time, pundits and journalists are speculating whether North Korea will be included in the Obama administration’s “axis of reconciliation.” The United States and Cuba have reversed decades of animosity by exchanging embassies. The United States and Iran, supported by much of international community, have concluded a major deal freezing Tehran’s nuclear program and unfreezing economic relations with the country.

If international relations obeyed the rules of logic, the United States and North Korea would be sitting down right now to work out their differences. After all, when Washington finally realized that 50 years of sanctions hadn’t changed Cuba’s behavior, it decided to change strategies. Surely, the same applies to heavily sanctioned North Korea. And Iran realized that freezing its nuclear program could win it a potentially very lucrative economic arrangement with the United States and the international community. Surely North Korea has come to the same conclusion.

But international relations are not logical. Moreover, North Korea and Iran are operating in fundamentally different geopolitical contexts. In short, North Korea will not likely be the next member of the axis of reconciliation any more than it was the next member of the regime-change club.

First of all, unlike either Cuba or Iran, no major constituencies inside the United States are pushing for reconciliation with North Korea. The U.S. business community sees huge profits in the oil and gas sector in Iran and the agricultural and tourism sectors in Cuba. They have spent huge sums of money lobbying Congress and the administration to change U.S. sanctions policy. Previously, the business community was a big champion of détente with China.

But North Korea is not exactly an investment bonanza. The population is relatively small, plenty of outside firms have already lost money in their efforts to work inside the country, and neither the country’s infrastructure nor its laws are entirely predictable. If the corporate community wants to gamble with frontier economies in Asia, it has much better options in Myanmar.

In both the Iranian and Cuban cases, the diaspora communities shifted significantly in favor of engagement. For years, the Cuban-American population was fiercely anti-Communist. The Iranian-American population was similarly opposed to the regime in Tehran. But as a result of changes inside Iran and Cuba, a generational shift in the diaspora communities, and new communication technologies that linked the two populations, public opinion began to soften. This trend reflected a more general trajectory in favor of engagement among the American public at large.

With North Korea, on the other hand, the Korean-American community remains divided. Korean Americans are divided into roughly equal parts that believe U.S. policy toward North Korea is “too soft,” “too hard,” and “just about right.”

And Americans as a whole have very little good to say about the country. Indeed, according to Gallup’s World Affairs poll, North Korea has been at the bottom of the list of the American public’s most favored nations for the last two years. In 2003, only 8 percent of Americans viewed the country favorably, and that number has barely moved in the last dozen years.

In short, the push factor in the United States in favor of reconciliation with North Korea is extraordinarily weak.

The pull factor is no stronger. With both Iran and Cuba, political changes in the two countries ushered in reform-minded leaders – Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and Raul Castro in Havana. Although the regimes in both countries remained roughly the same, one presided over by ayatollahs and the other by the Communist Party, the new leaderships promised greater economic and political freedoms within the existing systems.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Eun took over at the end of 2011. Although many observers expected the young leader, perhaps because of his age, to inaugurate changes in the North Korean system, he has if anything presided over a tightening of the screws – executing his rivals, cracking down on would-be emigrants, and maintaining highly antagonistic rhetoric toward rivals South Korea and the United States.

President Barack Obama has a limited amount of political capital that he can spend in the international arena. He faces enormous pushback from a Republican-controlled Congress opposed to the détente with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. Absent pressure from the U.S. business community and an American public pressing for reconciliation with Pyongyang, the Obama administration is likely to ignore the issue of North Korea for the rest of its term.

Of course, North Korea itself could change the calculus. If Kim Jong-Eun borrowed a page from Hassan Rouhani’s playbook, he would revive the Six Party Talks and try to trade North Korea’s nuclear program for an invitation to join the global economy.

But there’s no indication that the third-generation Kim is interested in such a deal. Unlike Iran, North Korea is not an economic powerhouse that only needs an influx of capital to propel it to the top ranks. Iran currently occupies 29th place among world economies according to GDP, putting it in the company of Austria and Norway. By contrast, North Korea is much closer to the bottom of the list among the least developed nations of the world.

At the moment, the North Korean ruling elite worries that uncontrolled economic reform will unleash changes that might eventually trigger regime collapse. Pyongyang also seems to believe that its nuclear program represents the only credible deterrent to an attack by outside powers.

In order for relations to change between the United States and its adversaries Iran and Cuba, the stars had to align just so. A comparable realignment has not happened with North Korea. Unless something dramatic happens in Pyongyang or Washington, the status quo will remain exactly so for the foreseeable future.

The post After Iran, Is North Korea Next? appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.


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