How should one define rights? According to North Korea’s recent internal report on human rights, the determining factors should be independence, security and socialism.
The report has drawn attention from many media outlets since its release, especially given its ardent denial of rights abuses months after the UN Commission of Inquiry’s searing condemnation of its prison camp system and restrictions placed on those still in the country.
And some aspects of the report are likely to prompt incredulity, particularly its insistences that the United States started the Korean War, that North Korea decisively won it (a “world-startling feat,” it claims) and did not suffer a single death from starvation even during the U.S.’s devastating aerial bombardments over the last two years of that conflict.
Claims that are at least as unbelievable include that 1) Koreans are a primordial race, one of the “origins of human culture,” 2) that they created Asia’s first “ancient state” and 3) they invented the “iron-clad warship, metal types and astronomical observatory.”
Towards the end of the report, it cites a number of laws on voting rights, gender equality and health care, as if the existence of these laws – with no information included as to their enforcement – were enough to demonstrate their commitment to citizens’ rights.
Look beyond its more outrageous claims, though, and a uniquely North Korean view of human rights becomes clear.
“At present, countries and nations have their own views and stand on the concept of human rights, and international human rights instruments adopted so far fail to provide unified and correct definition (sic) thereof,” it states. “Furthermore, certain countries and hegemonic forces are spreading their values and grossly distorting human rights views, while violating the sovereignty of other countries and infringing upon their human rights.”
A brief reference to the COI is included in the North’s report, claiming that its data is biased and contains “no scientific accuracy and objectivity” and is “extreme in its selectivity and double-dealing standards.”
The reports says the answer, both to the COI and to the vagaries of international human rights standards, is the North’s Juche ideology, which it claims is the “most scientific and revolutionary guiding ideology,” as it upholds the ideals of “independence, self-reliance and self-defense.”
AN EVOLVING DEFINITION
‘Man can maintain his dignity and worth as a social being and live a life worthy of a human being only when he achieves independence’
This is also an evolving view, one expert said, as “human rights” are a fairly new concept internationally.
“First of all it’s important to keep in mind that ‘human rights’ have only been articulated as a major global concern for the last few decades, and was not even on North Korea’s (or South Korea’s) radar screen when the two regimes were founded in 1948 – the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed,” said Charles Armstrong, professor of history at Columbia University.
Armstrong has noted elsewhere that the North has long claimed adherence to a principle of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs, and insisted on the same for themselves.
This is a right reiterated throughout the report.
“Independence is the life and soul of man, a social being,” it says. “Man can maintain his dignity and worth as a social being and live a life worthy of a human being only when he achieves independence.”
Despite claims that the country is nationalistic rather than communist, socialism also looms large in the document. For example, in the section marked “Basic Human Rights and its Standards,” the report identifies, as the international origins of human rights, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and, interestingly, the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence. These documents, the report insists, could not guarantee “basic human rights,” because they “confirmed and consolidated the political and economic hold of the bourgeoisie.”
Also, as much as the document praises the previous civilizations on the Korean Peninsula, it says that only with the foundation of the DPRK did it achieve a “people’s republic” – something it has maintained despite the collapse of international communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“If the DPRK had yielded to unprecedented trials and difficulties and depended on others or given up the principle of self-reliance … the socialist system centered on popular masses could not have been safeguarded and its identity would have disappeared with the collapse of the world socialist system,” it says.
As such, it touts the DPRK’s free medical care and education, regardless of accusations as to how well such services have been maintained.
Song Jiyoung of Singapore Management University has discussed the North’s concept of human rights elsewhere, identifying its commitment to security over the type of individual rights the West values.
“Sovereignty (understood as a right to protect its country from foreign forces), a right to survival and a right to subsistence are prioritized over other rights,” she told NK News. “The U.S.’s double standards and selectivity when choosing norm-violating countries and the politicization of human rights have also been the regular themes in the DPRK’s criticism against the U.S.”
The North’s conception of rights has evolved over the decades, she said, from the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist language following its liberation from Japan after World War II to Marxist-Leninist class rights, then finally “traditional neo-Confucian ideas of granted rights by virtuous leaders.” This final phase continues today, Song said.
‘…although the tone is generally similar, the response this time is much more detailed, suggesting the North Koreans feel more of a need to defend themselves’
Armstrong noted that it was not until 1988, with the report by the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, that the North came under detailed criticism for its human rights record. That report, Armstrong said, was in many ways a precursor to the UN COI. Also in both cases, the North denied the report’s authors access to the country and dismissed their findings.
However, with the release of its own internal human rights report, Armstrong sees a shift underway.
“…although the tone is generally similar, the response this time is much more detailed, suggesting the North Koreans feel more of a need to defend themselves,” he said.
What’s more, after its internal report, the North recently said it would take UN recommendations – particularly in “freedom of thought” and oversight of aid distribution for the needy – under consideration. Though the North’s cooperation with these recommendations has been regarded skeptically, it may be noteworthy that it entertained cooperation at all. If nothing else, Pyongyang may see that it is in its interests to address these criticisms.
“We seem to see here a shift, if only slightly, toward North Korea accepting some validity in international criticism of North Korea’s human rights record, a product of the growing significance of the global human rights regime and the problems North Korea faces in its international reputation due its human rights record, which impede its goals of greater international recognition, economic ties and investment,” Armstrong said.
Song said that a reaction to dialogue on human rights is not entirely new, though, and that this separates Pyongyang from other regimes that face similar criticisms.
“The interesting fact is that the DPRK reacts to human rights, unlike other norm-violating countries that are simply silent on these issues or not intending to engage in any human rights dialogue,” she said.
“The DPRK regime has been responsive to the U.S. switching positions on international human rights after 9/11,” Song said. “The U.S. human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay, drone attacks, police violence against black Americans, Wall Street protests and gun crimes have been regularly and extensively criticized by the DPRK’s human rights institution.”
A ‘SHALLOW’ DEFENSE
‘It looks as if they wanted to say that if they are pestered with such inquiries, they will not even bother to prepare a report that at least outwardly looks proper’
Balazs Szalontai of Kookmin University in Seoul, though, found the North’s report on its human rights record “fairly shallow,” and not even a particularly competent articulation of its own philosophy. Other countries with authoritarian leaderships, such as Apartheid-era South Africa and Singapore have justified illiberal policies by citing national security, cultural differences and, in the latter case, “Asian values,” he noted, and through his scholarship Szalontai has encountered evidence that, in private conversations with Soviet officials, the North in the past would acknowledge its restrictions. These were justified by the need for “strong leadership” to prevent incidents such as the Prague Spring in 1968, or the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late-’80s.
“In contrast, this report does not even implicitly acknowledge that the regime is non-democratic; it simply cites some old laws from 1946-52…as evidence of its democratic nature,” he said.
He was also unmoved by the North’s vow to consider international recommendations, noting that it made similar promises to consider criticisms of its human rights regime in 2009.
That year, the North released a report in response to questions from UN members over its human rights record; a report which Szalontai contrasted with the new report.
“The basic concept of the two reports is identical … but the new report is far shallower than the old one, and adopts a confrontational, rather than factual and neutral stance,” he said. “The new report explicitly complains about ‘unfounded’ U.S. accusations, makes counter-charges, and stresses the relativity of the Western human rights conception.
“It looks as if they wanted to say that if they are pestered with such inquiries, they will not even bother to prepare a report that at least outwardly looks proper.”
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
How should one define rights? According to North Korea’s recent internal report on human rights, the determining factors should be independence, security and socialism.The report has drawn attention from many media outlets since its release, especially given its ardent denial of rights abuses months after the UN Commission of Inquiry’s searing condemnation of its prison camp system and
Rob York is director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum. He previously worked as a production editor for The South China Morning Post and chief editor of NK News. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.