History, Smoke and Mirrors: Assessing North Korea’s Association for the Study of Human Rights

By | October 07, 2015 | No Comments

Ri Tong-il representing the DPRK at the United Nations, May 7, 2014.

Ri Tong-il representing the DPRK at the United Nations, May 7, 2014.

In his recent essay for Sino-NK, Martin Weiser adroitly unpacked an obscure discourse from 1980s North Korea about the shape and imperative of internal human rights protection in that country. Irrespective of whether one is prepared to believe that the existence of such a debate in print proves that North Korean policy makers ever considered an alternative approach to human rights, it is clear that progress on the ground has been painfully slow in the thirty years since the publication of the writings in question. Few in the West seem convinced that the DPRK government harbors serious intent to improve circumstances in the country, particularly toward the norms considered by the UN to constitute universal human rights, and for its part the DPRK reflexively balks at anything that looks in the least bit like supranational authority. 

The appearance and subsequent promotion of the Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights moved the issue forward in unprecedented, but also rather unpredictable ways. North Korea’s various state responses to the COI report have been manifold. To the expected rhetorical blasts in Rodong Sinmun and verbal protestations by its diplomats in Geneva and New York, the DPRK has added physical disruption of events featuring North Korean defector testimony and videos discrediting individual defector narratives. Pyongyang has also published an extensive human rights counter-report of its own. Adam Cathcart walks through this document, emerging with a handful of insights from this most unrewarding of tasks. — Christopher Green, co-editor

History, Smoke and Mirrors: Assessing North Korea’s Association for the Study of Human Rights 

by Adam Cathcart

In late 2014, we saw the publication of an extensive counter-report on human rights, issued by a North Korean “Association for Human Rights Studies” whose composition remains somewhat opaque, but whose aims are very much those of the Korean Workers’ Party.

The document merited a mention by US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in a December 23, 2014 statement, called it “a sham report.” Perhaps this could be considered a kind of back-handed victory from the DPRK perspective, as the report at least merited a diverting breath of the Ambassador’s. In her presentation, Ambassador Power avoided mention of the DPRK’s attempts to increase its engagement with the universal periodic review process in parallel with the fight-back on the COI front, nor did she muster anything more than the most vague suggestion to China that it, too, might have some responsibility with respect to the North Korean refugees whose accounts she was otherwise eager to deploy.

Power’s  Security Council presentation can be lined up against North Korean counterattacks on the human rights issues, which are now also pointing heavily at Seoul and the new UN human rights liaison office in that city.

The following pdf of the Report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies runs 167 pages. As the following points should make clear, there is some utility in reading the report, at least for individuals concerned with human rights discourse around and in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / the DPRK.

Morning Aurora at the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, December 2012 | Image: KCTV/KCNA

Morning Aurora at the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, December 2012 | Image: KCTV/KCNA

1. What is the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies (조선인권연구협회)?

According to their extensive September 13 2014 report, the association was founded in August 1992 and includes some 150 individuals involved in the areas of law and public security as well as “population study.” Interestingly, apart from the sort of activities that one would expect — that this association exists to monitor implementation of international human rights treaties in the DPRK, which it purports to do — the association also is also charged with “arousing public opinions to carry out investigations on criminal acts of foreign forces violating Korean people human rights and take measures against them.” (p. 73)

This statement, along with the involvement of public security organs and interface with them in the process of building the report, makes quite clear that this report is to be primarily defensive, much in the way that the People’s Republic of China has constructed institutes for the study of soft power. Another precedent for the report might also be found in eminent DPRK jurist Ho Hon’s committee set up at on June 29, 1950, for study of American atrocities in Korea.

2. Which DPRK government agencies were responsible for producing the Association’s report?

The report refers to aid rendered by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The association also drew from expertise of the law college of Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences. Given that much of the report overlaps with materials already presented to the UNHCR, it seems likely that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have taken the leading role in the construction of this document.

3. What is the Association’s report based upon? Is any new data presented?

The report largely mirrors information presented to the UN human rights committee with respect to Universal Periodic Review, receded by quasi-philosophical positioning of what amounts to an argument for “Juche rights.” (To summarize, “Juche is infallible and a better guarantee of human rights as defined by us than any foreign system”) The report then moves into some standard but sustained attacks on the Commission of Inquiry report, then ventures into critiques of the United States security posture in East Asia.

4. Is there anything noteworthy in the introductory section of the report describing North Korean geography and history?

The question of baselines are very important when you talk about North Korea’s perception of its own ability to defend and interpret the human rights of its own people. For better or worse, the two arguments that seem to be put forward in this text are: One, that life in North Korea is much better than it was under Japanese imperialism and that citizens have no desire to go back to foreign domination, because that represents the abnegation of all of the progress made since 1945. (Obviously, this is a false choice, since the collapse of the DPRK would surely not mean a return to Japanese colonial rule, but this is how it is presented.)

Two, the text puts for the argument that North Korea should be given some credit for not collapsing in the late 1980s and early 1990s “when many countries were undergoing great political turmoil due to the collapse of the socialist system.” (p. 7)  As stated on page eight of the report, “the Korean people [therefore] enjoy a worthwhile and happy life without any social and political uncertainty.”

In other words, by preventing its own undermining and collapse, North Korea keeps its people from falling back into going to colonial penury. Our view that post-DPRK North Koreans would become quasi-affluent South Koreans is never presented as the alternate reality in this text. North Korea still wants respect for being proudly post-colonial, when most observers in the West and elsewhere see this identity as irrelevant, if not a patently deceptive means of avoiding contemporary responsibilities.

5. What does the DPRK report mean when it uses language about “independence of people in all aspects of social life?” Isn’t that a paradox in a totalitarian system?

When the association’s report talks about “independence,” what that means is that North Korea is not been invaded and colonized by a foreign power; it’s not about the independence or autonomy of the individual. When, on page eight, the report describes how the DPRK is “realizing the independence of the people in all aspects of social life,” this is code for Party life; essentially the good socialist life which is wrapped up in a collective organizations.

Take page 10, for instance: “The rights that do not embody independent will and demand of man or feel to realize them are not human rights in the real sense of the word.” Finding dull resonance amid the eternal rehashing of Kim Jong-Il’s prolix and meandering writings about Juche from the 1970s and 1980s, in this reading “independent” can be interpreted here as the “independent sovereignty of the state which that interprets what people need,” not the autonomy of the individual. As stated on page 11, “the independent demand of the social collectives for the existence and development of the collective is the comment demand of the social members and the independent demand of the individual is the demand which one deserves as the member of the society would guarantee from the collective.”

Or, further: “The demand of the popular masses [and] social collective represents the demand of the community and [happily and always!] coincides with the demands of each member of the social collective.” (p.11) Or, on page 12, “human rights is state sovereignty.” There it is: Human rights is state sovereignty, so to the extent that North Korea is not collapsing is the extent to which the world should leave it alone, completely, as the custodian of its citizens’ human rights.

Socialism in the DPRK: betrayed? | Image: Gilad Rom

Socialism in the DPRK: betrayed? | Image: Gilad Rom

6. Why is there such emphasis early in the report on cultural activities and the ability of people to participate in those?

The DPRK is very proud of its arts education, and system of structured leisure activities for people who follow the rules and live in urban areas in particular. On page eight of the report, the Korean Workers’ Party is aptly described as “the organizer of the people’s creative abilities activities;” the report further talks about creating a “affluent and supplies living standard with the cultural system that enables people to create and fully enjoy socialist culture.”

Perhaps the purpose here is to indicate to outside audiences that people in the DPRK are not living in hell, that there is not an absolute struggle for daily life in the country; it’s a very pure vision of itself that has nothing to do with the breakdown of the Public Distribution System, systemic bribery, drug use in daily life, etc. It is remarkable the extent to which this report stays away from those kind of dangerous questions of foreign information coming into the into the DPRK — the polluting effect and so on – but the incessant need to discuss socialist culture seems to be an inoffensive way of inoculating the report and the body politic against such outside influences.

7. Are the gulags mentioned in the Association’s report?

No, because the official stance is that they do not exist. However, by discussing the need for “vigilance which is required [so as] not [to] permit any active interference by some countries and international human rights organization under the name of human rights protection,” (p.13) the implication is, essentially, that to remove the gulags is to destroy DPRK state sovereignty. If the gulags are in fact so central to the existence and maintenance of the Workers’ Party state, then does this change the way that foreign states interact with the DPRK about the camps? In other words, is to discuss the camps tantamount to endorsing the violent collapse of the DPRK as an entity?

Also with respect to the camps, the closest the report gets is on page 53-54, where article 27, paragraph 28 of the criminal law is discussed, describing penalties including “reform through labor for an indefinite period, reform through labor for a definite period, and disciplining through labor.”

8. How does the DPRK position itself with respect to international standards and the discourse on universal human rights?

The report does a fairly slipshod job of establishing that North Korea’s concept of human rights deserves its own standard of evaluation. A very weak attempt is made to assert that the concept of universal human rights was more or less summed up in statements made by the United States and France in 1776 and 1789, both of which merit discarding because they came from “the capitalist world [and] consolidated the political and economical hold of the bourgeoisie.” (p. 14) But there is no need to get overly complex; the report bluntly states that “there is no human rights standard which every country can accept” (p. 16) and goes on to argue essentially, for obviating the very concept of universal human rights: “International human rights standard should be established to be fit for the demand and reality of the national state and each state can establishing standards of their own and apply them.” (p. 17)

Page 17 contains the strongest refutation of the very notion that any system involving the United States or former colonial powers to establish human rights norm has legitimacy. “Nobody in [the] international community empowered them to establish the international human rights standards.” While this is perhaps a shocking statement from a member of the United Nations and signatory to various international human rights regimes, it is a clear corollary to the country’s UN delegate statement in Geneva, who said, famously, “Mind your own business” to the Human Rights Council.

9. Why does the report spend so much time laying out a narrative of the legal and institutional foundations of the DPRK in the mid- to late-1940s?

Is all of this verbiage meant to speak to a domestic constituency? Probably not, but it certainly attests to the depiction of worldview that at least attempts to show that human rights (as interpreted as material social benefits) are important to the DPRK. They are also bound up with notions of postcolonial freedom first and foremost. And there can be no mistake there; describing the difficulty of uprooting the Japanese system in 1945, the report says “each and every law manufactured by Japan in Korea in the past was unprecedentedly evil, anti-human rights laws aimed at depriving Korean people of all freedoms and rights and forcing colonial slavery upon them.” (p. 19)

There is a great deal of discussion in the report of the role of local People’s Committees in the mid-1940s, and in their role in administering justice to pro-Japanese collaborators. The DPRK wants more credit for cleaning the “pro-Japanese elements and national traitors out of the judicial system,” which was a major undertaking obviously done with the help of the USSR. (p. 22) Other public security laws and judicial norms had their roots in 1946 and 47, discussed in more than passing detail on pages 22 and 23 of the report. This is all, perhaps, relevant, although many of these laws were subsequently subverted and changed, not just by the system set up in the 1960s, but even earlier in the establishment of the gulags in the late 1950s.

Call this section of the report a simple space-filler if you wish, but here the point appears to be to depict North Korea not as some ahistorical and lawless Hobbesian space, but as a country whose foundational systems have worked in the past, and continue to serve as a legal foundation from which North Korea is working. It also bears recalling that while the state has failed miserably to demonstrate these principles in the two more recent show trials (Jang Song-taek and Matthew Miller, to name two), we are still lacking basic data about current legal procedures in the DPRK, shouldn’t exclude the possibility that North Korean judges and trial procedures are able to improve.

10. Why does the report discuss at such length of the social benefits system through the Korean War, especially in 1952-1953?

This is a very curious part of the report, and it makes you wonder who the intended audience for the report actually is. Take, for instance, the statement on page 30 that “there was not a single case of death due to starvation or cold” in the DPRK during the Korean War, so attentive were the Korean Workers’ Party to the the people’s livelihood. Besides having little apparent relevance to the past 20 years of North Korean history, this statement obviously has no purchase in the West; nobody cares. It is interesting how time-specific the report is about legislation and decisions made by the KWP with respect caring for orphans or relieving food pressures – these are things that the Party is endlessly scrupulous about during the Korean War, but not necessarily afterwards.

The report spends basically no time at all talking about famine of the 1990s; so any external questions of the Party’s ability to take care of people during times of great distress are displaced by back to the Korean War, the central early trauma of the early DPRK, but also the key moment in the Party’s self-image. It is also a convenient way to avoid talking about the hardships specific to the Kim Jong-il years (1994-2011).

Market in a small village in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province. Markets have sprung up the countr over in response to the breakdown in the public distributions service. | Image: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt

Market in a small village in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province. Markets have sprung up the country over in response to the breakdown in the public distributions service. | Image: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt

11. Does the report in anyway acknowledge the total breakdown of the public distribution system for food in the mid to late 1990s, or deal substantively with the question of ongoing chronic hunger in the country?

No, it does not. In fact, on pages 98 and 99, in the section on the right to an adequate standard of living, the report states “every person in the DPRK, since birth, have a right to food and is supplied with food at a price next to nothing…. People in the DPRK, thanks to its people oriented policy, or living with no worries of paying for food and housing from the moment of their birth. This fact alone proves that the socialist system of the DPRK is the land of bliss for the people.” No stunting or malnutrition here.

12. What is the point on pages 32-39 of the report’s authors going through and talking at length about the healthcare system, child labor protections, and gender equality?

If anything in the report is actually aimed at the outside, this is it. States from the global South and other members of the UN human rights committee that are more prone in the countryside to a lesser level of development, are more likely to give the DPRK some credit for having set up some of these laws far earlier than their states did. If one looks at the recommendations in these areas tendered by the UNHCR, one can see that the North Koreans did, in fact, deal with some of them, such as stronger laws about child labor. Naturally implementation is the problem.

13. What role does the Kim personality cult, or Songun politics (code for Kim Jong-il deification), play in the document? Doesn’t this just reinforce the Commission of Inquiry’s assertions that Kim Jong-un is ultimately responsible for any crimes against humanity in the DPRK?

At the outset of the report, one is struck by how little of this has crept into the document, but then a striking example is reached on page 42. The report praises North Korea for having privileged the National Defense Commission after 1992 and elevating that institution. This then is twisted about, arguing that this bureaucratic change “provide[d] for the machinery of a legal guarantee which can strengthen defense capabilities against the US military maneuvers to stifle DPRK and maintain and develop the human rights law system.”  Similarly, on page 66, the NDC is said to “protect and promote human rights through its guidance over the whole Armed Forces in the work of defense upbuilding.”

Since the appearance of the Commission of Inquiry, many outside analysts have stated that North Korean state bureaucracy has grown concerned over the human rights issues in the international arena only because of the COI has implicated Kim Jong-un personally. But then this document goes ahead and clods toward precisely the COI’s point: If the National Defense Commission is ultimately responsible for human rights and all North Korean policies, and Kim Jong-un is its living co-chairman (Kim Jong-il being the eternal chairman, though he is dead), then doesn’t this make it more difficult for the state to distance Kim Jong-un from any crimes committed? Perhaps the North Koreans do not expect to have to pay this particular price, in the same way that reading DPRK state propaganda about Kim Jong-un being the pure inheritor and reincarnation of his predecessors also makes him culpable for the entire gulag system would be over-reading. But it is fascinating that in their zeal to include the National Defense Commission in this report, the Association is drawing lines that the COI itself is probably rather pleased to see.

14. Does the document tell us anything about the DPRK insecurities, or in any way reveal things going wrong inside the country?

It also talks about an intense “in intensive real struggle against all sorts of hostile elements that were attempting to other people to the world of degeneration dissoluteness and crimes, and to overthrow the social system in the end.” (p. 42) We also see “plotting to overthrow the government, terrorist acts, treason, sabotage and subversion, intentional murder, drug trafficking and smuggling.” (p. 89) There is also a section on illegal selling of blood and medical organs, (p. 90) which indicates this sort of thing may be going on.

15. What is the most ridiculous part of the report?

The section on North Korea’s Road traffic laws which contribute “to protecting the peoples lives and ensuring safety in the road traffic” on page 57 ought to win more than a few votes for the most ridiculous section of the report. But the assertion that the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League (p. 71) has as its primary function the protection of human rights protecting and promoting the rights of youth, as opposed to political obedience, was also risible.

The report veers into truly surreal territory when on page 76 and 77, it interprets the Juche idea as “a true ideology defending human rights,” meaning that any and all discussion of Kim Jong-Il, the Kims, and Juche ideology can, by official North Korean standards, be filed under “human rights education.”

The section on state media also deserves special mention (p. 78), along with the right to access and convey information — this is language which no one debating the role of KCNA and/or the AP in Pyongyang has seen fit to discuss, but which might have some minor bearing. (p. 82)

16. Does the report referred to North Korea’s previous reports as specific to the convention the rights of the child or interface with the other UN organizations?

The Convention for the Rights of the Child is discussed on page 68 briefly, as is also North Korea’s coordinating committee for UNESCO. The report also briefly discusses the implementation of conventions connected to reducing violence against women, but nowhere does the report it discuss when, if ever, North Korea submitted reports to the UN on these topics. This begs the question if the association writing the report event actually had access to that information – while a lack of such basic information on the part of the Association would be appalling, the possibility exists that it was not given access to Foreign Ministry records, etc., and so the Association’s ability to know basic things which we are able to gather simply by accessing UN reports online isn’t to be taken for granted.

17. Is there any reference to the Japanese abduction issue in the report?

The report contains a single reference to the abduction issue essentially dismissing it in a single line as a political fabrication by “riffraff” (p. 89), a reference which surely was not positively received in the Gaimusho, Japan’s Foreign Ministry. With respect to Japan, instead, there are multiple references in the document to the victims of sexual slavery of the Japanese army (pp. 74 -75), which goes very much along with North Korean tactics since at least 1992.

Considering that this report came out more or less precisely when North Korea had already pledged to have finished a report of similar scope dealing earnestly and finally with the abduction issue but did done so, was surely galling to Tokyo. Adding insult to injury, the report calls “a country that negated history of slavery in Korea… even today in Japan, buying and selling of slaves, forced labor, human trafficking and child labor are rampant.” (p. 92)

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom. This sort of assembly is actively encouraged and typically required. | Image: KCNA

The Red Flag Relay Reaches Panmunjom. This sort of assembly is actively encouraged and typically required. | Image: KCNA

18. What if you want to have a demonstration or start an opposition party in the DPRK?

According to the document the DPRK fully provides the freedom of assembly and demonstration, and the right to organize a political party or social organization of a democratic character. This is great news; just follow the rules on pages 83-85 and you can peacefully assemble to demonstrate or organize about whatever you like. Just make sure the People’s Security organ knows what you are up to well in advance, and that you do not “harm the security of the state, violate social stability, order, soundness of society and morality and encroach on other people’s rights and freedom,” particularly doing so without taking into account “the [very special yet never relenting] situation where the US and western countries are attempting to undermine the social system of the DPRK by creating instigating such associations,” or you might have some problems.

19. How does this report spin Juche around as a monolithic ideology of human rights that the United States is trying to take away from North Korea?

This is rather inelegantly done on pages 86-87, but it is also very revealing. Essentially what the report says is that North Korean people unanimously have “chosen to follow the Juche idea” which is “not forced by the state or anybody else” which is further “acquired through their everyday life and experience and history.” That this assertion appears in the section on protecting freedom of belief and religion is fairly remarkable.