Voices from the Black Box: 1987, the Social Democratic Party, and Protection of Human Rights

By | September 14, 2015 | No Comments

The human rights discourse as it emerges from the DPRK: scrambled. | Image: Sino-NK

The human rights discourse as it emerges from the DPRK: scrambled. | Image: Sino-NK

The international movement to address human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean government peaked (at least for the time being) with the publication in February 2014 of  the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Established to document crimes committed in the state-making process since the very inception of the DPRK, the report built upon fifteen years of energetic work by human rights defenders in Seoul, Washington, DC, and elsewhere to shine a light into the human rights “black box” that lies north of the 38th parallel.

For better or worse, the COI report was seemingly reticent to examine the implications of the Darkness of Heart, wherein “cruelties committed by human beings in whatever form affect not only the victims but also the others – participants in the act, passive spectators and even the perpetrators themselves.” Yet in simply laying out the sheer diversity and scale of the crimes for all to see, it was a signal success.

In the aftermath of the COI report, the working assumption seems to be that there is not now and never was a substantive human rights discourse going on inside the DPRK. Today, Martin Weiser challenges us to reconsider this preconception. Weiser is not the first to take seriously the notion of North Korean-style human rights: Song Jiyoung looked at the subject from a much broader historical perspective in her manuscript (a publication that, readers may wish to note, was not universally lauded). In the following essay, Weiser adds a number of fascinating documents to the discussion, rescuing them from the “black box” of historical obscurity. In so doing, he seeks less to shine a light into Pyongyang’s proverbial darkness than to find a source of light from within the DPRK itself; an acknowledgement or two that a debate does, in fact, exist. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.    

Voices from the Black Box: 1987, the Social Democratic Party, and Protection of Human Rights

by Martin Weiser

Facing numerous testimonies and most recently the voluminous report of the UN Commission of Inquiry, the North Korean government insists that its legal and political system provides fully for the protection of human rights and can hold violators accountable. It made this explicitly clear when it published its own human rights report in September 2014. Denouncing the Commission of Inquiry as a marionette of the US and other Western countries and calling those who came forward to give testimony “human scum” [인간쓰레기], North Korea fiercely rejected the report and its findings. In North Korea’s first interaction with Michael Kirby, who chaired the CoI, one DPRK diplomat unfortunately did not go beyond asking him about his knowledge of North Korean laws and its constitution.1)United Nations, “Panel Discussion on ’The Human Rights Situation in North Korea,'” October 22, 2014.

In the midst of this straightforward rejection of international criticism, North Korea has, in fact, acknowledged that human rights violations exist inside its borders. While stressing that they result from bureaucratic behavior or are remnants of “non-socialist“ values, several general references to human rights violations committed by officials can be found in the speeches of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, underlining that the highest leadership has long been quite aware of them.The most recent direct reference to human rights violations the author could locate was by Kim Jong-il in June 1989.2)Kim Jong Il, “ Let Us Further Strengthen The Party And Increase Its Leading Role [당을 강화하고 그 령도적 역할을 더욱 높이자],” Selected Works of Kim Jong Il [김정일선집] 9 (Pyongyang: KWP Publishing), 342-391. In 2001, a North Korean official also publicly acknowledged that violence in prisons was known to the government, although only six complaints were said to have been filed since 1998.3)Summary Record of the 1944 meeting of the 72nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, July 19, 2001, CCPR/C/SR.1944, paragraph 25.

The testimonies of escaped North Koreans provide insight into where and how North Korean law, and the behavior of state officials, fails to enable citizens to hold their officials accountable; no information has come out so much as suggesting the existence of an institution investigating violations and supporting the struggle of ordinary citizens for justice. However, a hitherto overlooked call to prevent human rights violations and investigate them in more detail did come from a neglected political organization in the North: the Social Democratic Party (SDP). For reasons thus far unexplored, one issue of the party’s in-house magazine dating from mid-September 1987 featured two articles on human rights that went far beyond the rhetoric of other North Korean publications. While both start with the predictable narrative that praises the protection of human rights under socialism and denounces violations of the same in liberal democratic capitalist states, they end on a surprisingly critical note.

First, Chang Kyeong-do, who appears to have contributed only this one text to the magazine and about whom further information is limited, briefly mentions that human rights violations still exist in the North and then goes on to elaborate how his party should tackle them:

Chang Kyeong-do, “Protection of the People’s Legal Rights and Interests [인민들의 법적권리와 리익의 보호],“Korea Social Democratic Party [조선사회민주당] 4 (1987), 20-21.


Important for the task of protecting the legal rights and interests of the people (인민) is first of all to amend those phenomena which violate those legal rights and interests of the people (인민) and to work towards restoring those rights and have their interests fulfilled.


As is known, since in our country classes and social forces that suppress or exploit the people (인민) have been eradicated, instances where violations of  people’s (인민) legal rights and interests have a root in social class or result from the system cannot exist. But even in our society, the phenomena still remain whereby individual citizens (공민) violate the legal rights and interests of the people (인민) or state officials violate them through bureaucratic behavior. Although the responsible national institutions are comprehensively pursuing the duty of protecting the legal rights and interests of the people (인민), the struggle against such phenomena requires our party organizations at every level to actively participate in this struggle against those phenomena of rights violations.


On occasions like the “Day of the Citizens” (주민), party organizations at every level have to concretely examine all cases of rights violations that become known through diverse channels, discuss measures for correction and restoration, bring forward those problems to national organs like the Guidance Committee for Socialist Legal Life or the institutions of social security and the prosecution and work actively for the selection of measures to restore rights and compensate for violation of interests within a proper period of time and according to relevant legal procedures. Here the important thing is to adhere to the the principle of abiding by the law for achieving a fair resolution in strict accordance with national regulations as well as to take a responsible position until the end so that matters one deals with can see a fair resolution. Taking a position out of step with legal requirements or stopping with a raised issue halfway through can spoil the image of our party and can have negative effects on the task of strengthening abidance to socialist laws.


The important task in guaranteeing and protecting legal rights and interests of the people (인민) and constantly expanding the legal rights held by the people (인민) consists in further improving all national regulations setting out citizens’ legal rights and interests, in allotting deep concern to completing the task of enacting laws, and in actively working for progress in those tasks.


The democratic rights and freedoms of the people (인민) can be insufficiently fulfilled and protected not only through deliberate acts of violations but also through all relevant regulations that are inadequate. Accordingly, it is important to improve and perfect those national relations that provide for rights of liberty (자유권) and rights of equality (평등권) of the people (인민) to reflect more completely the goal of protecting rights. The task of enacting legal regulations is also highly important for expanding and developing democratic rights and freedoms of the people (인민) in line with the progress of the construction of socialism. Party organizations at all levels naturally have to actively work on the task of enacting and completing national legislation related to protection of the rights and interests of the people (인민) and allot deep concern to it.


Related to this task, it is important to alleviate the role of our party’s delegates. They have to take policy proposals, researched well and with a high sense of responsibility, and actively contribute with them in the process of enacting legislation. The task of guaranteeing and protecting the democratic rights and freedoms of the people (인민) to the maximum and expanding them continuously can be successfully realized only if the people (인민) themselves are fully aware of their rights and have mastered them.


The reason for this is that those who enjoy those rights and hold those interests are the people (인민) themselves. Accordingly, every level of our party organizations and all party members, especially our fellow party members in the Supreme People’s Assembly, have to exert efforts to increase the understanding and awareness of legal regulations as well as rights and obligations among the people through enlightening propaganda [계몽선전]. The important thing here is that enlightening propaganda means not only the education about correctly executing one’s own rights, but also to have them acquire the correct legal consciousness to faithfully fulfill one’s own duties while faithfully respecting and not violating other people’s rights and interests and to have them exalt in the socialist spirit of collectivism, to help each other and live a life in solidarity. The concepts of rights as sole self-interest [배태적인 리기주의적권리관념] has no connection to the socialist concept of rights and runs counter to the public interest of everyone living in our society including the very holders of those rights. All party organizations have to understand that the task of protecting the legal rights and interests of the people (인민) is an important duty and have to engage in it responsibly.

A few pages later in the same issue, Pang Kye-su, a long-standing contributor to the magazine, deals more briefly with both points elaborated by Chang and in much the same fashion; namely, by first stating that human rights violations are still a possibility in North Korea and subsequently calling on party members to end them.

Pang Kye-su. “Socialism and Human Rights [사회주의와 인권],“ Korea Social Democratic Party [조선사회민주당] 4 (1987): 96.


Saying that socialism eliminates through its systemic nature the social roots of human rights violations and that it is a superior humanitarian social system which provides for all social requirements for everyone to enjoy true human rights does not mean that in socialist societies the guarantee of human rights is achieved naturally. Even in socialism, human rights violations can occur by individual persons or government officials and even through the mistake of “sleeping” by the rights holder when it comes to his or her rights it can happen that human rights are not fully exercised. Accordingly, also under socialism human rights can only be realized fully and without obstacles if the awareness of the rights holder of human rights is high and all members of society as well as government officials respect human rights, if society and the state are concerned with and protect the guaranteeing of human rights.


For the development of socialism, our party delegates have to be well informed of the process of realizing more thorough guarantees and the expansion of human rights. We have to give great attention to questions of human rights at all times during party work and have to work towards adopting political, legal, and social measures to eradicate phenomena of human rights violations. This requires us to be among the people (주민) and explore the real situation of their human rights, to actively work for dealing with the points that are raised by the people (주민) while also working strenuously to raise the people’s (주민) awareness of their human rights through enlightening propaganda [계몽선전]. Our party delegates have to work actively to realize this human rights policy of our party and strengthen the struggle for the protection of human rights.

Given that nothing comparable to these two statements has been found in any other North Korean publication to date, the role of the SDP in North Korean society and what its rhetoric can tell us about processes of change appears to have been underestimated.

Of course, the early history of the party did not offer much promise. After its first — and by far most famous — chairman, Cho Man-sik, was arrested for not cooperating with the Soviet occupation forces in 1945, a close first generation revolutionary ally of Kim Il-sung and vice-chairman of the party since its formation, Choe Yong-gun, moved into the position, taking away virtually all of the party’s political independence.4)Robert A. Scalapino and Lee Chong-sik, Communism in Korea: Part II – The Society (London: University of California Press, 1972), 693-694. Possibly as a result of the August 1956 challenge to Kim Il-sung and subsequent crackdown on all opposition, purges of Christians followed, seemingly including the disappearance of North Korea’s Christian association in 1958.5)Ko T’ae-u, North Korea’s Policy Towards Religions [북한의 종교정책] (Seoul: Minjokmunhwasa, 1989), 79-80. While North Korea´s Christian Federation (북조선기독교련맹) was still included in the list of social organizations in the North Korean Yearbook printed in December 1958, it was not included thereafter. While no religious institutions at all were mentioned in the 1959 Year Book, the next one mentioned the Korean Buddhist Federation (조선불교련맹), as well as the South Korean Christian Federation (남조선기독교련맹).6)Korea Central Yearbook 1958 [조선중앙년감] (Pyongyang: Korea Central News Agency), 97; Korea Central Yearbook 1959 [조선중앙년감] (Pyongyang: Korea Central News Agency), 157-8. This likely had a negative effect on the party’s remaining Christian members who had not fled to the South, ironically leading to Kang Ryang-uk, previously chair of the Christian association and an uncle to Kim Il-sung, becoming its new chairman.7)North Korea Human Geography [북한지역정보넷] entry for Kang Ryang Uk. Shortly thereafter, it was ordered — just like the Cheondoist Chongu Party (천도교청우당) — to dissolve local-level organizations and, a year later, provincial ones, thus depriving it of its last direct connections to the civilian population.8)Scalapino and Lee, Communism in Korea: Part II–The Society, 698.

Accordingly, scholars have cast this party aside as a simple bloc party without any significant role in North Korean society or history, with all the available research on it until today essentially summarized in the above paragraph. Even after the party magazine became externally available,9)The Information Center on North Korea (북한자료센터) holds the Korean editions of the magazine from 1983 to 1996, as well as the spring issue of 2003 which somehow found its way to the library last year. The official English edition of the journal is also available there from 1988 to 1992  as well as the  some issues of the party bulletin  from 1994 to 2002. Most issues were acquired by the center in 2003. Although the party magazine has its own page at North Korea’s naenara.com.kp, the author was told by the center staff that it cannot be bought through the usual channels like other North Korean publications anymore. no new academic interest in the SDP followed, with so far only one book chapter, published in Korean in 2005, which took a rather brief look at the institutional development of the party and unfortunately only brushed over a few articles in the magazine.10)Cheong Seong-im, The Korean Social Democratic Party and the Korean Chondoist Chongu Party [조선사회민주당과 조선천도교청우당], 247-306, in North Korea Research Center of the Sejong Institute, Subsidiary Organizations of the Korean Workers’ Party [조선로동당의 외곽단체] (Paju: Hanul, 2005), 247-306. Even the role of its chairman Kang Ryang Uk in North Korean history was only explored in one publication–a South Korean PhD dissertation dealt with him, but only in his role as chairman of the Christian association. Yu Gwan-ji, Study on Kang Ryang Uk: His Role and Influences in the North Korean Church History since the Liberation, PhD dissertation, Hoseo University, 2009.

Aside from academic curiosity, there exist, however, very good reasons why we should be more interested in how this party has been operating and what its publications have talked about over the years. Since its foundation, its membership had consisted in large part of groups not directly in support of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party such as Christians, merchants, and entrepreneurs.11)By 1988, for example, 11 percent of its members were said to be religious people (종교인), while only 50 percent were workers and more than 36 percent came from the areas of culture, science, health or education. Government officials accounted for 4 percent and “home-manufacturers“ for 10 percent. With 29,000 members at that time, about 3,000 were classified as religious–likely mostly Christians. “On Attaining the Objective of the 30,000-member Party Building–Decision of the Political Committee of the Central Committee of the Korean Social Democratic Party” (December 5, 1988), Korea Social Democratic Party (English Edition) 1 (1989): 9. In particular, its large Christian membership, possibly put it into a similar position to that of the Christian Democratic Union in East Germany, which took the integration of Christians into the socialist state and the necessary indoctrination of them as its main task.12)Rüdiger Weiß, Geschichte und Funktion der DDR-Blockparteien CDU (Ost) und LDPD [History and Function of the GDR Bloc Parties CDU (East) and LDPD] (Diplom.de Publisher, 1996), 40 In fact, in two speeches in 1961 and 1962, Kang Ryang-uk singled out Christians in a few sentences and their adherence to the line of the Workers´ Party without mentioning other groups in its membership in a similar way.13)Rodong Sinmun, September 16, 1961, 8-9 and October 23, 1962, 3. Accordingly, we should be able to detect through the party’s rhetoric changes in control and indoctrination of this and other social groups. One example could be a reference in early 1992 to statements made by Kim Jong-il on religion that appears to have coincided with a clear change in policy, including the building of churches:

As our beloved leader Kim Jong-il told officials several years ago, religion has not only bad aspects but also good ones.… The position of  religions  that the people have to love each other and live peacefully [we] can see as a good aspect.14)Rim Ki U, “A Chuch’e-based View of Religion [종교에 대한 주체적견해],”Korea Social Democratic Party [사회민주당] 1 (1992): 13.

Furthermore, we can assume that because of the difference in membership, SDP rhetoric also covers different topics compared to publication of the Workers’ Party, e.g., religion and private economic activities. A brief look at the journal confirms this, with several articles we would not expect to come across in North Korean publications–especially during that period–dealing with topics ranging from increasing support for the disabled,15)Kwak Myong Jin, “Deep Interest in the Welfare of the Disabled [장애복지에 깊은 관심을],“ Korea Social Democratic Party [사회민주당] 3 (1990): 9. the possibility and benefits(!) of competitive elections,16)Kim Sang Gwon, “Candidacy Problem in Our Elections,“ Korea Social Democratic Party (English Edition) 1 (1988), 18-20. to the nature of the multi-party system in North Korea 17)Pang Kye Su, “The Socialist System of Our Country and its Multi-Party System [우리 나라 사회주의제도와 다당제],“Korea Social Democratic Party [사회민주당] 2 (1983): 85-88.

Last but not least, the party magazine, which appears to be directly addressed to party officials, despite being translated into English and distributed abroad, allows us a deeper look into the political agenda in Pyongyang. For example, in line with its name change from democratic to social democratic in early 1981, the party also adopted a new party platform that explicitly stated the protection of human rights as the second point in a ten-point program:

2. To consolidate the democratic political system under which all political parties are represented in power and fully ensure equal political rights, freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, demonstration, religious activity and human rights to all citizens. 18)The English translation of the program was published in the Pyongyang Times, February 7, 1981.

This led Pang Kye-su in his essay above to even refer to “the party of human rights protection” [인권옹호의 당]. While it is possible that the party itself put a greater focus on human rights due to the constant threat of discrimination and oppression and the stake of, for example, its Christians members in religious freedoms, the adoption of their program in 1981 also coincided with North Korea acceding to two major human rights treaties19)It acceded to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on 14 September 1981 which entered into force the same year. and  negotiations with Amnesty International on a future visit.20)To the best knowledge of the author the only public reference to these negotiations is available through to Luise Rinser who thanks to her close relationship with Kim Il-sung was told about it by him, including that he had agreed to the visit. The authors was told by a former UK diplomat that these negotiations did take place but, according to Amnesty International staff involved, North Korea backed out of a previous agreement. Luise Rinser, Nordkoreanisches Reisetagebuch [North Korea Travelogue] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1986). The relevant paragraphs are also available online in German. Nonetheless, the program seems to have stood out during that time, considering that the first laws that directly refer to the term “human rights,” the Criminal Procedures Law and Lawyers Law, were both adopted some years later in the early 1990s and North Korea’s constitution only explicitly incorporated the protection of human rights in 2009. Therefore it should not surprise us to see about a year later in the same magazine the chairman of a party county committee openly pointing out problems in the North Korean petition system:

Social control also is an important aspect for defending the people´s rights and interests. With this regard I have to mention the system of making complaints and petitions. This system must be more effectuated and the state organs should enhance their responsible role in dealing with the complaints and petitions.21)Kim Jin Myong, “Interview: Reflecting the Popular Will and Defending Human Rights,“ Korea Social Democratic Party (English Edition), 1 (Spring 1989): 15.

But these three instances where the Social Democratic Party criticized North Korea´s domestic human rights situation again appear to be linked to other fundamental changes in the North. After the 1987 issue of the party magazine was published in mid-September, a nation-wide conference of legal officials was held on October 24 and 25. While the congratulatory letter of the central committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, dated October 14, made it clear that the event agenda concerned the correct application of laws and the protection of people’s rights and interests by governmental institutions, its importance can be grasped from the list of participating officials: Next to Han Sang-gyu, chair of the central prosecutors’ office (중앙검찰소), the chair of the legal research institute of North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, Ri Ki-seop participated, as did several officials from the social security and judicial organs.22)See: “Let Us Strengthen the Socialist Legal Life and Thoroughly Erect the Revolutionary Spirit of Law Abidance in the Whole Society” [사회주의법무생활을 강화하여 온 사회에 혁명적 준법기풍을 철저히 세우자], Rodong Cheongnyeon [로동청년] (October 1987): 1. Possibly not by coincidence, in 1992 Sim Hyeong-il (심형일), who was vice-chairman of the legal research institute during that time and likely also involved in the conference, became the chair of North Korea’s newly founded Association for the Study of Human Rights (조선인권연구협회). In line with this new item on the government agenda, reports on socialist legal life [사회주의법무생활] and abidance by the law increased in the daily newspapers leading even to a surprising article in the December issue of Korea Today, a magazine aimed more at a foreign audience and generally lighter on political propaganda.23)Li Jip, “Correct Guidelines for Obedience to Socialist Laws,“ Korea Today 12 (1987): 24-25.

The revision of the criminal code in February 1987 also fits this picture of fundamental change, as it markedly reduced the application of the death penalty to only five crimes and gave judges the opportunity to only hand down correctional labor for two of them and limited the death penalty for two others to grave cases only.24)Han In Sup, “The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: A Take-Off?,“ Santa Clara Journal of International Law 5 no. 1 (2006): 127. At least for the province of Kangwon, this legal shift may have led to an end to executions until at least 1995, while “several North Koreans [told Amnesty International] that in their city public executions had not occurred, or occurred very rarely, in recent years.”25)Amnesty International was told by the head of the provincial court during their visit to North Korea in 1995 that the last execution in his province had occurred in 1987. North Korea also informed Amnesty International of one execution in Hamhung in 1992 of a “habitual offender”, which sources told Amnesty International was exceptional due to an anti-crime campaign. During the  visit in 1995, a North Korean official spoke of only one or two executions in the last several years, likely in reference to these two cases. But Amnesty International received testimony on three other executions in 1988, contradicting this alleged downward trend. See: Amnesty International, “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Public Executions: Converging Testimony,“ January 1997 (ASA 24/01/97), 3. In line with legal changes, by 1988 a restructuring of North Korea’s prison system had occurred, with the closing of larger camps and setting up of lighter, decentralized correctional facilities known formally as labor training camps (로동단련대).26)Park Song-u and Mun Song-hwi, “Exceptional Amnesty, Concentrating on Stable Live of Freed” [파격적인 대사면, 석방자 생활 안정에 주력]Radio Free Asia, February 6, 2012. A large amnesty in 198527)Yi Kŭm-sun et al., North Korea’s Political Prison Camps [북한 정치범수용소] (Seoul: KINU), 30. as well as reduced discrimination according to the system of social classification, songbun (성분), in the same year28)Korea Institute of National Unification, White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea (Seoul: KINU, 1998), 37. might already have been part of this shift towards less application of force and greater concern for protecting legal rights.

That the SDP’s two articles on human rights in the issue of September 1987 were the result of a change in government policy can also be seen from the different rhetoric both authors use. The essay by Chang is written in the usual propaganda rhetoric of the regime expressed in its slogan-like title and, interestingly, Chang sticks to the traditionally socialist word for people, inmin (인민), throughout his narrative. By contrast Pang, who by the early 1990s was officially pursuing an academic career and usually wrote on more intellectual issues, does not use this traditional socialist term even once but instead refers to “workers“ (근로자) or a less ideologically charged word for citizens, jumin (주민), also used in the South. Given these differences in rhetoric and the sudden appearance of Chang in the magazine, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that he was a higher official, if not in the government at least in a propaganda department, and thereby directly delivered the new agenda of the government. Pang, however, who dealt more with  questions of how North Korea’s socialist system could be legitimized and had contributed one essay per issue since at least 1983, seems to have been instructed to write on this topic or picked it up himself following the increased discourse in the party leadership.

While no direct references to any of these changes appear to be included in the speeches of Kim Jong-il, parts of  a speech given by him in October 1987 to the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party seem to hint at this larger change in policy. While it could be played down as the usual ideological rhetoric, the changes outlined above strongly suggest otherwise:

The reason why communist morality is not yet being displayed to the full in socialist society can be explained mainly by the fact that there still exist some remnants of the old society. When the complete victory of socialism has been achieved and an advance is made towards the higher stage of communism in the future, the scope of social life controlled by power (권력) will gradually become narrower and the range of public life influenced by communist morality will grow wider. From this point of view, it can be said that the course of building socialism is and communism is the process in which the action of power in social life decreases gradually and the action of morality expands steadily… .

Some of our officials, however, have not yet acquired communist moral qualities so that they still do not take loving care of the people with all their hearts and so that they even trample on the personal dignity of others and encroach upon their rights to independence [자주적 권리]. There are instances of abusing official authority [직권을 람용] with a view to bringing pressure [내리누리다, to suppress] to bear upon people, as well as attempts at seeking selfish ends at the expense of the interests of others. All these are remnants of the old society and cannot be tolerated in our society. Nevertheless, some officials do not take a serious view of these practices, and consider that they do not conflict with the fundamental interests of the revolution to any great extent. Those who ignore the personal dignity of [the] people and do not love them cannot be faithful to the revolutionary cause of the popular masses. A man who deceives his comrades can deceive the party and the leader; a man who sacrifices others for his own sake can turn his back [also] on the interests of the revolution.29)Kim Jong Il, “Establishing the Chuche Outlook on the Revolution,“ Korea Today (1989): 2-10. The Korean original can be found in his Selected Writings. Kim Jong Il, “On Establishing the Chuche Outlook on the Revolution [주체의 혁명관을 튼튼히 세울데 대하여],“ talk given to senior officials of the Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, 1987, Selected Writings of Kim Jong Il [김정일선집] 12 (Pyongyang: KWP Publishing, 2011), 85.

Of course, we also (can) know of further policy changes that imply North Korea witnessed fundamental change in the following years, including a strong reduction of the punishment of family members of convicts,30)Bradley K. Martin, Under the loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin´s Griffin, 2006), 416. the visits of Amnesty International in 1991 and 1995, and North Korea’s aborted plan to open the ill-famed Yodok camp to human rights monitors in 1996.31)Yi Baek-ryong, “Yodok Camp of Death [죽음의 요덕 수용소],” North Korean Defector Group [탈북자동지회] (November 8, 2004).

Given the widely held assumption that there have been no improvements in North Korea’s human rights policy and situation (while others even argue human rights do not exist there at all), this accumulation of contrary evidence from almost thirty years ago will hopefully raise a few eyebrows. Of course, it does not tell us much about the actual situation on the ground and only little about which human rights on the long list of international concerns the North Korean government acknowledges and is at all willing to address. But at least it can give us hope that at the top there are people who, in fact, aim toward improvement.

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