North Korea: Human Rights and International Relations

Presentation to the Isocracy Network on Friday April 19, 2014 at Trades Hall. PDF slides of the presentation are also available.

What I'm going to try and do tonight is do more than simply discuss how terrible the human rights situation is in North Korea. I will speak about that, but what I think will be far more useful will be to explain how things got to where they are, and what I believe the possibilities for progress are. To do this we first must go back in time, and while giving some general background I will touch on a few things that tend to get overlooked in mainstream accounts that I think are very important for understanding North Korea. Now, to tell the history of North Korea is to tell the history of Kim Il-sung, as perhaps more than any other state in history, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK was, and continues to be, shaped by the character of its founder and leader for almost 50 years.


Kim Il-sung was born on 15 April 1912, incidentally the same day the Titanic sank, although I don't believe the two events were related.... Kim was born into a Korea that had been formally annexed by Japan and made part of their empire in 1910. He grew up in a protestant household, his grandfather was a minister, and was not only a regular churchgoer himself but also a church organist into his teens. Many have noted the Christian influences in North Korean propaganda including the holy father and son as well as claims of miracles, and as with Josef Stalin who also had religious training in his youth, such dictators learned early how to manipulate the masses with music, art and calls to sacrifice.

Kim's family fled to China to escape the Japanese when he was 8, and aged 17 he was arrested for membership of a Marxist group. After being released he joined and later became the leader of a guerilla band operating out of Manchuria, and while his group had some successes fighting the occupying Japanese, by 1941 he was forced across the border into the Soviet Union with his 6 remaining followers. In the USSR he was recruited into the Red Army where he learned Russian, and was until 1945 based around Khabarovsk leading a brigade of Korean and Chinese exiles. It was on a Soviet Army base that Kim Jong-il was born, despite later claims that he was born on Mt Paektu in North Korea, a birth that was allegedly greeted by a double rainbow, birds singing in human voices and a new star in the heavens.... Note once again the appropriation from familiar Christian stories.

While Kim's troops did conduct raids and frustrated the Japanese, what is interesting for our purposes is how Kim survived while most others in his position were killed. As leader he practiced very harsh tactics such as kidnapping young men and forcing them to join his band as well as taking hostages in order to extract supplies from wealthy Korean families. The Japanese constantly tried to bribe or otherwise cajole the Korean partisans to betray their leaders, but failed due to Kim's insistence on absolute loyalty to himself personally, and this success via iron-fisted control was later replicated in the DPRK, a country run along the same lines as his small band of guerillas where almost anything could be done in order to survive in a world of enemies.


On 9 August of 1945, the same day as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept aside the remaining Japanese forces with minimal resistance. The next day in Washington, two young colonels, Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, were tasked with dividing Korea into Soviet and American controlled zones, for although allies in the war, the Americans were keen not to hand too much former Japanese territory over to Moscow's control. Finding a map of Korea in an old copy of National Geographic, they selected the 38th parallel as the line, and having heard this proposal shortly after, the Soviets acquiesced. One of the colonels, Dean Rusk, went on to become Secretary of State and advised John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson on their war in another divided Asian country, this time Vietnam. Pass your own judgements on that as you will.

This dividing line was, of course, a disaster for the Koreans, but by then it was too late. As the Soviet-American wartime cordiality quickly began cooling towards the deep freeze of the Cold War, it became clear the division was likely to last far longer than first thought. This new Soviet-controlled territory needed a leader, and the best candidate available turned out to be a 33 year old Red Army captain, Kim Il-sung. He was most likely picked because of his military background, and because, at the time, he espoused orthodox Marxist-Leninism; he also spoke fluent Russian.

After years living in first China and then Russia, what Kim didn't speak was Korean, and he needed coaching before he could deliver his triumphant victory speech in Pyongyang. Despite what DPRK propaganda insists, this speech actually occurred 2 months after the liberation of Korea, was written by the Soviets, and was given while Kim was wearing his Red Army uniform. With his disrupted upbringing Kim never completed high school, and although he preached Marxist-Leninism, his only understanding of this came the basic political classes that were compulsory in the Red Army. This would set an anti-intellectual tone that is still found in Korea to this day; a German interpreter for Kim later in life remarked after spending time with him that he, quote, “seemed never to have read a serious book”.


For the next few years and even after the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was officially proclaimed in 1948, the state functioned as a Soviet satellite, with hardline Stalinism one of the major imports. In 1950 North Korea invaded the South under the false impression that the US would not intervene and allow Korea to be united, but of course this was not the case, and after 3 years and 2 million dead later, an armistice was signed roughly along the 38th parallel selected arbitrarily 8 years perviously. As most know, as no peace treaty exists the Korean War has never ended, and when at the DMZ oneself, one can certainly feel this.

The war accentuated Kim Il-sung's paranoid style, and starting in 1955 he began a series of purges of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea that, when complete, left him and a handful of his old Manchurian guerilla faction completely in control of the central politburo, and the Soviet Koreans, left wing intellectuals from the south and all other groups were either expelled from the Party, exiled from the country or killed. Three important lessons from this period can be drawn when considering the subsequent character of North Korea and what this has meant for human rights. Firstly, it consolidated Kim as unchallengeable dictator, and all those remaining in positions of power were either his family members or old comrades whose loyalty he could guarantee. Secondly, the now famous cult of personality grew out of this era, and this has had consequences beyond international sniggering that I will touch on later. And finally the DPRK never underwent a period of de-Salinisation such as the Soviet Union did. This meant the gulags and harsh penal code carried on, and the country remained closed to the outside world both literally and figuratively. From now on the DPRK would look only to Kim Il-sung and nowhere else for leadership and guidance.


Thus North Korea continued until Kim's eventual death in 1994. From the 1970s onward his son Kim Jong-il became a major figure in the regime, and from the 1980s his succession as leader was an accepted reality. The standard of living in the DPRK was actually of a reasonable standard until the late 1980s as Pyongyang was shameless in milking other communist countries for assistance while giving next to nothing in return. Only with the end of the Cold War did things really deteriorate, mostly due to the fact the USSR had been North Korea's main benefactor. With no more cheap energy, loans and other essentials, plus the extraordinarily lavish spending on Kim Il-sung's funeral including embalming his corpse, thought to cost around $800,000 per year to this day, plus several years of bad weather combined to create a situation of utter misery for the Korean people.

However despite all predictions to the contrary the regime survived. While the number of defectors shot up from the late 1990s onwards, political and police control remained as tight as ever. While perhaps a million people starved to death in the 90s, the propaganda department suffered no reduction in its budget. The ruling elite believed the Europeans had been weak, a common charge was that the Soviet Union collapsed “without a shot being fired”, but where the Warsaw Pact countries failed, they would endure. And they did, the famine eased after the millennium, and even the death of Kim Jong-il and the rushed promotion of his 3rd son to the leadership has not produced any tangible changes to the regime and it's attitude towards human rights. And this brings us to the present day.


I'd like to turn now to the recent report on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea commissioned by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, and chaired by former High Court of Australia judge Michael Kirby. This was released in February and Lev put the link to download this on the Facebook event page for tonight if anyone's interested in reading the original. It goes without saying that North Korea declined to participate in this undertaking, and China too was uncooperative. So without on the ground access, the authors of the report relied on the testimony of 80 witnesses and experts along with 240 confidential interviews as well as submissions from the UN, humanitarian bodies and various state governments. The report identifies 6 main areas of human rights violations which I will now list and comment on.

1. Violations of the freedoms of thought, expression and religion:
This one is fairly self-evident. The DPRK is a repressive dictatorship that seeks to control the lives of its citizens in pretty much every sphere of life. It's a surveillance state with no non-government media permitted, and while Christian churches are oppressed by the regime as the report highlights, I honestly think this is actually the least of the problems the Korean people face.

2. Discrimination:
There is a lot about the second-class stature of women in North Korean society here. This is true to a large extent, as with other communist countries, post-revolutionary feminist zeal fairly quickly faded in traditionalism whereby women were expected to be wives and mothers first and foremost, and were excluded from the upper echelons of civilian and military power. As you would expect in North Korea, the highest ranking woman in the government, Kim Kyong-hui, is the late Kim Jong-il's sister.... That being the case, North Korea's record on women's rights in isolation (taking into account gender-neutral oppression, of which there is no shortage) would actually be far ahead of many other nations', most notably those in the Middle East and Africa.

The report also highlights here something known as songbun. This is a Korean term that translates as “class background”. It was come up with after the previously mentioned political purges by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s and laid out in a campaign entitled, with typical communist panache, “Develop the struggle against the counter-revolutionary elements into an all-people, all-party movement”. In total there are 51 official songbun groups, but effectively there are just three levels. Firstly the core class, mostly peasants, workers, anti-American and anti-Japanese fighters and their descendants, and of course party members. The wavering class are those who did not have immaculate proletarian and/or revolutionary credentials but were not considered a threat to the state, and finally the hostile class which contained those and the families of those who were landowners before 1945, sided with Japan and later the United States, former prostitutes, Koreans born overseas and Koreans whose families fled to the South during or after the War.

Originally those from the hostile classes were not permitted to reside near borders or in major cities and were limited in what jobs they could be employed in and who they could marry. However John Everard, who was United Kingdom ambassador to North Korea from 2006 to 2008, suggests that the songbun system is no longer being followed. In conversations with his Korean staff and other locals, they seemed to all agree that today it is income, not class background that determines people's outcome in life..... Sounds familiar.

3. Violations of the freedom of movement and residence:
Also, fairly self explanatory. Like most communist countries did in the past, North Korea operates an internal passport system which means people are assigned where to live and work, and moving around the country, where permitted, needs written approval, or a bribe. Also, only top party cadres are permitted to travel abroad. China is also criticised here for their policy of repatriating Koreans who have fled across the border. And as you would expect returned defectors are treated very harshly.

4. Violations of the right to food and related aspects of the right to life:
This addresses the government's callous response to the famines of the 1990s and their ongoing inability to feed all their citizens adequately. The Worker's Party lied for years about the extent of the famine, and as I mentioned previously, continued fully funding the ideological and propaganda campaigns during this time. Also maintaining a 1.2 million strong army in a country of just 23 million is a huge drain on what little money is available. The command economy structure of the 1980s no longer exists in North Korea, and today much of the food that is consumed is bought from markets, some legal, some illegal, but the Party's ongoing resistance further marketisation as a reason for ongoing food shortages is correctly noted.

5. Arbitrary detention, torture, executions and prison camps:
The DPRK is a police state that spies on its citizens and operates a system of brutal labor camps where prisoners are worked often to death. Torture, rape and execution are also common in this system.

I would argue that the report is somewhat inaccurate relating to arbitrary arrest. As North Korea expert Bradley K. Martin points out the DPRK still has a, mostly, functioning, government that does have control, and exists under rule of law, not anarchy. In this sense the DPRK cannot be compared to failed states such as Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo where law and order has completely broken down to the extent they should not really even be called states. In North Korea that law incredibly punitive and easy to run afoul of. Koreans can be arrested for such trivial crimes as commenting on the higher standard of living in the South or not properly cleaning the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that must be displayed in every home.... Trivial crimes by our definition, but crimes under the law of the land none the less. I realise this is a minor point but this is not the same as arbitrary arrest. And of course the level of corruption allows those who can pay bribes and/or utilise any government connections they may have to buy their way out of trouble. Unsurprisingly, Transparency International ranks North Korea, along with Afghanistan and Somalia, as the most corrupt countries in the world.

6. Abductions and enforced disappearances from other countries:
While the practice has dropped out of favour, particularly during the 1960s to the 80s the North Korean government abducted foreign nationals. Most famously the South Korea film director Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped in 1978, spent 5 years in prison for attempting to escape, then was forced by noted cinefile Kim Jong-un to make movies, including the infamous Pulgasari, widely known as North Korean Godzilla where the giant monster teams up with a peasant army to overthrow a corrupt monarchy.... More seriously an unknown number of Japanese citizens, 17 officially but thought to be more, were abducted by the DPRK. 5 were returned home in 2002 but the others are all deceased according to Pyongyang, however this is not widely accepted and is an ongoing controversy in Japan to this day.


While trying to improve the human rights situation in a state guilty of crimes against humanity is an urgent task, I ultimately think the Kirby report is somewhat of a waste of time for two reasons. Firstly, everyone already knows that North Korea has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Secondly, and more importantly, Kim Jong-un and the leadership of the Workers Party of Korea are not interested in what the rest of the world thinks, and also that, even if they had the desire to, they would be unable to implement any of the positive human rights reforms the report advocates, because that would be the death of the regime they lead.

I was recently at the German film festival with a friend to watch a couple documentaries on the former East Germany. During the intermission we got chatting to a woman who was born in East Germany and was 12 years old when the Wall came down in 1989. In the course of this, North Korea came up and she wondered why the citizens of the North hadn't rebelled and reunification occurred as in Germany. As I noted before, the DPRK learned one major lesson from 1989, in Germany and the Soviet Union the authorities did nothing when the people challenged the state and this led to the collapse of European communism. In China Deng Xiaoping ordered in the tanks when facing protests in Tiananmen Square, and this “weakness” is why today the hammer and sickle still flies over Tiananmen Square but not Red Square.

While the lack of an Eastern European or even Chinese-style uprising in North Korea can be partially explained by the fact that it remains a totalitarian police state in a way that no other communist countries were by the 1980s, there is more to why the DPRK endures and why the outlook for human rights remains so dismal. The Kirby report states, and I quote, The particular nature and the overall scale of human rights violations in the State can be more easily understood through an appreciation of the nature of its political system, which is based on a single party led by a single Supreme Leader, an elaborate guiding ideology. This, to me approaches the crux of what is different about North Korea which I shall now expand upon.

The DPRK a country of two wars, it's psyche remains defined first by Japanese occupation and World War 2, then shortly after by the Koran War. While Kim Il-sung's role in them has been greatly exaggerated since, he was prominent in both. The propaganda is easy to laugh at when it comes to things like Kim Jong-il hitting multiple holes in one every time he played golf, or Kim Jong-un learning to drive a car when he was 3, but when propaganda is backed with the iron fist of state control, it does succeed and thereby ensuring there is no organised resistance to the state. And as B. R. Myers points out, many equally or more ridiculous things have been believed in other times and places, like Nazi race theory or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As far as the DPRK is concerned, the two wars and Kim's role in them grant the foundation myths of the country and its eternal president a gravitas and significance not available in the East Germany or even Soviet Union, which goes a long way to explaining the DPRK's lamentable “success” in surviving.

Myers in his book The Cleanest Race, how North Koreans see Themselves and why it Matters, a book I highly recommend, lays out a convincing case that rather than being communism's last holdout as is commonly thought, North Korea should more accurately described as a quasi-fascist far right state, and race-based nationalism is the major component of the propaganda produced for domestic consumption. It is this, rather than the sham ideology of juche, or self-reliance that Pyongyang presents as its international face that really forms the character of the regime, and it is thanks to this that North Korea has proved so resistant to external pressure. This is also why despite decades of economic failure there has been no peasant uprising, put simply, unlike China and the former Soviet Union, North Korea does not look to economic success to grant legitimacy to the ruling power. They drum into every person that the Korean people are special and unique, and Kim Il-sung was the most Korean Korean who ever lived, and only though his guidance can the state retain its purity, rather than be a puppet state of foreigners like South Korea. Given these powerful emotions backed by real force, this is also why I think that the earnest recommendations of the Kirby report will achieve exactly zero while the Kim dynasty remain in power.

Nationalist myths are very powerful ones. In my own area of research, economic sanctions and nuclear weapons, I've found similar answers, when one looks at the nuclear situation in North Korea, the party's propaganda about the need to defend the nation against foreign threats has only been enhanced by international opposition to the DPRK. Also it's well known in international relations theory the forms of outside pressure often, paradoxically, produce a “rally around the flag effect” whereby what the international community views as a rogue state actually increases its legitimacy at home by looking like its standing up to overseas bullies. This happened with Saddam Hussein in Iraq when it were under heavy sanctions in the 1990s, and it also helps to explain why North Korea didn't collapse even after the famine during the 1990s. The people may feel let down by their government, but the nationalist propaganda worked, and that's why it still enjoys far more support than most foreigns would ever think possible.


The other way the regime derives ongoing legitimacy despite its dreadful record in government is due to the cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty. Once again, this too is often dismissed by the Western media, but if you'll allow me to briefly digress and talk about China, you will see why this is of such importance. Other than Stalin, Kim Il-sung's main role model as national leader and father of the nation was Mao Zedong. They key difference is that Mao died after ruling the People's Republic of China for a mere 27 years, and a short while after his death was succeeded by the brilliant Deng Xioaping.

Deng had already been purged twice before he finally consolidated power completely in 1978, but Mao had never ordered Deng killed, for as much as he resented any rivals to his authority, Mao realised that Deng was too useful to have shot, he was a man that could get stuff done. What Deng did upon finally getting to the top was force all the old Mao loyalists into retirement and replace them with young and competent reformers. He then cleverly shifted the country's thinking over the next decade so that while Mao was still revered as the great revolutionary and founder of the nation, all of Mao's actual ideas were progressively thrown out and replaced with what China still is today; a mostly free market economy with a authoritarian ruling party controlling all the levers of power, or state capitalism in the language of Marxism. It is a testament to Deng's success in this that the Tienanmen Square massacre of 1989 only briefly upset this upward trajectory, and as China became richer governments in the West found it more convenient to forget about the whole thing.


OK, that's China, now let us compare this with the situation in North Korea. Kim Il-sung led the country not for 27 but for 46 years, and was succeeded not by a pragmatist leader and cadre of reformers but rather his own son, whose main character trait was an excess of filial loyalty. Kim Jong-il knew that the only way to legitimise himself was to pump up Kim Il-sung into something akin to a demigod, and thereafter could bask in this inherited glory. And this is what happened. Kim Il-sung was already a cult figure in the 1950s and 60s, but once his eldest son got in on the act from the 1970s onwards, that's when the propaganda lost all sense of perspective. All those stories about the superhuman yet humble nature of Kim Il-sung were approved by Kim Jong-il as they would one day help him rule in his father's name. And this he did, despite his death in 1994, Kim Il-sung remains North Korea's “eternal president”, the only country on Earth to be ruled by the deceased.

After Kim Jong-il's own death in 2011, he was succeeded by his son, and the pattern repeats itself; the massive propaganda apparatus backing Kim Jong-un continually points to his grandfather far more so than his father. What this means in practice is that no deviation from Kim Il-sungism is permissible, as to do so would undermine the position of first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un. This is why there will be no North Korean Deng Xiaoping, not only is there no reform-minded members of the leadership waiting to take over, to even try would be futile as 60 years of Kim worship has created an ossified system that is fundamentally incapable of changing itself. From the purges of the 1950s to the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kimg Jong-un's uncle by marriage, the leadership has shown that it and only it is in command. The powerful people in North Korea that have done very well out of the current arrangement know that to open up even the smallest crack of reform would eventually shatter the entire system, as happened in the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev's failed Glasnost and Perestroika initiatives of the 1980s.

As DPRK expert Andrei Lankov puts it, “a government that is not okay with dangerous notions of “democracy” and “human rights” is in a much safer position than a government of soul-searching reformers.” This is why all the recommendations in the Kirby report are essentially worthless, not because they are bad ideas, quite the opposite, but because to even admit problems exist, would be the death of the regime in Pyongyang, and as survival is their sole priority, nothing will change without the whole system collapsing. The only way human rights will improve in North Korea is when, hopefully, eventually, it becomes just Korea. Thank you.


Catch 22 – a less hostile posture by the West could improve the human rights situation but also more international support could keep a regime with a terrible human rights record in power. It has been argued that, rather callously, the Bush administration’s sanctions regime is hoping to expedite the DPRK's collapse.

Reasons China props DPRK up:

1 Human rights distraction
2 Geopolitical balance in North Asia favourable as is
3 No desire for US troops on border
4 Economic reasons – resources/manufacturing.
5 Does not want refugee flood
6 Lingering communist loyalty

Lankov believes that a revolution is probably likely at some time, but only a guess.

UN Human Rights Council has also been criticised, Lybia was a member, and they even tried to ban the word “authoritarian”. Also a focus on “cultural rights” rather than human rights.

UDHR in 1948 listed 30 provision. By now UN up to 676 provisions from things like the right to an unpolluted environment to the right to broadband internet.

Many sates, especially in Asia, consider economic development priority and consider human rights an indulgence for already rich countries to worry about.

In Vietnam since 2012 there have been 65 prisoners of conscience sentence to long prison terms, mostly for criticising the government, Amnesty International.

China still has their “re-education through labour” camps, although they've vaguely promised to end this, and still lead the world in executions. In 2012 the United States executed 43 prisoners, the Chinese are thought to have killed over 4000, although precise figures are not available.

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