Tag Archive | "Human Rights"

Quiet over the Deportation of North Koreans

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • At the start of the month, two men escaped from North Korea after allegedly killing sixteen crew members aboard their fishing boat.
  • Just days after their arrival in South Korea, they were repatriated to the North because of the crimes they committed. This was the first time a North Korean had been deported since the end of the Korean War.
  • In response, a group of eighteen human rights organizations denounced the decision and accused President Moon of abandoning human rights issues to win favor with Kim Jong-Un.

Implications: Aside from the human rights groups, there has been limited public outcry against the deportation – potentially reflecting a growing domestic view that North Korea is a distinct and separate country from South Korea. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea argued that the expulsion is a violation of South Korea’s constitution, which views all Koreans on the peninsula as citizens of South Korea (with rights to due process in South Korea). Nevertheless, the government has stood by its decision, saying that the men’s crimes prevented them from being categorized as refugees. And a professor at Chung-Ang University acknowledged that other foreigners would be sent back to their country if they committed a crime, so the same should be done for North Korea. These positions suggest that North Korea is increasingly viewed as a sovereign country by South Koreans.

Context: The limited criticism in South Korea to the deportation of the North Korean men cannot be attributed to political apathy. South Koreans have congregated time and time again to protest perceived injustices. In the past weeks, South Koreans have turned out to support both sides of the Hong Kong protests. However, no major demonstrations were held over the extradition.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Photo from NVictor’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Reports of Defector Dissatisfaction Raise Questions About Resettlement Process

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Since 2015, 12 North Korean defectors in South Korea were caught trying to return to North Korea.
  • During the same time period, 64 defectors applied for refugee status in Europe and the United States despite receiving settlement in South Korea, according to new government data.
  • According to the 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, 72.5% of North Korean refugee respondents were satisfied with life in South Korea.

Implications: With cases of North Korean defectors attempting to leave South Korea, Seoul will likely focus more heavily on social integration when formulating its resettlement policies going forward. Following the incident in August when a defector and her son starved to death, the inquiry initially focused on whether public services are materially failing this community. But survey data revealed that defector dissatisfaction was not predominantly driven by economic conditions. Most defectors cited difficulties separation from family back in North Korea (27.4%) and discrimination and prejudice (18.3%) as principal challenges to integration. Only 14.9% of respondents cited economic difficulties.

Context: The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago due to tighter border controls. As of June 2019, 33,022 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. Although still a relatively small community, research by Steven Denney (University of Toronto) and Chris Green (Leiden University) show that there is variation within this community’s attitudes towards South Korea. Denney and Green attribute this to people older than 55 having a different resettlement experience than their younger cohorts. Specifically, they hypothesize that the need for younger age defectors to compete with native-born South Koreans for jobs, build social networks, and substantively integrate into South Korean society negatively influence their resettlement experience and feelings of ethnic solidarity.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from Ceosad on Wikimedia Commons

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Tokyo Commemoration Focuses on Abduction of Japanese by North Korea in 1970s; Issue Is Far from Resolved

By Robert R. King

On September 16, 2019, in Tokyo, a thousand people gathered in a large-scale public meeting to mark the 17th anniversary of the first visit of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea in 2002 for meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.  Koizumi followed that first visit with a second two years later on May 22, 2004.  These were the first meetings by a Japanese prime minister and the leader of North Korea.

These meetings are remembered not so much because they brought about a shift in the relationship between the North Korea and Japan, but because the North Koreans publicly admitted they had previously abducted Japanese citizens and they took the first steps toward making amends.  In retrospect the improvement in relations proved to be short lived.

The rally this week was held to remember that visit because during the leaders’ meeting, Kim Jong-il acknowledged the abduction of a number of Japanese citizens by North Korean operatives.  He made a verbal apology but blamed “some people” who wanted to show “heroism and adventurism” and refused to admit official responsibility. The North gave Japanese officials recently issued death certificates for eight of the individuals it admitted had been abducted, and five individuals were permitted to return to Japan. (For details on the Japanese citizens that are known to have been abducted by the North Koreans, see the Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, paragraphs 933-962.)  On that occasion The Japanese Prime Minister apologized for the pre-World War II Japanese occupation and exploitation of Korea, and offered Japanese assistance to the North.  This exchange and assistance was consistent with actions of the United States and South Korea at that time.

A month after the first Koizumi-Kim summit, five Japanese abductees were permitted to return to Japan for a “visit,” but North Korea made clear the abductees were expected to return.  In fact, five children of two Japanese couples who returned were required to remain in the North.  The “visitors” chose to remain in Japan and did not return to North Korea, and Japanese popular sentiment completely supported their decision.  The children who had remained in Japan were eventually permitted to rejoin their parents in Japan over two years later following the second Koizumi visit to Pyongyang.

The meeting in Tokyo on June 16 commemorating the 19th anniversary of the first Koizumi visit to Pyongyang was a major event.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe participated, expressing regret that Japan has been unable to bring all those individuals abducted by North Korea back to their homeland and secure an honest accounting of all those who were kidnapped.  The eighty-one year old brother of one of the abductees, who is also leader of a group of abductee families, urged additional effort because of the age of the victims and their family members.  The event was given wide media coverage in Japan.

The Scope of the Abductee Issue

The time period when North Korea abducted Japanese citizens was about 1977 through about 1983.  Subsequently, the Japanese government identified 17 of its citizens as definitely having been abducted by North Korea.  In 2002, the North admitted it had abducted 13 of the 17 individuals, but said that 8 of these had died.  The 5 individuals still living returned to Japan following the 2002 summit in Pyongyang.  The North Koreans, however, have been unwilling to discuss and resolve this issue with the Japanese since the initial brief discussion on the issue in 2002 and 2004.

The Japanese government has a list of some 880 individuals who might have been abducted by North Korea during that same time period.  Since the North has been uncooperative, however, it has been difficult for Japanese officials to confirm whether these persons were indeed abducted by North Korea.  When individuals disappear without a trace, it is easy simply to place them on the list of individuals abducted by North Korea.  Periodically, however, some of these possible abductees reappear without ever having been kidnapped by North Korea and with alternative histories for their disappearance.

A few days before the recent commemorative rally, Kaoru Hasuiki, one of the abductees who returned to Japan from North Korea with his wife in 2002, told the Washington Post and  Deutsche Welle how he and his fiancé were abducted and what happened to them in North Korea.  The engaged young couple were walking along a beach near their homes in Western Japan and sat together to watch the sunset.  In the darkness, North Korean special operations thugs overpowered them there on the beach and took them to a waiting boat which transported them to North Korea.

Mr. Hasuiki gave a description of his and his wife’s experiences in North Korea, which gives some indication of why this dreadful policy was followed by the North.  The abductions were initially carried out in an effort to indoctrinate the abductees to return to Japan as spies for North Korea.  Following the escape of two “trained” abductees in Europe, however, the North abandoned the effort to indoctrinate abductees as spies.  Hasuiki and his wife were then forced to teach Japanese language and customs to help North Korean espionage agents blend in and function as Japanese.  That effort, too, was eventually abandoned.  Mr. Hasuiki reported that he and his wife spent the last years of their two-and-a-half decades of captivity doing translations from Japanese.

The Role of Abductions in North Korea-Japan Relations

The question of Japanese abductions has been a critical issue in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.  Japan has repeatedly called for additional information and full accountability for the specific 17 abductees that it has identified, as well as information North Korea may have on the other missing Japanese whose fate is unknown.  This is an issue that the government raises publicly and privately with North Korea at every opportunity.  The issue always receives high level government attention.  The Japanese government has a Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue, and the Headquarters for the Abduction Issue is a special cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister with the Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and the Foreign Minister serving as vice chairs.

This official attention to abductions reflects the popular Japanese interest in the issue.  When I visited Japan as the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, I received enormous press attention when I met with the Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue or with family members of the abductees.  When I met with the Foreign Minister or other senior Japanese government officials, there was far less media interest and attention.  This is clearly an issue of great importance to the Japanese people, and as a result it gets considerable attention and focus in any effort to deal with North Korea.

Few signs have appeared recently to indicate that North Korea is interested in improving its relationship with Japan, even as North–South relations and North Korea–United States relations have been boosted by a number of summits.  Though meaningful progress in relations with Pyongyang has been slim in the cases of both Seoul and Washington, the diplomatic activity has generated a good deal of attention.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown his interest in meeting with Kim Jong-un, but the North Korean leader has not been particularly responsive to the outreach from Tokyo.  Last June there was talk in Japan of Abe visiting Pyongyang in August or the two leaders meeting privately in September at a multilateral conference in Russia.  There were press reports that Japanese and North Korean foreign ministry officials met privately during a multilateral diplomatic conference in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar.  This was six months after numerous reports of secret meetings on this issue, also in Mongolia, between senior Japanese and North Korean intelligence officials.

In May Prime Minister Abe publicly suggested a meeting without preconditions with Kim Jong-un, but the North Korean leader was not interested in a meeting with the Japanese leader.  In early June 2019 Pyongyang media, obviously acting under official direction, issued not just a “No” to negotiations with Tokyo but a “Hell, No!” including a vicious attack on Japan’s foreign minister:

“It is useless to cry out for the improvement of relations unless Japan gives up its wicked character,” the North Korean spokesperson said. “Even though there is no able man in Japan, it is pitiful that such a poor-grade being as weasel-faced [Foreign Minister Taro] Kono who always makes hare-brained and loathsome words serves as foreign minister.

“Abe tenaciously knocks the door of Pyongyang while making an advertisement as if the Japanese government’s policy for negotiation with the DPRK was changed but there is nothing changed in its hostile policy towards the DPRK,” the spokesperson said, adding that Kono had called for the tightening of sanctions on the North “at his master’s beck and call.”

The Japanese have met with the North Koreans to discuss the abductee issue on a few occasions since Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in 2002. These meetings have occurred when the North Koreans were willing to talk and usually when there was an interest in securing Japanese economic assistance. Little has come out of those efforts to deal with abductions, however.

United States Support for Japan on Abductions

The U.S. government has been supportive of Japanese efforts to secure the release of its abducted citizens, and U.S. diplomats have raised the issue with North Korea and discussed the topic with other governments at the request of the Japanese government.  This support began in the 1990s as efforts were made to make progress on North Korea denuclearization, and it has continued since that time.

More recently, the Japanese have received assistance from the Trump administration in urging the release of the abductees. In his first speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, President Trump was harshly critical of North Korea, including its human rights record. He mentioned the best-known Japanese abductee, Megumi Yokota, in a catalog of human rights abuses by the North Korean government: “We know North Korea kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.” The Yokota family were surprised and pleased when Trump raised the issue. This public human rights criticism of the North by President Trump, which began in earnest with his first UN speech, continued for several months until March 2018 when Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed to meet in Singapore. From that point on, U.S. criticism of North Korea human rights has been muted.

Trump met with family members of the abductees on a visit to Japan in November 2017, and he pledged to work with Prime Minister Abe to secure their return. According to a senior official of the White House National Security Council staff, Trump raised the abduction issue in Hanoi in February of this year with Kim Jong-un. During the president’s visit to Tokyo this past May, he met a second time with families of the abductees and assured them of his support for the efforts of the Japanese government.

The abduction issue remains an important one for the Japanese people and their government. North Korea has publicly shown that it has little concern for human rights, and Pyongyang has cynically used abductions when they have seen benefit in doing so.  Thus far, there has been only limited interest in the North in seeking an improvement in relations with Tokyo.  It is clear, however, that the abduction issue is one on which Kim Jong-un will have to show progress to move forward with the Japanese.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo meeting with Japanese abductee families from the Government of Japan on WikiMedia Commons.

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North Korea Maintains Travel Restrictions Thirty Years after the Eastern Bloc Began Loosening Restrictions

By Troy Stangarone

Thirty years after Hungary allowed the first East Germans to cross into Austria beginning a process that would see the breakdown of the barriers that prevented free movement between East and West Germany, and within the communist bloc, North Koreans are still unable to travel abroad freely or visit their relatives in South Korea.

East and West were divided for decades by the Berlin Wall and boarder fencing to prevent a drain of citizens heading from East to West, but on August 19, 1989 600 East Germans in Hungary were allowed to leave and cross the border into Austria. In less than a month, 60,000 East Germans had taken advantage of the new opening.

While the Iron Curtain separated East from West, it was always more porous than the DMZ has been. While security services might tap calls or read mail, East and West Germans were able to call and mail each other.

East Germans were allowed to travel to West Germany, but permission was difficult to secure and conditional. However, even with restrictions in place around one million East Germans are estimated to have traveled to West German between 1964 and 1981. Division existed, but the near hermetic seal that exists today between North and South Korea never existed between East and West Germany.

Visa and currency restrictions also limited travel within the Eastern Bloc, but it was still possible even if East Germans were largely limited to travel to Czechoslovakia.

In contrast, North Korea and South Koreans face even stricter barriers to communication. Outside of economic engagement projects, humanitarian assistance, or government contacts, interactions are largely limited to controlled and infrequent family reunions. Since the first family reunion in 1985, some 20,000 South Koreans over 20 sets of reunions have been able to meet with loved ones who were separated by the Korean War.

Despite these reunions, there are some 56,000 South Koreans still waiting for their opportunity to meet with their relatives in the North. Tragically more than 75,000 have died since the late 1980s without the opportunity to meet with their relatives in the North.

North Koreans traveling to other countries such as China or Russia are largely limited to travel as overseas laborers to benefit the regime rather than to travel for personal reasons.

For those trying to escape North Korea, the number who have made it to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012. In the last year of Kim Jong-il’s rule 2,706 North Koreans made their way to South Korea. By 2018 that number had dropped to 1,137. Though, there are no hard statistics on how many North Koreans have tried to leave but been unsuccessful, increased security on both sides of the boarder is believed to have played a role in the decrease as China has recently begun to crack down on those trying to flee North Korea.

Beyond the human consequences of divided families, the continued slow movement towards travel between the two Koreas is a disappointment as on two separate occasions last year Kim Jong-un expressed his desire that Koreans be able to travel in both countries. Though, there is hope that video reunions could relieve some of the burden in the future.

This division is unique in the world, as even those living in Taiwan or mainland China are able to travel freely despite China’s division.

With thirty years now passed since the first East Germans made their way into Austria, the continued lack of interaction between North and South Korea shows how little progress has been made in addressing the human consequences of the Korean War.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Needpix.com.

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State Department Report finds North Korea Policies Encourage Human Trafficking

By Robert R. King

On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Department of State released the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. There is a certain irony that at a time when the President of the United States is trading love letters with Kim Jong-un and barely even mentioning human rights issues in their summit conversations, the State Department is issuing frank, tough, and accurate criticisms of North Korea’s abysmal record of human rights abuses.

The United Nations and the U.S. Government define “trafficking in persons” as recruitment, transportation and/or exploitation of persons by coercion, abduction, or deception for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor and slavery. The State Department trafficking report examines all countries and categorizes them into three “tiers” according to how they are meeting standards to eliminate trafficking. Tier 1 countries are fully meeting minimum standards.  Tier 2 countries do not meet minimum standards, but they are making significant efforts to meet those standards. Tier 3 countries do not meet minimum anti-trafficking standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the U.S. Department of State is required by Congressional mandate in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2001, which has been re-authorized by Congress on several occasions since its original adoption. The legislation created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the Department of State and established the position of Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. After a vacancy of 21 months, John Cotton Richmond was confirmed to that post and sworn in on October 1, 2018. He is a co-founder and director of the Human Trafficking Institute, and previously he was a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.

The Report is only the most recent example of Congressional legislation that requires the U.S. Government to publicly acknowledge human rights conditions in North Korea.

North Korea’s Record on Trafficking

It comes as no surprise that North Korea is a Tier 3 country—one of only 22 countries in the entire world which are making no significant effort to prevent trafficking of its own citizens.  Unfortunately, in the case of North Korea, some government policies actually encourage trafficking, and in other cases the government is complicit. The report determined that Pyongyang “did not demonstrate any efforts to address human trafficking,” and it “continued state-sponsored human trafficking through forced labor in mass mobilizations of adults and children, in prison camps as part of an established system of political repression, in labor training centers, and through its exportation of forced labor to foreign companies. It used proceeds from state-sponsored forced labor to fund government functions . . . [and] it did not protect potential trafficking victims when they were forcibly repatriated from China or other countries.”

It is worth noting that South Korea, in contrast, is a Tier 1 country which meets standards for the elimination of trafficking. The State Department report noted that Seoul “continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts . . . including funding and operating facilities to assist trafficking victims, training government officials to address sex trafficking, and cooperating with foreign law enforcement in the investigation of trafficking cases.”

North Korean Defectors are Frequent Victims of Sex Trafficking

One of the worst instances of trafficking involves North Koreans who seek to escape their homeland to find the freedoms that are not available in the repressive North or to join family members who live elsewhere. Because North Korean officials seek to prevent any unsanctioned departures, escaping is particularly difficult. Furthermore, if individuals are apprehended while trying to leave or are returned to North Korea by the Chinese or another government, they are brutally punished. Some 70 percent of North Korean defectors who have successfully fled to China as the first step in their effort to leave the North are women, and they are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.

There are many stories of defectors who sought and paid for help from “brokers” to flee to China. In far too many cases, their supposed benefactors have turned out to be traffickers. Instead of moving on to find freedom and family reunion, in China they have been sold into loveless marriages, forced into brothels, or pressed into the cybersex industry.

Just a few days ago, CNN reported on some of these victims forced into the cybersex industry in northeast China, one had spent five years and another eight years in cybersex slavery: “For five years, Lee—whose name has been changed for her safety—says she had been imprisoned with a handful of other girls in a tiny apartment in northeast China, after the broker she trusted to plan her escape from North Korea sold her to a cybersex operator. Her captor allowed her to leave the apartment once every six months. Attempts to escape had failed.”

A British human right group, the Korea Future Initiative, just issued an excellent report based on extensive interviews and rehabilitation work with North Korean women who were trafficked while attempting to escape the North.  The report gives this description of the problem: “North Korean women and girls are passed through the hands of traffickers, brokers and criminal organizations before being pulled into China’s sex trade, where they are exploited and used by men until their bodies are depleted.”

Vulnerable North Korean young women are caught up in the growing demand for sexual services in China. South China Morning Post reported that China’s booming economy has “fueled a prostitution boom.” The Korea Future Initiative report says North Korean women are in great demand because of the low price charged for their bodies, which can be as little as $4 for prostitution services and $146 to purchase a wife.” One survivor of exploitation said, “I was deceived by a broker and sold into marriage for ¥5,000 Chinese Yuan ($720 United States Dollars). I spent six years as a slave.”

The report estimates that overall this “complex and interconnected network of criminality accrues an estimated $105,000,000 United States Dollars annually from the sale of female North Korean bodies.”

Chinese Policy Contributes to Sex Trafficking of North Korean Refugees

The 2019 State Department trafficking report highlighted how Chinese policies and treatment of North Korean would-be defectors actually contribute to the trafficking problem of North Korean victims. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Korean women as refugees and refuses to grant them legal protections.  This makes the refugees more vulnerable to being trafficked.

China simply returns all North Korean refugees to the North Korean government, where they are subjected to harsh imprisonment, forced labor, and all too frequently death. The fear of being returned to North Korea makes these defectors especially vulnerable.  Unscrupulous brokers simply threaten to turn the victims over to Chinese or North Korean authorities, and being sexually trafficked in China appears to be the lesser evil.

China has voluntarily accepted the obligation to act to prevent and protect trafficking under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and also the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. American authorities have called upon the Chinese to safeguard and protect victims of trafficking. Those requests, however, have largely been ignored. The Chinese have been more involved with international efforts to discourage trafficking in Southeast Asia than it has been in dealing with the serious trafficking problems on its northeast border with North Korea.

Forced Labor in North Korea

Forced labor is the other major area of concern with regard to North Korea’s abysmal trafficking record. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report identified North Korea as a country that uses forced labor as part of an established system of political repression and a pillar of its economic system.

The recently released Global Slavery Index states that as many as 2.6 million people—1 out of every 10 North Koreans—are victims of forced labor or modern slavery. The report declares that the North Korean government had the “weakest response to slavery” of all countries covered in the survey, and that the Pyongyang government is directly involved in forced labor both inside and outside the country.

The most pervasive practice of forced labor in North Korea is the use of mass mobilizations—forcing large numbers of people to spend long hours on high-profile politically important projects for no payment, working long hours with little sleep, and receiving only limited amounts of poor quality food to sustain them in their efforts.

Reuters reported on one mobilization in January this year. Thousands of North Korean students traveled to remote Mount Paektu in northwestern North Korea to “voluntarily” work on a project dear to Kim Jong-un—to build apartments, hotels, a ski resort and commercial, cultural, and medical facilities in the alpine town of Samjiyon. This site is on the sacred volcanic mountain on the Chinese-North Korean border.

The work on Samjiyon is given heroic attention in the government-controlled media. Young people are urged to dedicate their “boiling blood of youth” to Kim’s dream of a great show-place on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Families are shown on television packing warm winter clothes, tools, boots and such for the inspiring youth who work on the project.

The reality of the mass mobilizations, however, is much grimmer. One young man became a member of one of these work brigades with much fanfare and festivity when he left the orphanage where he spent his youth to become a member of the brigade. The reality was a textbook example of forced labor in violation of international trafficking norms.  He worked long hours with limited amounts of poor quality food, he saw another young man fell to his death because of unsafe working conditions, and fellow laborers injured themselves to escape from the rigorous labor.

Human rights groups estimate that such work brigades include some 400,000 people. The UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea human rights in 2014 estimated that such brigades number 20,000 to 100,000 in each municipality depending on size.  Access to party membership, admission to higher education, and other important benefits in the North are dependent on enthusiastic participation in such un-paid mobilizations. The value of such unpaid labor is estimated to total nearly one billion dollars annually.

In addition to this mass mobilization, forced labor is an integral part of the North Korean prison system. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are held in segregated prison camps, and in these camps, all prisoners, including children, are subject to forced labor. The UN Commission of Inquiry in 2014 provided details of conditions in these political prison camps where individuals are forced to work long hours in physically demanding jobs while they are given insufficient food, forced to live in unhygienic conditions, and subjected to beatings, torture, and rape. Forced labor is also part of the correction regime for individuals in North Korea for routine crimes. Like the political prisons, regular criminal prisons involve forced labor and extremely poor living and working conditions.

Some North Korean workers are also sent abroad under rigid government control to work on contracts with other governments and companies. Many of these workers face forced labor conditions. Salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government and workers receive only a fraction of the payment for their labor. Working conditions are grim, and workers could also face punishment for failure to meet output quotas or for violating behavior expectations.

A report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China concluded that in the case of China, “The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reportedly continued to generate revenue by sending DPRK nationals to work in China under conditions that may constitute forced labor.”  Security personnel accompanied the workers going to China and actively monitored them continually. On average the government withheld 70 percent of the workers’ earnings.

Although North Korea is a signatory of United Nations agreements to prevent trafficking and forced labor, the record is quite clear that it has not lived up to its obligations. The just-released 2019 Report on Trafficking in Persons, as well as other recent reports from respected non-government organizations, clearly document North Korea’s human rights violations against its own citizens involving sex trafficking and forced labor.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Picture courtesy of the U.S. Department of State

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Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin Discuss North Korean Workers in Russia

By Robert R. King

On April 25, for the first time in the nine years that he has been Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.  The principal focus of the meeting was the failed Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.  Both Russian and North Korean media provided extensive coverage of the meeting, and in a press event after the meeting, Putin gave his own readout of the just-concluded meeting with Kim Jong-un.

That Putin media event did not have the rugby-scrum atmosphere of a Trump “press availability” as the American President walks from the White House to Marine One, with helicopter blades noisily whirring in the background and journalists shouting questions above the din.  The Russian President responded to formal polite questions from respectful journalists with carefully weighed answers.  The focus of the questions to Putin involved North Korean-United States issues as well as North Korea-Russian security issues.

One of the more interesting questions was from a Russian journalist who raised with Putin the issue of North Korean laborers in Russia.  In his response,the Russian President acknowledged that it was one of the topics he discussed with Kim Jong-un.  This is the text of the exchange with Putin.

Question: “Has the topic of North Koreans who work in Russia been raised during the talks? They are supposed to leave our country, but they do not want to. Thank you.”

Putin responded:  “Yes, we talked about this. There are several different options here. There are humanitarian issues, and there are issues related to the exercising of these people’s rights. There are smooth, non-confrontational solutions. I must say that the Koreans work well for us, never giving the local authorities any trouble. They are very hardworking people, law-abiding and disciplined. We discussed it.”

North Korean Workers and UN Sanctions

North Korean laborers in Russia (also in China and elsewhere) are a serious issue related to the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea because of its nuclear and missile programs.  The United States government said North Korea was earning more than $500 million annually from an estimated 100,000 North Koreans working abroad in a number of countries, and that 50,000 North Koreans were working in China and 30,000 in Russia.  The UN Security Council sanctions (UNSC Resolution 2397, Paragraph 8) include a ban on all North Korean labor exports with deadlines for eliminating all North Korean foreign labor by the end of 2019.

In March 2019, the government of Russia informed the UN Security Council that it had sent back nearly two-thirds of the North Korean workers in Russia.  North Koreans with valid Russian work permits dropped from 30,023 to 11,490 according to Russian officials.  At the same time, China informed the Council that more than half of the North Korean workers in China had returned, though it did not give a number of total workers or the number who returned to the North.  (There have been some press reports, however, that new groups ofNorth Korean workers are going to China.)

These Russian and Chinese statements were submitted to the United Nations, but they were not formally made public. However, Reuters and other news media were shown the one-page reports from each country giving this information.The Moscow Times also published a similar report with the Russian figures.Consistent with UN sanctions requirements, a number of other countries who had North Korean workers in the past have ended the practice.  Mongolia, for example, sent the last 1,200 North Korean workers in Mongolia back to North Korea in December 2017.

In July 2018, the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security issued a notice regarding the serious risk for businesses with supply chain links to North Korea and warned against products from countries using North Korean labor.  The industries affected included apparel, construction, footwear, hospitality, IT services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.  The United States listed 46 countries where North Korean labor was employed, although the notice said that China and Russia had more North Korean workers than all other countries combined.

Benefits for Moscow

For Moscow, there are distinct economic benefits to using North Korean workers.  First, North Korean workers are close to a large, resource rich area of Russia which is sparsely populated.  The Far Eastern Federal District, one of the eight Federal Districts of Russia, comprises 40 percent of the entire territory of country, and its 2.7 million square mile area, which is more than two-thirds the size of the entire United States (including Alaska).  TheFar Eastern Federal District extends from Lake Baikal in the center of Russia to the Pacific Ocean only a few miles from Alaska across the Bearing Strait.

This huge territory, however, has a population of only 8.4 million people.  Tiny North Korea alone has a population of 25 million people living in a territory equal to less than 2% of the land mass of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District.  Russia needs labor to develop and exploit the extensive timber and other natural resources of this vast area.

Another important benefit to Russia of using North Korean workers is that they are relatively cheap.  The Russian Ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told reporters that Chinese laborers would be unwilling to take construction jobs in Russia’s Far East which are filled by North Koreans because the pay is too low to be attractive to the Chinese.  Furthermore, the Russian government would prefer to have non-Chinese workers in its Far East.  In the past, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, has made claims against sparsely populated Russian controlled territory in East Asia.

Russia and other countries who host North Korean workers, have found these workers to be a disciplined work force, controlled and managed by their minders from home.  One Russian in Vladivostok enthusiastically expressed it this way, “They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.”  Russians are happy to employ North Koreans for household repair and painting or building a sports stadium.  Putin, as noted in his recent press conference said “the Koreans work well for us, never giving the local authorities any trouble.  They are very hardworking people, law-abiding and disciplined.”

Benefits for Pyongyang

There is a financial benefit to North Korea from the employment of its workers abroad.  Koreans working abroad are under strict control with party and government supervisors who monitor them.  The individual workers are not paid directly, but through the North Korean managers.  Under this system, a major portion of the wages goes to Pyongyang and a significant portion is also taken by the North Korean work unit managers and the supervisors in Pyongyang.  Earnings remaining for North Korean workers are reduced for payments to the Workers’ Party, and other donations are made to a loyalty fund.

United States officials have estimated that the North Korean take from all of these foreign workers around the world is as much as $500 million.  While that estimate may be excessive, there is little question that the cash benefit to the government of foreign workers is important—probably increasingly important as North Korean trade has declined and import costs have risen as a result of UN sanctions.

North Korean workers abroad are provided food and lodging as part of the effort to control the workers.  What is left as direct pay to the workers is only a small part of what the host country pays for their services, but workers can take home most of the modest earnings they are paid.  Even with this small take-home pay, most North Koreans who work abroad for the average two-year stint are able to accumulate a significant nest egg by North Korean standards.

Living and working conditions for North Koreans abroad are not good—particularly by international standards.  Working abroad does involve human rights abuse, and accounts of living conditions of North Koreans working abroad indicate conditions are very difficult.  Some attention was given to difficult working conditions for North Koreans in Russia in connection with their work on the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, which was used for 2018 World Cup games hosted by Russia.  But for North Korean workers accustomed to draconian working and living conditions at home, working abroad actually is attractive.

When North Koreans work abroad, they are not permitted to bring family members with them.  Wives and children remain in North Korea, held hostage to be certain the workers do not “defect.”  It also makes it easier to control workers abroad by threatening harm to family members.  Life is difficult for workers who go abroad, but also for their family members who remain behind.

Despite the difficult and abusive conditions for North Koreans working in Russia, reports indicate that would-be foreign laborers pay hefty bribes for the privilege of working there.  Andrei Lankov, Russian-born Korea specialist and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, has discussed this phenomenon of North Koreans eager to work abroad.  Lankov is correct—when the alternative to work abroad is working under draconian conditions inside North Korea for lower wages, workers are eager to go abroad.

Working conditions, long hours, and low pay for North Koreans abroad are difficult, particularly in comparison to conditions and pay for workers of countries where they are sent.  In comparison with labor standards, conditions, and wages elsewhere, North Korean workers suffer rights abuse.  At the same time, compared to what they would earn and the conditions they would face if they remain in North Korea, there are benefits that make working abroad a sought-after alternative for many North Koreans.

Will Russia Observe its Commitment on North Korea Sanctions?

Despite the advantage for Russia of using North Korean labor and the desire of North Korea to continue the practice, the UN Security Council sanctions are quite explicit in requiring an end to use of North Korean foreign labor.  Russia and China—as well as the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other UN member states—have an obligation to observe UN Security Council sanctions.  Russia and China have publicly stated to the United Nations that they are reducing the numbers of North Korean workers, and they intend to end the practice by December 2019.

Vladimir Putin’s response to the Russian journalist’s query in Vladivostok, however, indicated that North Korean laborers in Russia is an issue that received significant attention in his meeting with Kim Jong-un.  The Russians have been moving to reduce the number of North Korean workers, but Putin’s comments that “there are several options here” and “there are humanitarian issues. . . and these people’s rights,” suggests a possible softening of the Russian position on sanctions against employment of North Korean workers.

The fact that Kim Jong-un raised the foreign worker issue in Vladivostok makes it clear that the UN sanctions involving foreign workers are having an impact in Pyongyang.  The real question is whether Kim Jong-un’s appeal to Putin will lead Russia to backtrack from its United Nations sanctions commitment.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from the website of the President of the Russian Federation.

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UN Human Rights Council Denounces North Korea; United States Remains Silent

By Robert R. King 

On March 22, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva discussed and then adopted a resolution criticizing the “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  A recorded vote was not requested by any Council member, and the resolution was adopted by consensus.

The UN Human Rights Council has given serious attention to North Korea’s rights violations since 2004 when the Council first appointed a Special Rapporteur to report to the Council and make recommendations on human rights abuses by the North.  For the past 15 years the Council has annually renewed the mandate for a Special Rapporteur.  The current holder of that position is Tomás Ojea Quintana, a professor of international law and a citizen of Argentina.  He previously served on the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and he directed a program of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for protection and promotion of human rights in Bolivia.  Before assuming the position for North Korean human rights, he was Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in Myanmar (2008-2014).

The UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights plays the key role in UN human rights activities.  He conducts investigations on the North’s rights abuses, and he consults with government officials, human specialists and scholars.  Every March the Special Rapporteur presents a detailed written report on human rights conditions to the UN Human Rights Council.  At an open session of the Council in Geneva, he makes an oral presentation and responds to remarks of representatives of member countries.  The Council subsequently adopts a resolution on the issue.

Since 2005, the Special Rapporteur also has delivered a written report and made an oral presentation to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York.  In every one of the last 15 years, the General Assembly also has adopted a harshly critical resolution on DPRK human rights taking into account the abuses catalogued by the Special Rapporteur.

Special Rapporteur Decries Rights Abuses

The report recently presented to the UN Human Rights Council and the resolution just adopted by the Council reaffirmed the continuing human rights abuses being carried on by North Korea.  As part of his work, Special Rapporteur Quintana was in Seoul in January where he met with South Korean government officials and recently-arrived defectors from the North.  At great risk to themselves and their families, the defectors fled the North.  Quintana has approached the North requesting to visit the country “to hear the voice of the people and the authorities,” but the North has repeatedly refused to cooperate with him.

In Seoul Mr. Quintana briefed the media on the results of his conversations.  His visit came a month before the failure of the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  Despite some encouraging signs he saw in the security realm, Quintana noted that “the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious.”  He indicated that political prison camps in the North continue to house “thousands of inmates,” and he cited one source as saying “the whole country is a prison.”  He said that other witnesses who recently fled the North “reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life” as well as “a continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities.

In the Special Rapporteur’s detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council he concluded “Surveillance and close monitoring of all citizens as well as other severe restrictions on their basic freedoms, including freedom of movement, continues to be pervasive, with fear among the population to be sent to prisons, particularly political prison camps, being very real and deeply embedded in the consciousness of all North Koreans.”

At the same time that the Special Rapporteur’s report was published, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, former two-term president of Chile, also gave her annual report to the UN Human Rights Commission “Promoting accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  That report, in very stark terms, concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that numerous crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and may be ongoing,” and “the prosecution of crimes committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea through the creation of an ad hoc tribunal or referral to the International Criminal Court should remain a priority.”

The resolution approved by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council “Condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and expresses its grave concern at the detailed findings made by the commission of inquiry in its report.”  The resolution also commended the UN human rights office in Seoul and praised its ongoing monitoring and documentation efforts on North Korea’s human rights.  The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was also extended because of the clear and continuing problem of human rights violations.

When the resolution was considered by the Human Rights Council, Romania presented the text on behalf of the European Union and the sponsors of the resolution.  The resolution was sponsored by 39 UN member countries.  During the consideration of the resolution, only Cuba and China expressed opposition, but when the vote was called, no country requested that a recorded vote be taken, and it was adopted by consensus.  This was a resounding affirmation of the importance of the resolution and the continuing broad support for tough criticism of North Korea’s appalling human rights record.

And . . . where was the United States?

One of the most disappointing aspects of the consideration and adoption of the resolution on North Korea’s abysmal human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council was that the United States was totally absent from the fray.  The 39 UN member countries who sponsored the resolution critical of North Korea did not include the United States.  The member countries of the European Union and many others went on the record in support of human rights for the North Korean people.  The United States, which has been a leader in international human rights since Eleanor Roosevelt led the effort to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, could not be bothered to express support for human rights in North Korea.

The Trump Administration’s failure to support the UN Human Rights Council resolution is part of a pattern of failing to stand up for human rights in North Korea.  Shortly after John Bolton was named National Security Advisor at the White House, the United States withdrew from participating in the UN Human Rights Council, and this has hampered efforts to press North Korea on its human rights violations.  Though, it would not have prevented the United States from sponsoring the resolution on North Korean human rights.

Also, President Trump appears to consider human rights only as a weapon to be used to wring concessions from the North on nuclear and security questions.  When he was seeking to pressure Pyongyang, he used human rights as a tool to press the North.  Nowhere was this more evident than in comparing the President’s treatment of North Korea in the 2018 State of the Union Address and what he said about the North in his 2019 Address.  The imposition of a few new sanctions for human rights violations against North Korean officials in December 2018—required by Congressional legislation—was down-played by the Administration.

One of the more glaring United States failures to press North Korea on human rights cruelties was in the failure to raise this issue in United Nations Security Council.  After the release of the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on widespread and pervasive North Korean human rights abuses, the General Assembly adopted a resolution in the fall of 2014 urging the Security Council to discuss the issue and consider referring it to a special tribunal or to the International Criminal Court.  The United States Permanent Representative to the UN led the effort to secure the votes to place the issue on the Security Council’s agenda.  The issue was discussed four years in a row from 2014 to 2017.

In the fall of 2018 the United States failed to get the issue placed on the Security Council agenda.  North Korea’s UN ambassador was vocal in urging that the issue not be considered, and many foreign policy commentators suggested that Washington’s urgent desire for another summit with Kim Jong-un, led U.S. representatives in New York to avoid pressing the issue.

Securing nine of the fifteen Security Council member countries to support a controversial agenda item can be complicated, particularly since China and Russia are permanent members who have consistently opposed raising human rights questions of any kind.  Getting the support of nine member countries can be difficult since ten council seats are staggered two year term seats, and the makeup of the council varies according to the countries whose representatives sit on the council.

There has been no indication that the United States has renewed its effort to place North Korean human rights issues on the agenda in 2019.  The first quarter of the year is now gone with nary a whisper that the United States was again raising that issue.  President Trump’s recent unexpected unilateral action revoking the imposition of sanctions on Pyongyang by his Treasury Department in fact suggests that he is bending over backwards to persuade Kim Jong-un to negotiate on denuclearization, though the failure of discussions in Hanoi does not give great hope for progress.  Meanwhile, the United States ignores North Korea’s abysmal human rights violations.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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How Should the International Community Respond to North Korea’s Request for UN Food Aid?

By Robert R. King

The North Korean Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Kim Song, last week made an urgent request on behalf of his government to the United Nations and its affiliated humanitarian agencies to provide food assistance to his country.  The request said the looming food crisis is the result of a forecast sharp drop in agricultural production this year, but also a result of stringent international sanctions imposed on the North because of its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean officials at the United Nations in New York made their request for humanitarian food assistance quite publicly.  NBC News reported that it had obtained a copy of the memorandum to United Nations officials from the North Korean UN Mission in New York.  A UN spokesperson said publicly on March 7th that North Korea had made the request to UN assistance agencies.  Pyongyang told UN officials that it is facing a shortfall of 1.4 million tons of food production this year, particularly in key crops of rice, wheat, potato, and soybean.

The timing of the request was not random.  It was made just ten days before the ill-fated Hanoi Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of February.  North Korea was seeking removal of international sanctions as a key objective at the summit.  Giving the request for sanctions relief a humanitarian twist was probably a key reason for the plea to the United Nations and the timing and publicity for the request.

The Effect of Sanctions on Food Supply

The North Korean narrative that sanctions are denying North Korea access to much-needed food imports for its hungry population is largely fictitious.  The sanctions regime approved by the UN Security Council are focused on limiting Pyongyang’s access to goods and financing needed for enhancing its military capability, particularly its nuclear and missile programs.  The current UN sanctions, which strengthened sanctions imposed earlier, followed the missile test of November 27, 2017 when the North tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and higher elevation than it had ever previously tested.  One month later the UN Security Council approved a series of mandatory sanctions, the toughest ever imposed on North Korea.  (The Council on Foreign Relations recently published a good primer on the sanctions.)

Security Council resolution 2397 coupled with previous sanctions still in place explicitly sought to limit Pyongyang’s expanding military capacity.  The Security Council sanctioned the importation of these products into North Korea:  aviation fuel, refined petroleum products, crude oil and natural gas;  helicopters, naval vessels, military arms, and “any item contributing to military capabilities, excluding food and medicines”;  and items related to weapons of mass destruction and dual-use items that could be used for the building of such weapons.

The sanctions on the importation of such goods by North Korea or the export of such goods to North Korea by UN member states is not the cause of severe food shortages in the North.  Even the sanctions on petroleum products likely have minimal impact on agricultural production because farms in the North are not highly mechanized.  Restrictions of farm equipment and spare parts for farm equipment also have minimal impact for the same reason, and exceptions for farm equipment are possible if the North can provide end-use assurances to be certain that such equipment is not for military use.

The sanctions also ban the export to North Korea of luxury goods, such as high-end automobiles, expensive liquors, designer clothes, etc.  Time Magazine discussed North Korea’s import of luxury goods during Kim Jong-un’s first year in office in an article entitled: “North Korea’s Kim Spending Big on Cars, Cognac, and Pianos.”  In that first year as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un reportedly spent $645 million with some estimates suggesting as much as $800 million spent on luxury goods.  Obviously that was part of the effort by the newly installed leader to win the “loyalty” of his supporters in the elite.  According to a South Korean lawmaker, in 2017 Pyongyang spending on luxury goods was still some $640 million.

Sanctions also prohibit key North Korea exports, and this has reduced resources available to Pyongyang for the purchase of goods from abroad—both military equipment and raw materials needed for domestic production of military goods, and also for food, if the regime makes the decision to purchase food for the masses rather than just luxuries for the elite.

Prohibited goods from North Korea include raw materials mined there—coal;  iron, lead, copper, nickel, zinc, and rare earth minerals, either processed or ore;  North Korean-produced monumental statues (an important North Korean export to dictatorships, particularly in Africa) or other manufactured goods, unless approval is granted in advance by the UN Sanctions enforcement committee.  Export of seafood is also prohibited.  Seafood has been a lucrative export in the past.  Furthermore, the export of North Korean labor to foreign countries has been prohibited.  All foreign laborers working abroad when the sanctions were imposed are to return to North Korea by December 2019.  (Russia appears to be violating this sanction provision, which suggests that enforcement of UN sanctions is far from perfect.)

The key question regarding sanctions and their impact on access to food for the North Korean people is this:  Would Pyongyang buy food or devote resources to the development of the agriculture and food production sectors of its economy if greater resources were available?  Past experience clearly indicates no.  A key conclusion of the 2014 UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights situation, concluded:

“The State [North Korea] has consistently failed in its obligation to use the maximum of its available resources to feed those who are hungry.  Military spending—predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme—has always been prioritized, even during periods of mass starvation. . . . Large amounts of state resources, including parallel funds directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, have been spent on luxury goods and the advancement of his personality cult instead of providing food to the starving general population.”  (Paragraph 51, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Human Rights Council, 7 February 2014.)


Though the Commission of Inquiry report was issued five years ago, there is nothing even to suggest that its conclusions are no longer valid.  The regime of Kim Jong-un has continued the same practices followed by his father and grandfather toward vast majority of the inhabitants of North Korea.  There nothing to suggest that lifting sanctions against Pyongyang would free resources that would be used to improve access to food and medicines for the people of North Korea.

Natural Disasters and Failure to Prepare for Them

The other cause of food shortages in North Korea cited by the memorandum from North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations is natural disasters—record high temperatures, drought, and heavy rainfall.

Agriculture in the North has inherent problems.  The country is more mountainous than the southern half of the peninsula.  But decades of poor agricultural practice and lack of proper investment under the Kim regimes have contributed to lower output.  South Korea, which has more favorable land for farming, has much the same temperatures and rainfall, and is subject to the same drought and floods as the North.  The South, however, has followed better agricultural practices and put greater investment into the rural sector.

Thus, the problem is not greater natural disasters and climate difficulties in the North, but rather an inadequate response from Pyongyang than what we have seen from Seoul in dealing with these same issues.  North Korea has neither prepared for nor effectively dealt with the predictable natural disasters.  The North has failed to provide adequate investment in agricultural infrastructure and sufficient inputs.  Instead, government funds have gone to the military, nuclear and missile programs, and investment in projects to entertain the elite (Masikryong Luxury Ski Resort, the Dolphinarium and riding stable in Pyongyang among other luxuries in the capital city).

The UN has confirmed the food shortages in the North, and the problems are serious.  The United Nation’s resident coordinator for UN programs in North Korea, Tapan Mishra, reported that there is a “significant food gap” in the North.  He said that 10.9 million people in the country, or 43 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance, some 600,000 more than last year.  The UN reported that “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.”

UN officials were not explicit, but the figures they are using have been provided by the North Korean government, which does raise questions.  At the same time, however, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a North Korean agricultural specialist, suggests that agricultural output between 2017 and 2018 dropped by 19 percent.  The problem is indeed a serious one.

Appeals by UN humanitarian agencies for UN member states to aid the North have received less support than needed.  Just a few days ago, the UN made an urgent appeal for $120 million “to urgently provide life-saving aid to 3.8 million people.  Last year the UN appealed for $111 million to help 6 million of North Korea’s most vulnerable people.  The appeal received only 24 percent of what was requested—one of the lowest levels of response to a UN appeal in the world.  The March 2018 similar forecast and appeal for urgent humanitarian assistance was preceded by a similar appeal in March 2017.

The tepid international reaction to UN appeals for aid to North Korea is in part the fault of the policies of the North.  The significantly increased attention and focus on human rights violations in the North since the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry into North Korea’s human rights issues have raised international concern.  Pyongyang’s increased nuclear and missile testing under Kim Jong-un since 2012 has further eroded international support and sympathy for Pyongyang.  The priority of Kim Jong-un in testing and building nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems has made it much more difficult to gain international sympathy, even in the face of serious humanitarian threats.

Humanitarian Assistance Can Be Delivered in Appropriate Ways

The Kim regime wants food assistance, but providing food to the masses is not a high enough priority for that government to reorder its priorities or change its policies to provide the food through its own resources.  Simply eliminating the budget for elite luxuries, for example, would provide more than five times the amount the UN seeks to raise through voluntary contributions.

Nevertheless, something can be done.  It is important to keep in mind that the suffering people of North Korea—particularly children who are its most tragic victims—are not responsible.  A national election was just held in North Korea, but there was no choice of candidates for the Supreme People’s Assembly.  Even if there were real choices, the rubber-stamp Assembly has no power to alter the policies of the Kim regime.  It is difficult under these conditions to hold the victims responsible for their lack of food.

The United Nations has provided food assistance to North Korea for decades, and the UN humanitarian agencies, particularly the World Food Programme and UNICEF, have experience in delivering nutritional aid to children and families in ways that assure it reaches the intended recipients.  Pyongyang will struggle to control the distribution, but UN agencies have dealt with such problems in North Korea and elsewhere for decades and are effective in doing so.  The United States and other UN members should respond positively to the appeal from UN agencies.  The UN agencies have a track record of assuring that aid for those in need gets those who need help.

Furthermore, the United States should not oppose UN assistance to North Korea, and the UN sanctions regime should not be used to limit food and other humanitarian aid to the North.  It is likely that Congress will balk at the United States providing direct food assistance to North Korea, even by providing funds through experienced UN humanitarian agencies.  But there are other ways the United States can help those most in need in North Korea.

In the lead up to the Hanoi summit between President Trump and supreme leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. government officials indicated they were easing restrictions on private American humanitarian organizations providing aid to North Koreans.  There was hope that this might allow private assistance efforts to help fill the gap.  There are indications, however, that the U.S. administration is backsliding on its commitment.  The United States should encourage responsible private humanitarian efforts to continue and support, not obstruct, those efforts.  These organizations understand North Korea and are experienced in assessing need and assuring appropriate distribution of assistance.

The United States can—and should—work actively and aggressively to move North Korea to nuclear disarmament and reduce tensions with North Korea.  At the same time, the U.S. can—and should—provide humanitarian food, medical, and other assistance to the people of North Korea.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Todd Mecklam’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Attention on DPRK and China Policies that Result in Sex Trafficking

By Robert R. King

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has just released an excellent report on the trafficking of North Korean defectors:  “The North Korean women who had to escape twice” by BBC Korea editor Su-Min Hwang.  The report gives first-hand details of North Korean defectors in China who were trafficked and provides an account of their heart-wrenching experiences.

This tragedy is the consequence of DPRK policies to prevent and severely punish individuals who attempt to leave.  But the Chinese government is also complicit because North Koreans who are apprehended by Chinese officials are returned to the North with total disregard for the brutal abuse they will assuredly receive when they are forced back across the border.  The Chinese have other options because South Korea is quite willing to take defectors, and most defectors want to go to the South.  This BBC report provides an eloquent image of the horrific humanitarian consequences of these North Korean and Chinese policies.

Since the North Korean famine of the 1990s over 32,000 North Koreans have fled their homeland to seek a better life in South Korea, initially going through China. Most are individuals seeking opportunities to provide for themselves and their families because repressive discrimination based on family connections or presumed political leanings severely limit economic and educational opportunities for the majority of the population who are arbitrarily categorized as part of the so-called “hostile” or “wavering” classes.

In the six years Kim Jong-un has led the DPRK, the number of defectors who have chosen to leave North Korea and have gone to South Korea has declined by more than half from a high of 2,706 in 2011 to only 1,127 in 2017 according to South Korean government statistics.  This is partly the result of tightening border control.  The inter-Korean border—the Demilitarized Zone—is so heavily guarded that it is virtually impossible to cross.  Areas adjacent to the border with China, the only other option for escape, are off-limits to anyone who does not live in the immediate border zone.  North Korean border guards are trained to be tough on defectors, and reports appear frequently of border guards killing would-be defectors. Family members who remain in the North when relatives defect are severely punished and even executed.

Shortly after coming to power, Kim Jong-un sought to make the South appear less attractive to citizens from the North to discourage defections.  Pyongyang media highly publicized “re-defections” by North Koreans who returned from the South with tales about the awful life there.  The major media campaign against defection in 2012-2013 highlighted “re-defectors” giving extended reports about difficult conditions in the South and obsequious praise for Kim Jong-un welcoming them back.  By raising questions about life in the South, regime intended to make Northerners more cautious about the tough choice of abandoning friends and family for an uncertain life in the South.

Those who decide to leave the North and succeed in getting into China still have a very difficult road.  Chinese policy considers all refugees from North Korea to be economic migrants.  Very occasionally China has allowed defectors to go to South Korea in order to punish or pressure the North Korean regime.  The default Chinese position is that all North Koreans are to be returned to the North, although the Chinese know that they will receive harsh punishment, including imprisonment and brutal physical abuse.

North Koreans in China are in a very vulnerable position and subject to exploitation by unscrupulous locals.  In this situation many women defectors—and over two-thirds of all defectors are women—are exploited and trafficked through forced “marriages” to rural Chinese peasants or pressed into the sex trade.

The excellent BBC report gives personal details of the experiences of two defectors who successfully left North Korea with the help of brokers, but were then sold to a sexcam operator just across the border in China. Imprisoned in a tiny apartment where they were guarded twenty-four hours a day, the defectors were forced to work long hours performing pornographic acts daily on a live webcam.  One survived five years and another eight years before they were able to escape and make the precarious journey from northeast China to the Chinese border with Southeast Asia where they were finally able to escape with the help of South Korean non-government organizations and the South Korean government.  Their story is grim, and the defectors’ willingness to share them gives first-hand insight into the brutality of the Kim regime toward its own people and highlights the China’s willing complicity in the inhumane treatment of these victims.

Other accounts by defectors confirm the scope and nature of these abuses.  See reports in the South China Morning Post, Washington Post, Reuters, and The Irish Times.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Picture from user Ceosad on Wikimedia Commons

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Washington’s Mixed Signals on Criticism of DPRK Human Rights Record at the UN

By Robert R. King

For the past 15 years, the United Nations has been the leading forum in pressing North Korea for improvement and change in its human rights record.  Recent actions on the part of the Administration raise questions about whether the United States is backing away from this earlier principled stand.

The UN Human Rights Council by resolution established a mandate for a Special Rapporteur to report to the Council on human rights conditions in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to make recommendations for improvement.  A distinguished Thai law professor, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was named Special Rapporteur to report to the Council.

The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York have annually renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights conditions in the DPRK.  Two other distinguished individuals have been named to succeed Professor Muntarbhorn in that position—Indonesian jurist Marzuki Darusman and Argentine law professor Tomás Ojea Quintana.  All three sought to visit North Korea to observe first-hand conditions there, and all been ignored or rejected.  Their reports establish an outstanding record of North Korea’s abuse and mistreatment of its citizens in violation of its own constitution and its international human rights obligations in treaties and agreements it has signed.

Through the recommendation and efforts of Mr. Darusman, a UN-designated Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK was established to document and analyze North Korea’s human rights.  That three-member Commission concluded that Pyongyang systematically violated the human rights of its people, including freedom of thought, expression, and religion.  The government discriminated against its people and denied them freedom of movement and residence, as well as denying them the right to food.  The commission concluded that the North committed “crimes against humanity” and failed in its responsibility to protect its citizens.  The crimes of the government included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial, and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhuman act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

This spring, Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana released his report to the UN Human Rights Commission on continuing human rights abuses in the North and gave a verbal report to the Council.  In March, the Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted by voice vote a resolution which “Condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and urged Pyongyang to abandon its human rights abuses.  A recorded vote was not requested by any state, since voting on this issue in the past had been so disproportionately in support.

Six weeks ago on October 24, Mr. Quintana presented a verbal report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee and again urged the Pyongyang regime to make improvements in its human rights.  The Third Committee approved a tough resolution, including a call for the North Korean human rights situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court because of the seriousness of the human rights violations.  The resolution, again, was approved by a voice vote because previous resolutions have been approved by such overwhelming margins.  The General Assembly is expected formally to approve this resolution in the next few days.

Although North Korean denounces such UN resolutions and the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs, these actions do have an impact.  They raise questions regarding the legitimacy and authority of the Kim regime in Pyongyang.  In this era the legitimacy and authority of democracy and democratic institutions have broad authenticity.  Hence even a totalitarian regime like North Korea is anxious to at least give the appearance of democratic legitimacy and authority.  These United Nations resolutions and public debates clearly bring into question that legitimacy.

In the last five years, an additional point of leverage on North Korean human rights has emerged at the United Nations.  The United States has led the fight in the Security Council to hold a debate on the issue of North Korea human rights.  U.S. representatives have argued that serious human rights abuses in North Korea threaten the stability and security of Northeast Asia.  Russia and China—as well as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—have a veto over UN actions taken in the Security Council, but the agenda of issues discussed by the Council requires 9 votes of the 15 Council members.  Beginning in 2014, the U.S. has played a key role in the effort to devote a Council session to human rights in North Korea.  Thus far, the Security Council has debated the topic for each of the last four years.

Recently, the record of the United States on North Korea human rights at the UN has been mixed.  The Trump Administration in the United States has shown serious inconsistency in dealing with North Korea and human rights.  President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is largely transactional:  “What is in it for me.”  Our foreign policy behavior is less motivated by morality, decency, or even long-term benefits.  It is simply what do I get out of a foreign policy action?

That has been particularly true of the situation of human rights.  When the President wanted to pressure North Korea, he led the charge on human rights.  It was a heavy cudgel he could use against Kim Jong-un.  Initially the President was a vocal advocate for human rights.  He raised the cry over American citizens being held in North Korea, he singled out North Korean defectors in his 2018 State of the Union speech and met with a group of defectors in the Oval Office a day or two later, and Vice President Mike Pence was accompanied to the PyeongChang Olympics by the father of American student Otto Warmbier, who died after incarceration in Pyongyang.

After the Singapore summit in June between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, Trump announced the two “fell in love,” and he had received “beautiful letters” from the North Korean despot.  Despite the fact that the American President has received little from the North toward denuclearization, he is apparently convinced that pressing the North on human rights is not helpful.  The President has given no further attention to human rights in North Korea, and he has shown no further concern for the victims of Kim Jong-un’s brutality.  Interestingly, we have seen little progress on denuclearization.

The Administration is not simply ignoring human rights, but it has also taken a series of steps that have moved the United States away from its long-standing concern for human rights in North Korea.  The U.S. withdrew from participation and membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council, the UN body in Geneva which has played a key role in pressing Pyongyang on its human rights record.  It is unfortunate that the U.S. no longer has this platform to advocate for our human rights agenda.  We no longer have the opportunity to influence this important organization on North Korean human rights.  This decision was not based on North Korea, but on other Trump administration concerns that some human rights violators participate in the Human Rights Council and others countries have used the Council to attack the United States for our policies.  Nevertheless, the U.S. voice is not now heard at the Human Rights Council on human rights in North Korea, as it was in the past.

The month after the Singapore meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the United States Congress adopted legislation renewing the North Korea Human Rights Act, which directed the President to name a “Special Envoy on North Korea human rights issues with rank of Ambassador.”  The legislation was adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support, a rarity in Congressional action these days.  The position, which had been filled in the past, focused attention on the human rights abuses in the North.  Thus far there is no indication that anyone is about to be nominated for the post, although we are approaching six months since President Trump signed the legislation into law.  There is little indication that many of the other human rights requirements are being implemented.

The element which gives some hope for U.S. policy is the American effort to hold the debate on DPRK human rights this December in the UN Security Council, as it has since 2014.  Thus far the U.S. has pressed the case with Security Council members, and American diplomats have worked to assure the necessary votes to put the topic on the agenda.

But Pyongyang is punching back.  North Korean news media have accused Washington of “stoking confrontation” and “inciting an atmosphere of hostility” by calling for a Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights.  Kim Jong-un has no interest in having his human rights policies questioned at the United Nations.  By inciting tough rhetoric in the media, he hopes to get President Trump to back down.  Trump’s uncritical embrace of Kim at Singapore has produced few concrete results in terms of denuclearization, but it has given the President a personal vested interest in keeping his “love affair” with Kim alive.

Where does the saga go from here?  As President Trump is fond of saying, “We’ll see.”  We will also see if the clear, unequivocal voice of the United States, that we have heard in the past, continues to call unequivocally for human rights in North Korea.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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