The Debate

Human Rights in North Korea: The Real Key to Denuclearization

“Improving the human rights situation in North Korea is the alpha and omega of resolving all issues surrounding the North.”

Human Rights in North Korea: The Real Key to Denuclearization
Credit: North Korea military image via Astrelok /

Washington has recently ramped up pressure on Pyongyang over its human rights situation. It signed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016 (H.R. 757) into effect in February, right after the communist regime’s fourth nuclear test, and designated the regime as “a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern” in June.

In addition, the U.S. Department of State submitted “the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea” on July 6 in compliance with Section 304 (a) of H.R. 757, which requires the report to be presented no later than 180 days after the date of the enactment. The report blacklisted North Korea’s key government figures and departments, stating that “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture. There are no independent media in the country; the government allows no editorial freedom, and all stories are reviewed to ensure that they are in line with the state ideology. Authorities also prohibit listening to foreign media broadcasts and take steps to jam foreign radio broadcasts.”

The 15 blacklisted high-ranking officials include Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s top leader and chairman of the State Affairs Commission; Ri Yong-mu and O Kuk-ryol, former vice chairmen of the National Defense Commission, which has now become the State Affairs Commission; Hwang Byong-so, director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau; Minister Pak Yong-sik of the People’s Armed Forces; Minister Choe Bu-il of People’s Security; Kim Ki-nam, director of propaganda and agitation; and high ranking officials of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance. Government agencies including the State Affairs Commission, the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party, the Propaganda and Agitation Department, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the General Bureau of Reconnaissance were also listed for human rights abuses.

These newly sanctioned organizations are the top authorities and prominent surveillance bodies in the North. For example, the General Bureau of Reconnaissance was the mastermind behind a series of ruthless provocations targeting the South including the 1983 Rangoon bombing, the 1987 KAL bombing, and the 1996 Gangneung submarine infiltration incident, and today it is in charge of cyber warfare causing physical and psychological paralysis in the South. The Ministry of People’s Security is a law enforcement agency and responsible for the surveillance of citizens. The Organization and Guidance Department is a watchdog conducting a background check on all high-ranking officials and soldiers, and it has led the reshuffling of internal power dynamics and housecleaning. The Organization and Guidance Department has been gaining more governing power as Kim Jong-un has replaced military-first politics with party-first politics. The Ministry of State Security is an intelligence agency and a judicial authority which has power equivalent to the combined authority of the South’s National Intelligence Service, Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, Supreme Court, Ministry of Justice, and Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs. In other words, it is in charge of investigation, prosecution, trial, and sentencing regarding political criminals; it also supervises political prisoners’ camps. In 2013, the Ministry of State Security arrested and investigated Jang Song-thaek, and there he was brought to a special military tribunal and executed immediately after receiving a death sentence.

The United States will continue to observe the aforementioned organizations and increasingly pressure North Korea to enhance its human rights situation by publishing more reports including the upcoming “Survey Report on Political Prisoners’ Camps in North Korea” and “Human Rights Strategy Report: the U.S. Efforts to Improve Human Rights and Strengthen Democracies in North Korea”.

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The international community has repeatedly expressed its concern over the North’s human rights problems and urged the regime to address the issues. In fact, this is not the first time for the U.S. Department of State to submit a report on Pyongyang’s violation of civil rights, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have routinely adopted similar reports. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which became the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2006, has also adopted similar resolutions since 2003. In addition, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI), which was established in 2013 by the UNHRC, carried out a comprehensive study on Pyongyang’s infringement of human rights and published a report stating that “North Korea’s leadership is committing appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens with strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis. There was compelling evidence of torture, execution, forced labor, imprisonment, forced abortion, persecution on political and religious grounds and deliberate prolonged starvation.” The North’s key organizations, including the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Security, the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office and the Supreme Court, were pointed out as the brains behind these systematic human rights abuses. Unfortunately, however, Pyongyang is yet to yield under pressure, and its citizens’ rights are left unprotected.

Since the international community has been preoccupied with condemning the North for its nuclear provocations, the regime’s human rights abuses have been broadly disregarded. Indeed, the North’s nuclear issues have received most of the world’s attention though there is an overwhelming number of witnesses of the regime’s atrocity against its people, including some 30,000 North Koreans who fled their country and settled down in the South and hundreds of thousands of defectors in China and elsewhere. The bottom line is that we, as members of the international society, ought to apply leverage to augment the regime’s capacity to respect human rights — and for good reason.

North Korea’s nuclear and human rights issues are like two sides of the same coin; that is, these are linked issues which must be addressed together. Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition is the main culprit behind the regime’s isolation and poverty. Once it becomes a country upholding the value of basic human rights, its nuclear ambitions will organically die out. Once it respects civil rights, it will return the freedom of press, religion, and the right to vote to its citizens. In a country where citizens practice voting rights, an administration that obsesses over nuclear development while imposing tremendous suffering on its people does not stand a chance to return to power. In a similar vein, once Pyongyang chooses to protect the rights of its people, it will undoubtedly opt for the mutual prosperity of the two Koreas over armed provocation and/or creating tension on the Korean peninsula, and its people will naturally yearn for unification.

Improving the human rights situation in North Korea, simply put, is the alpha and omega of resolving all issues surrounding the North, and concerns about its nuclear capability are only part of the equation. It is also a critical first step forward in achieving mutual prosperity and peaceful unification on the peninsula. And this is exactly why the international community should step up its effort to better protect the human rights of the innocent citizens in North Korea. The global condemnation may not lead to immediate changes in Pyongyang, but when the international pressure finally mounts to exceed the threshold, it will trigger a meaningful shift.

Kim Tae-woo is Professor at Konyang University and Former President of the Korea Institute for National Unification