Slave to the Blog: Human Rights Update

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)
August 6, 2015 7:00 AM

Since our last Human Rights Update in May, several things have come across our radar on human rights themes, and we relay them briefly here.

The Salzburg Global Seminar was founded in 1947 to spark trans-Atlantic dialogue on the reconstruction of Europe, and its mission since has been to convene high-level exchanges between academics and opinion leaders. It recently hosted none other than Michael Kirby, Marzuki Darusman, and Sonja Biserko for a seminar on International Responses to Crimes Against Humanity: The Challenge of North Korea. The purpose: to consider how to implement the COI report released in 2014; the three were the commissioners. (Our posts on the report and process are linked below).

The result of the seminar was a pithy Salzburg Statement on the Human Rights Situation in the DPRK. Many of the recommendations are drawn directly from the CoI report, but we noticed several new wrinkles, including urging the “global South” to pick up the issue, using courts affording universal jurisdiction to bring cases against North Korean officials, and bringing attention to the plight of North Korea’s growing export of labor, a theme covered in a recent post by Marc Noland.

Elsewhere on the European front, we came across two reports released a few months ago from the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). The first report challenges European countries to leverage their diplomatic position to pursue human rights dialogue with North Korea; the US is clearly not in a position to do much given its preoccupation with the nuclear issue and status as North Korea's Enemy #1. EAHRNK suggests one such strategy is pressing the DPRK to comply with the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to which the DPRK has supposedly agreed. The perennial challenge is figuring out how to use finite resources to address “low hanging fruit” that might be more amenable to improvement. For example, getting the Red Cross into the penal system would be a small step forward. For a broader exploration of the human rights triage problem, Emilie Hafner-Burton’s Making Human Rights is sobering.

The second report from EAHRNK identifies challenges that North Korean escapees face in securing asylum status abroad due to complexities in South Korean citizenship law and asylum law in receiving countries. The Republic of Korea affords citizenship to Koreans born anywhere on the Korean Peninsula. But the subsequent North Korean Refugee Protection and Settlement Support Act states, “protection and settlement shall only be provided to North Koreans who have expressed their intention to be protected by the Republic of Korea.” Whether North Koreans citizens are de jure South Korean citizens or simply could be South Korean citizens is an important distinction and asylum courts throughout the world have interpreted this differently. In some cases, the assumption that North Koreans are automatically South Korean citizens has been used to deny refugees status in third countries and to direct them to South Korea. In our humble opinion, the North Korean refugees are refugees and should have choice in where they choose to seek asylum.

The Women Cross the DMZ march continues to generate a tremendous amount of debate, but we now have a bit more information from the women who participated as a result of a Ustream of a Congressional briefing on the event hosted by Charles Rangel (D-NY)—a Korean War veteran--and Barbara Lee (D-CA), whose father was a Korean War veteran as well. The briefing was introduced by Ann Wright (U.S. Army Reserve Colonel, retired), and included commentary by filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney, M. Brinton Lykes, Professor of Community-Cultural Psychology at Boston College, Christine Ahn, the coordinator of the march, and Gloria Steinem.

The statements are a mixed bag. Lykes makes damning comments about North Korea’s victim narrative, and Steinem talks about the disturbing quality of things that they were shown, such as kids being versed in the evils of American imperialism. Steinem even concludes her account by a striking parallel to a household headed by an abusive husband and father. But she fails to reach the inference that such abusive figures need to be removed and even locked up. For the most part, the speakers hewed to the mistaken belief that a peace regime would solve all of the peninsula’s problems. Christine Ahn was particularly caught up in wishful thinking about North Korea’s willingness to engage, drawing parallels to Cuba and Iran. Where is the evidence? Nonetheless, I continue to believe that the vilification of this group of accomplished women serves no useful purpose.

Over at NK News, however, Craig Urquhart is having absolutely nothing of it. In two thoughtful—although occasionally ad hominem—pieces, he calls out the marchers for their naïveté, silence on North Korean abuses and willingness to be manipulated by the regime. If you are interested in this effort, listen to the briefing and reach your own conclusion on whether they are--in Urquhart's Cold War language--"fellow travelers."

Finally, a whole series of defector testimony has dropped or is about to drop this summer, including Eunsun Kim, A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea; Joseph Kim, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America; Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story; and the particularly-anticipated In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Escape to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. We will do our best to absorb and survey these accounts.

But Jiyoung Song, a Cambridge PhD and currently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University, dumps some cold water on these accounts at the ANU Crawford School’s Policy Forum. A longer version is posted on Song's blog. Without naming names here—as very serious charges are at stake—Song catalogues a range of discrepancies that have arisen in defector testimony and grapples with the issue of how to think about them. She ultimately comes down on the side of skepticism, which runs its own risk of confusing the particulars of individual cases with broader patterns that are beyond dispute. But as the embarrassing case of Shin Dong-hyuk suggests, the issues raised by Song are real. To the best of our ability—and it is necessarily limited—we need to assure that the human rights testimony that is brought to light is as accurate as possible. As Song suggests, the increasing commercialization of the defector enterprise may itself generate risks in this regard.

Witness to Transformation Posts on the Commission of Inquiry

Commission of Inquiry Report: the Mandate (March 25, 2013)

Commission of Inquiry Report: Initial Reaction (February 17, 2014; includes full links to Commission materials)

Commission of Inquiry Report: What Next? (February 24, 2014).

Roberta Cohen, Karin Lee and Christine Hong on Human Rights (January 29, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup I: The UN Role (March 3, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup II: the UN Role (March 6, 2014)

The Human Rights Council Vote (March 31, 2014)

The Commission of Inquiry: The Arria Meeting (April 21, 2014)

North Korea Admits to Prison Camps--Or Does It? (October 8, 2014)

On the UN politics, October-December 2014: Human Rights Racket: Alive and Kicking (October 10, 2014, on the October 6 letter from the DPRK Permanent Representative); Human Rights Roundup and The North Korean Counter-Resolution   (October 20 and 21, 2014); UN Diplomacy Continued, Parts One and Two (October 28 and 29); The End of the Charm Offensive, Part One and Part Two (November 6 and 7).  The Third Committee Vote (November 19). Human Rights Roundup and Now the Hard Part (November 24 and December 1 on the aftermath).

Implementing the Commission of Inquiry Report (February 23 2015).

Stephan Haggard on the CoI Process (March 2015 for the East Asia Institute)

All Witness to Transformation human rights posts



I think the use of cold-war language in this instance is not unwarranted, incidentally. Korea's situation is the last holdout of the cold war; and the politics of this division are solidly based on cold-war realities. Ahn, as well, plays to the same politics. If this was 1934, she would likely assume the open label "communist" - her positions on almost all issues being largely unreformed reduplications of the same. If it was 1965, she'd rightly be called at least a communist apologist, largely, as Stanton points out in very fine-grained detail, because this seems to be her main activity. So, mostly because of Ahn's own words and her positions on every issue she writes about, cold-war language is the most appropriate language to use. The rest of the world may have moved on. Ahn has not.

Liars N. Fools

I would judge the women by the company they kept in the Republic of Korea. Much of that company ascribe tensions on the Peninsula as much to the United States as the DPRK and ascribes the same degree of moral responsibility on division of Koreans to America as to North Korea. I do not believe in moral neutrality involving Peninsula matters. Any fair observation of the situation makes clear which country, and its allies and supporters, are the morally as well as economically and politically advanced and which is not merely anachronistic but immoral. A moral crusade such as the women claimed should be evaluated on a moral yardstick.

Misinformation ...

There is misinformation in Jiyoung Song's article. One glaring example is her erroneous assertion that Kwon Hyuk (former security officer in North Korea's prison camp 22) "disappeared from the public eye" immediately following the BBC's 2004 documentary. Kwon has done extensive interviews as recent as 2013 with German director Marc Wiese (as reported by the Guardian): Mr. Hyuk also spoke at length in 2008 at a conference in Japan organized by a very respected and credible NGO on this issue: Ms. Song, please do a bit more research before publishing your sweeping and inaccurate conclusions. Perhaps reaching out to German director Marc Wiese or LFNKR (Japan) might be a good place to start with respect to the whereabouts and latest activities of Mr. Kwon. Despite the danger he most certainly faces (having admitted to killing many people), I would like to put forth that it would not be impossible to locate him as German director Marc Wiese, whom I assume does not speak the Korean language, was able to do so. Why not make an attempt to contact Mr. Hyuk yourself instead of erroneously and harmfully declaring "Kwon has since disappeared from the public eye."

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff
Kent Boydston Former Research Staff