The controversial issue of North Korean rights is one of the most important concerns over the potential humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Many reports regarding this issue are published. One of them is the U.N. report of the Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) which considered that many violations are still perpetrated as of 2014. At the United Nations General Assembly, a resolution on NK human rights including clauses such as the referral of the case to the International Criminal Court was passed.
This report classifies North Koreans violations in six categories:
- Violation of thought
- Violation of life
- Violation of the right to food
- Arbitrary detention and executions
Globally speaking, any improvements on the Human Rights in North Korea may lead to the realization of some South Korean economic projects. According to Kim Tae Shik, a South Korean researcher, in October 2014, the South Korean government has released a large set of projects for an improvement of the cooperation between both Koreas. However the author stipulates that the South Korean government expect from the North Korean government to create conditions. These “satisfactory conditions” expect not only an improvement of the Human Rights situation in North Korea but also a strategic place for South Korean companies in North Korea. The South Korean government planned to participate to the renovation of the North Korean infrastructure, to support the fisheries in North Korea and to realize an anti-flood project at Imjin River. The South Korean government plans also to restore Gokoryo tombs in North Korea.
In order to improve the situation of Human Rights in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, the policy on Human Rights issues should be coordinated on an international level and implies mutual similar interests. In the past, the former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak regularly met his counterparts from China and worked together to ensure peace and progress on the Human Rights field in North Korea. Nevertheless, the problem is that the partners of North Korea have different interests which are changing with their global situation. Currently both China and the Russian Federation have a political interest over the Korean Peninsula (they want to avoid the collapse of the Kim Jong-eun regime). Regarding new other partners of Pyongyang (Brazil and Indonesia), these countries considered North Korea as a trade partner. Finally concerning South Korea, the situation is more complicated than in the precedent examples. South Korea must follow a balance policy in order to avoid any kind of North Korean provocations. Various channels already used in the past (such as the cultural diplomacy) are ways of realizing this strategy. Moreover based also on the “carrot and stick” approach, South Korea could utilize its humanitarian assistance in exchange of some improvements on the Human rights fields. South Korean authorities also push for the return home of South Korean abductees and South Korean soldiers (POW-Prisoners of War) taken prisoners during the Korean War (1950-1953)
On the meanwhile North Korea prefer definitely to cooperate with other partners who are not so tremendous on the issue of North Korean Human rights. Which partners? Russia (the cooperation between North Korea and the Russian federation is still very weak: business transactions between both countries reached only around USD 70 mln since October 2014*) and Indonesia. Regarding China, I personally consider that the mutual relation called “Lips and Teeth” (입술과 치아 in Korean) during the Cold War has definitely ended. Recently, Li Jinjun the Chinese ambassador to the DPRK (who was recently appointed in March 2015) has also mentioned that the two allies need to respect each other’s differences.
As a conclusion, the issue of human rights in North Korea is a sensitive topic in South Korea. The South Korean population is sympathetic to those suffering in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula; South Korean universities are also conducting less analysis on North Korea than in the past. In a nutshell The South Korean population is more focused on the internal problems of the country and delegates are rather focused on the future National Assembly elections which will take place in April 2016.
From another point of view, being in regular touch with North Korean defectors and people travelling frequently to North Korea, I’m deeply convinced that the situation of Human Rights in North Korea improved over the last 5 years. I’m also thinking that a new North Korean leadership (under the governance of Kim Jong Eun) will understand that their safety is strictly correlated to the internal situation in North Korea. Therefore any progress on the Human Rights field will be well interpreted by the North Korean population.
* According to Melvin Curtis, a researcher from the Korean Economic Institute, bilateral trade between North Korea and China was around USD 6 bln in 2014. That’s around 40 times more than the annualized trade between Russia and North Korea.