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Forging a Consensus on Human Rights

23 June 2010

The Canadian NGO, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), has been engaged in the DPRK since the mid-1990s. One major project provides soymilk to North Korean orphanages to reduce the risk of malnutrition.

Roberta Cohen and I, along with most observers of North Korea, agree on the details of the human rights situation. We differ on strategies to address the abysmal state of affairs.

But we don’t differ quite as much as Roberta suggests in her article Human Rights: A Means of Engaging North Korea. I don’t, for instance, suggest “setting aside” human rights in engaging North Korea. Indeed, my article was devoted to precisely the challenge of incorporating a human rights perspective in a way that can be effective—i.e., actually improving the living conditions of real, existing North Koreans.

So, for instance, I don’t reject the “name and shame” approach. In fact, I highlight its many virtues. I simply point out the obvious: it hasn’t been effective in improving the daily lives of North Koreans. I would hope that at some point such an approach would achieve its intended results. And I think that organizations that engage in such activities should continue to do so—since it is difficult to know with any great certainty the relationship between what we say and do outside of North Korea and what happens inside the country.

Nor do I reject the humanitarian approach. I write that North Korea has been leery of the humanitarian approach because it fosters a certain dependence (a criticism not unknown within the development community as well). In fact, the cornerstone of the human security approach is the satisfaction of basic human needs—but within a larger development framework.

Nor do I describe human rights as a “punitive” approach that doubles as a “hasten-the-collapse” strategy. There are certainly some actors who use human rights as a regime-change tactic; but I don’t in my article or anywhere else argue that the human rights community as a whole embraces this perspective.

Nor do I “excuse” North Korea from respecting civil and political rights. I am well aware of the UN covenants to which North Korea is a party, and I’ve written about the prospects of engaging North Korea on those issues elsewhere. The examples that Roberta cites in her article—movement forward on disability issues or on reproductive health—did not result from “name and shame” tactics but from serious engagement with North Korean officials who were responsive and concerned.

I’ll now turn to her critique of what I do say, namely that a human security approach has a more reasonable chance of success in producing a more humane society in North Korea. Roberta writes, “Proposing development assistance for North Korea, however, assumes that the North Korean government is committed to the economic betterment of its population and that the aid will advance this goal.” Actually, the North Korean government is neither the virtuous cadre of North Korean propaganda nor the unified evil force of Roberta’s imagination. The North Korean government consists of many levels and many actors, and they often work at cross-purposes to one another.

The Salvation Army supports a goat dairy at Gynam that produces goats' milk yogurt. The yogurt is packaged with the Salvation Army's red shield logo.

Roberta in fact acknowledges this complexity when she refers to economic reform in the country. Obviously this reform had to originate from somewhere within the system. There are government officials in North Korea who want to revive the manufacturing and agricultural capabilities of the country and recognize that a starving population is unacceptable from both a moral and a national security standpoint. Yes, of course, economic reform has encountered resistance within the country. That is a basic truth about economic reform in every country (Republican resistance to the stimulus package in this country is only one recent example). But to treat the North Korean government as a unitary actor with a single mind is an analytical mistake.

Roberta goes on to dismiss development aid because of the possibility that the regime will not use it for constructive purposes. She quotes the example of a fertilizer plant being used, possibly, for the making of explosives. Perhaps, though she cites no evidence. But what about an irrigation system? A rural sustainable energy program? A TB clinic? A soybean farm? Such development projects are not easily repurposed. Yes, I can understand the dual-use character of sophisticated computers. But I don’t see how the government will use clean water or soybeans for nefarious purposes. Will it divert a portion of humanitarian aid to the elite or the military? Perhaps. But should our response then be to provide nothing at all, and let people starve? Even defectors who have no particular love for the regime recommend the provision of humanitarian assistance.

There are many different ways of incorporating human rights in approaches to North Korea. I agree with many of the examples that Roberta cites. The purpose of my article was to identify some of the drawbacks to the “name and shame” approach and how a shift in perspective—starting where North Korea is—could in the short-term improve the livelihoods of North Koreans.

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Forging a Consensus on Human Rights”

  1. J says:

    N Korea needs fertilizer for rice cause of weather.
    N Korea have maintained centralized socialist system in part based on long conflict with S Korea and USA.

    S Korea is divided into two approches toward North’s human right issue. The difference of the two would be if they accept North Korean regime as party of dialogue. Liberals doubt that USA has long misused the issue to justify its cold war role. They believe real improvemnt is first. However conservatives, especially many church groups, are not satisfied at sending radio in baloon and persuading refugees to escape to South, but insisting regime change in the name of human rights. S Korea’s next regime’s possible adoption of human right bills, must be evaluated how it can actually improve the condition. If it contains political element, like punishment by international court, it will just make North regime suspect real intent of South.

    Under the same logic, South-North daialogue about POWs, abductee, apologies for Cheon-an ship, shelling of yeon-Peung island, death of tourist at Kum-gang tour zone, etc….are all impossible when it sticks to political concession of North. As shown before, South has provided “present”(fertilizer etc..) for hundreds seperated family reunion.

    Still Cold war logic works at Korean peninsula. North regime wants to feed their people, of course.

  2. Victor Hsu says:

    I appreciate very much John’s comprehensive reply about human rights. It is such a complex issue and is often confused with humanitarian aid. Taking up civil and political rights does not mean taking up humanitarian aid in its strict sense. Engaging in humanitarian aid, on the other hand, can indeed be addressing human rights, e.g. right to food, right to shelter and right to health.

    I also appreciate his analysis of the DPRK political structure which has been devolving since 1990 resulting in the well-known competition for aid amongst its various entities, including the military sector. This competition was encouraged from 2002 and its effect has been felt by the aid community till now.

    Finally, it is very difficult to argue that the DPRK’s insistence on receiving aid according to its terms is unique. All governments have their own requirements and they work out an MOU with each agency, whether multilateral, bilateral or NGO. Agencies working in the DPRK are quite aware of how difficult an operation environment the country presents. Negotiating an MOU is also a very challenging task because of the unique operational context.

    There is no dispute about the deepening humanitarian crisis. Knowledgeable observers including the former DPRK UN Special Rapporteur have acknowledged that the operational environment has become less rigid overall. In fact, the DPRK provided unprecedented cooperation to the flood relief of August 2007 and to the NGO Food Aid consortium from August 2008 to March 2009.

    All humanitarian agencies have to decide whether they wish to work within the constraints in order to extend an open arm of hope to the most vulnerable groups in the DPRK.

  3. jwf says:

    The fertilizer plant built was an organic fertilizer plant, not a chemical fertilizer plan. Requests from DPRK to NGO’s have been for organic fertilizer plants, because of their limited resources. These could hardly be used for explosive manufacturing anymore than a food storage building could. Of course, any building could be used for weapons manufacturing, but we should not stop all requested aid to DPRK on an outside chance that this could someday be its use. I appreciate your response that we should not hasten the collapse, by withholding aid. The director of UNWFP in Pyongyang mentioned recently that one of the largest roadblocks in getting aid to DPRK, has been getting governments to separate humanitarian assistance from politics. Thanks for your support of ongoing assistance to DPRK.

  4. […] 24 June 2010 by miguknamja4 John Pfeffer does have one good point within a discussion leading to Forging a Consensus on Human Rights, in response to Roberta […]

  5. Christine Ahn says:

    Terrific response, John. Understanding North Korea is quite a mind-numbing experience, but I think you have a nuanced, sane and pragmatic approach. Thank you. I just wish that more people in Washington, DC could adopt that understanding. It’s now 60 years since the “beginning” of the Korean War, and perhaps policy analysts and makers in Washington, DC ought to also incorporate this into their calculus about how all three countries–the U.S., North Korea and South Korea–might redirect their military budgets towards meeting the dire human needs of their people.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.