But a recently established investigation commission, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, seems determined to gather all possible information both from former North Korean citizens now living abroad and, should access be granted, directly from North Korean authorities, even if the latter seems unrealistic at the moment.
NK News recently spoke to Helgesen to discuss human rights, Western perspectives of North Korea, and what lies ahead.
NK News: Let’s start with some recent news on the dialogue on human rights between the DPRK and the UN.
Since UN resolution22/13 and the institution of an investigative commission on human rights in North Korea, things seem to have gone downhill. Just as it happens periodically with the nuclear threat, the situation seems a movie we have already seen numerous times. The distance on this issue between the DPRK and the international community seems to be enormous, in that the DPRK completely denies the existence of a human rights problem.
What is going wrong, in your opinion, in the way we currently approach North Korea on this and other sensitive issues?
I would start with a basic question: Why do the North Koreans have a problem with human rights? Are they, as former President George W. Bush said, “evil”? If so, and if their malicious leaders all are ill-natured, enjoying inflicting pain on their suffering people, or at least being totally insensitive to their misery, why then has this regime tried in previous decades to develop the country? And after failing, due to internal but also external factors, why did they approach the international community asking for assistance? And why do they now experiment with different kinds of reforms?
They made grave mistakes, for sure, but personally, I do not subscribe to the idea that having these “evil leaders” can constitute a comprehensive explanation for the current situation.
“Fear and isolation are the main reasons for the North to keep those they distrust in camps”
They (the North Koreans) are stuck with an idea: the possibility of creating a monolithic system, where wise leaders backed by their skilled advisors can figure out what is right and what is wrong, and what is best for all people under heaven, at least the North Korean heaven. This, of course, is highly problematic and it is unlikely that such an idea can survive for long. And, to sharpen the argument: as long as it survives, it is very harmful for the people living in that country, no question about it. But this cannot be changed by military interference.
The leadership in Pyongyang sees the world as basically hostile and it is convinced that there is a list of countries that Pentagon wants to “help” with regime change, and, if necessary, use military force to reach this goal. The military bases in South Korea, the growing U.S. presence in the region, frequent military maneuvers off North Korean shores — it all supports them (the North Korean leadership) in this view.
Whether the leaders in the North are right or wrong, they are affected in their own analysis by the situation, and this real or imagined threat turns them into what we would call “…paranoid,” with regards to internal dissent or opposition. Being in a state of war, they would claim, no government can afford to tolerate any internal dissent.
Fear and isolation are the main reasons for the North to keep those they distrust in camps. Therefore, I think, we need to address fear and isolation if we really care about victims of the North Korean regime’s human rights violations.
NK News: You recently co-authored a book in which you argue that a dialogue on human rights with North Korea is not only desirable, but possible. The book makes the case that, as has been done with China, there are concrete steps to be taken in order to improve the situation of the North Korean people – without limiting ourselves to simply pointing the finger at the DPRK. One can look at, for instance, the difference between the U.K. and the U.S. in the quality of relations with Pyongyang. The U.K. has an embassy there and has been building relationships for more then a decade now, with some good results. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
I agree, and I can try to express this in a few key points:
A basic human right is survival, to free people from hunger, illness and premature death. Let’s start there; let’s ensure that North Korea can at least afford those. Then it is important to establish relations. Everybody with some knowledge about East Asia will know this, and it is probably fair to say that this is a universal truth.
Presently the relations between North Korea and the West are based on animosity, fear, negative stereotyping and the worst possible expectations. “Will there be war in Korea?” is a frequently asked question when I am approached by the media. And the North Koreans are convinced that a war “to solve the Korean issue” is being planned and prepared for.
This negative relationship is not at all a basis for realistic negotiations. There are many examples, however, proving that a change of relations is possible. One could read, for instance Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea (2006) by Richard Saccone, or read Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary (2013), where a whole chapter is dedicated to her meeting with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, or talk to staff in international NGO’s in Pyongyang, among them the International Red Cross. North Koreans are people too; it’s as simple as that.
Having established more normal relations paves the way for a more open and frank dialogue. I think Christopher Hill as well as Stephen Bosworth, both U.S. chief negotiators in the Six-Party Talks will agree, in spite of the lack of positive results so far, that you have to keep talking to them.
NK News: The book represents a rarity in the academic landscape: It was conceived by two Scandinavian authors,and proposes a Nordic perspective on relations with North Korea, whereas most studies on the DPRK, especially those centered on security issues, come from the U.S. and have a certain political bias, as America is directly involved in the standoff.
Sweden was the first Western country to open an embassy in Pyongyang in 1975, but little else is known about their relationship. Is there dialogue or active cooperation between the Nordic countries and North Korea? Do North Korean officials visit Scandinavia? If so, why?
All the Nordic countries established diplomatic relations with North Korea in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, only Sweden followed through with this and established an embassy in Pyongyang. The other countries have had more modest ambitions, maintaining diplomatic relations as a consequence of a realistic approach: “Korea is divided, and there are two entities, with two different systems and two kinds of government.” It would be wrong, however, to claim that relations between the Nordic region and the two Koreas are on a similar level.
It goes without saying that there are normal and fruitful relations with the South, and cautious, minimal relations with the North. After all, the Korean Peninsula is outside the Nordic and European “area of interests,” and from this part of the world Korea has been seen as “a problem within the U.S. sphere of interests.” That it actually is much more within the Chinese sphere of interests is something we slowly are beginning to understand.
“When I told government officials in Pyongyang about the welfare state they could not really believe me”
Regarding possible cooperation between the Nordic region and North Korea, it is my impression that North Korea is interested in learning about “the Nordic way”: that is, a more balanced capitalist economic system with a powerful state that has developed welfare provisions with the consent of a strong majority of each (of the Nordic) country’s population.
When I told government officials in Pyongyang about the welfare state they could not really believe me. They asked: “Daycare for all, free education, free healthcare, unemployment provisions, comparatively comfortable pension schemes, etc., in a capitalist state?” It was hard for them to think that this was a reality in Europe.
Now, all this is of course not “free” in the sense that you can expect somebody else to pay for it. You pay through tough taxation, and this presumes social solidarity and some sense of equality: you pay according to your ability, and receive support according to your needs. Those who earn more pay more taxes to help those who have less. This is at least the ideal.
Some Americans might think the system is “horrible,” almost communist, and this might be exactly the reason why the North Koreans had a hard time believing that such a system could exist in a capitalist country. They think that “changing” would imply “becoming like the U.S.,” but that is not the case. There are alternatives.
There are visits from North Korea to the Nordic countries. Once I organized such a visit, and I am convinced that the group I was responsible for brought ideas and thoughts back home that might turn out to be important for the country’s development one day.
NK News: From the standpoint of someone who is involved in (or advocating) engagement with North Korea, what are the biggest obstacles in convincing others that dialogue is necessary? Sometimes, both right-wing politicians and supporters of human rights movements seem to think that if one is not completely against North Korea, then he/she is somehow a “North Korea apologist” of some sort. How do you explain that?
This is what I would consider simplistic thinking: black and white with no nuances. It is difficult to understand, from my position, how many well-meaning human rights activists draft one condemnation after the other against the inhumane North Korean regime, protesting the imprisonment of dissidents of the regime in strong words, yet see no positive results of their efforts, and continue with this, year after year. Nothing happens, and still they continue.
Maybe they feel that they are doing a lot, and more than most people, as most people do nothing, besides reading about it in the newspapers and feeling resentment against such a horrible regime. But if one’s activities fail to produce results, then he or she has to question (and change) that activity, if the results are more important than the activity, (and that… well, one can question, now and then).
“Ignoring or isolating them will not solve anything.”
This is why one has to risk being seen as an apologist for the regime in Pyongyang. If one really cares about results, that is, helping the people who are suffering human rights violations, then one has to search for viable ways towards a dialogue with the power holders in Pyongyang. Ignoring or isolating them will not solve anything. There were people who saw the former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, as an apologist, a “North Korea lover.” It can be costly to follow one’s convictions, but what would the world be like without such people?
NK News: You have traveled to North and South Korea a number of times, meeting academics, officials and diplomats. You were a friend of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. Could you share some of his insights on the North Korean situation (especially on human rights)? Do you think the situation today could possibly go back to the atmosphere of the Sunshine Policy?
Kim Dae-jung was a devout Christian and a world-class humanist, universally recognized for his contributions to peace, human rights and democracy, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. His Sunshine Policy was, and is, a brilliant idea.
“Did isolation work out with the DPRK?,” he asked. “Did we help the people of North Korea by issuing resolutions and condemnations? Are we closer to a solution today than when Korea was divided?”
We all know that the answer to these questions is “no.”
President Kim even pointed at the relations between the U.S. and Cuba to illustrate his point. An economic and military superpower versus a tiny and poor island: Did the U.S. succeed in changing Cuba the way they wanted? Not really.
NK News: Could we compare the North Korean human rights situation to that of China and other countries? Beijing is not exactly famous for its good human rights record. It does possess nuclear weapons and (at least on the surface) it professes a very different ideology from western liberalism.
Similar cases could be made, for instance, about countries like Pakistan or Israel, where Amnesty International periodically denounces human rights violations and which in terms of nuclear proliferation are way ahead of North Korea. Furthermore, episodes of terrorism in both states seem driven by religious beliefs that are difficult to address with logic.
Why, in your opinion, is there so much debate on the risk that North Korea poses to the world, compared to what we hear about other countries? Why is North Korea perceived as “public enemy #1?”
Well, as you know, the Korean War did not end with a victorious side and a defeated one, although both parties claim to be in the victorious camp. And actually, as most observers know, the war is technically still ongoing, the fighting halted due to a ceasefire. For the North Koreans this is very serious talk, and is their main excuse for continuing their arms buildup. The fact that the war ended unsettled, with the country remaining divided in a political and ideological standoff and with all parties concerned armed to the teeth may be the main reason why this particular case lingers on.
It might also be because such an enemy is “needed.” If there was no North Korea, could it be that it had to be invented? The double isolation of the country, both by the regime itself as a protection against ideological and other kinds of “pollution” and by the U.S./UN as a penalty for not acknowledging and adjusting to normal international practice, is preventing the country and its leadership from “learning by doing.” Hence they continue to do things “their way,” which often fits very well with the enemy image created around them.
Having the wild cat North Korea in East Asia is the best reason imaginable for the U.S. military presence and buildup. It is everyone’s guess what might be the real reason for the continuing and now- growing U.S. military presence in the region.
As long as the security situation is fragile, and trust between the parties is non-existent, a positive development is nothing that will come easily.
NK News: Finally, the general ideas about North Korea range from “bad,” to “mad,” to “sad,” to use the words of Hazel Smith. In your book you talk of “a bleak picture,” which is what the media typically offer us when they cover North Korea. What are the effects of this bleak picture and is it possible to establish a different image of North Korea among the general public?
There is a tendency in modern journalism to follow the trend and copy “safe” information. Unfortunately “safe” does not mean “objective,” or even close to “truthful,” but rather it means “uncontroversial.” North Korea has become the one place on earth that everybody in our part of the world ‘knows’ to be bad, mad and sad, and on top of that also irrational and aggressive. To claim something else and publish it is risky business. And exactly because the news media have to be economically responsible, they hesitate to take that risk.
The effects of the bleak picture are that politicians in our part of the world see North Korea and its leadership as though they had highly infectious diseases. This only strengthens the isolation of the North, as politicians standing for reelection cannot afford to be seen as “soft on North Korea.”
“North Korea has become the one place on earth that everybody in our part of the world knows to be ‘bad, mad and sad’, and on top of that also irrational and aggressive. To claim something else and publish it is risky business”
We need brave political leaders – Kim Dae-jung was one – that dare to do what is necessary. In one sense it is like the present challenges due to climate change. Do we have political leaders that can plot a course away from disaster? If the route they suggest is costly, will they then be reelected? It is claimed today that Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was a failure. But ever since this policy was denounced and a new line developed, the relations between the two Koreas have worsened.
The current leader in South Korea, President Park Geun-hye, made it clear during the election campaign (last year) that regarding relations with North Korea there is no way other than dialogue. Unfortunate tensions and developments in North Korea made it close to impossible for her to pursue her policy towards Pyongyang in the first six months in office. Hopefully this will change soon, and if she is successful in establishing a dialogue with Kim Jong Un in the North, and if this policy is supported by President Obama and also China and Europe, there is a chance that the bleak picture will evaporate. Then Korea, North and South, will head towards better relations.
Interview conducted by Gianluca Spezza
North Korea refuses to cooperate at any level on the issue of human rights, according to an announcement from the United Nations in early July.But a recently established investigation commission, led by Australian judge Michael Kirby, seems determined to gather all possible information both from former North Korean citizens now living abroad and, should access be granted, directly from North
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz