Amidst tension, harsh rhetoric, and a focus on nuclear issues and security, the human element of North Korea sometimes seems cast aside.
Approximately 25 million people live in the DPRK. Various groups and scholars have espoused ways to advocate for the best interests of ordinary North Koreans, but how do approaches differ? And what is the best way to really help the people?
North Korea watchers would benefit from clarity on the first question, but the second is highly contested and there is no definitive answer. Three main schools of thought have emerged.
Human rights activists focus largely on the social, economic, and political rights – or lack thereof – inside the DPRK.
Many of these activists claim the Kim regime must fall for ordinary North Koreans to enjoy such rights. They focus on education, spreading information, and calling on foreign governments to condemn the regime.
Through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN bodies, human rights activists have condemned the North Korean state for violating the human rights of its citizens through restricting freedoms of movement and speech, as well as through a system of incarceration that lacks fair trials and humane conditions for inmates.
Approximately 25 million people live in the DPRK
Humanitarians are concerned with the basic needs of North Koreans: access to food, shelter, clean water, adequate hygiene facilities, healthcare, etc. Unlike human rights groups, many humanitarian groups work with the regime to deliver projects.
Though the regime imposes restrictions on humanitarians and can be challenging to work with, humanitarians must have state permission to work in the country. Humanitarians are typically quiet on the topic of regime change, so as to not compromise their access.
A third concept, human security, has made some impact within academic discourse on the DPRK, but has not yet featured as much in mainstream discussion as human rights and humanitarian aid. Human security focuses on freedom from fear and/or freedom from want and reframes security from a state level to individuals.
Though all three concepts – human rights, humanitarianism, and human security – are people-centered and purport to offer a paradigm with which to measure and guide the needs of individuals, they differ greatly in approach, reach, and view of working with the North Korean regime.
Thanks in large part to the UN, especially the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, NGOs, such as Liberty in North Korea and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, and defectors, human rights have become a central theme in international rhetoric related to the DPRK.
Many humanitarian groups work with the regime to deliver projects
Human rights activists cannot engage with the North Korean government in the way humanitarian groups do. UN human rights efforts include invitations for involvement to DPRK representatives, but NGOs and defector groups tend to conduct their work without connections to the government.
Activists may engage in activities such as helping defectors in China, sending information via leaflets, balloons, and/or USBs, or awareness activities in other countries. By contrast, humanitarian groups must engage directly with the DPRK government to gain access and implement their programmes.
In South Korea, human rights activists have a history of clashing with humanitarian aid proponents on the subject of the DPRK. They accuse humanitarians of propping up the regime and ignoring human rights abuses.
Advocates of humanitarian aid claim basic needs must be met before other human rights can be enjoyed, and may also view aid as a mechanism for forming connections and partnerships with North Koreans.
While the divide between human rights and humanitarian advocates in the DPRK context is not as stark in the rest of the world as in the ROK, there is little crossover or collaboration between the two sides.
For humanitarian groups engaged in aid projects in the DPRK, working with human rights groups could jeopardize their access. As human rights activists typically do not have a desire to have connections with the North Korean government, there is little motivation on their end to reach out to humanitarian groups.
Humanitarian aid groups have been working in the DPRK since the mid-1990s, and depend on their relationships with the DPRK government for access.
Unlike some within the human rights community, humanitarians do not advocate the immediate collapse of the regime or view working with the government as a form of endorsement. Instead, humanitarianism advocates for assisting all populations in need regardless of the political system they live under.
Humanitarians may also believe forming partnerships with North Koreans can foster greater understanding and flow of information.
Critics of aid claim it props up the regime, ignores violations of social, economic, and political rights, and that aid cannot be effective in the long-term without reform.
It is difficult to argue that North Korea’s agricultural problems can be solved without significant reform, but many proponents of aid say this is not the point. Providing lifesaving interventions for the sake of the nutrition, health, and well-being of North Koreans today is the goal. In this view, allowing suffering in the hope of eventually spurring change is an affront to humanity.
There is little crossover or collaboration between the two sides
Human rights activists and humanitarian practitioners have organized into bodies, including NGOs and UN bodies. The concept of human security in the DPRK, however, lacks visible bodies driven by a clear human security mandate.
Human security appears to have its greatest voice within academia. Hazel Smith’s 2005 book on the DPRK, “Hungry for Peace”, explored the topic. Other scholars, such as Brendan Howe and Changrok Soh, have also employed a human security outlook in their work.
The DPRK is highly unlikely to tolerate organizations with a human rights focus
Human security’s ideas of freedom from fear and freedom from want converge with ideas within human rights and humanitarianism, but without greater mainstream understanding and conversation on the concept, it is unlikely to become a central idea in activism towards North Korea.
This potential for linking the previous two camps should be explored further, however. Humanitarian groups may be wary of engaging publicly in activities that endanger their access, which could be one of the main roadblocks in using human security as a path for engagement between all three concepts.
Is there any room for human rights, humanitarian aid, and human security to work together in the interest of the North Korean people? While all three paradigms are human-centered and purport to provide a framework for best assisting the North Korean people, they clash and disagree.
The DPRK is highly unlikely to tolerate organizations with a human rights focus or even with ties to North Korean human rights advocacy, so public linkage with the humanitarian community is an improbable goal.
Human security may offer both human rights and humanitarians an avenue for partnership. Freedom from fear, one of the tenants of human security, ties in with human rights ideas relating to freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and association.
Freedom from want, another pillar of human security, complements humanitarian action and its goal to provide for individuals in need.
In this way, human security provides a framework for uniting both human rights and humanitarian goals, but needs a more robust presence in the international discussion on the DPRK before activists can harness this link for positive interaction between groups.
Until then, the human rights and humanitarian divide is likely to continue – and perhaps grow.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: World Food Programme
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