The ICAS Lectures


Reflections on Human Rights and North Korea

Ambassador Robert R. King

ICAS Spring Symposium

May 10, 2013 Friday 1:30 PM - 4:30 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B318
United States House of Repreesentatives Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Robert R. King

Reflections on Human Rights and North Korea

Ambassador Robert R. King
Special Envoy on North Korea Human Rights Issues

It is a pleasure to be here today. I appreciate this opportunity to talk with those of you here who share the deep concerns for the wellbeing of the North Korean people. I want to thank Mr. Sang Joo Kim for the invitation to speak with you today.

Since November 2009, when I assumed the position of Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, we've seen significant changes in the DPRK - the death of Kim Jong Il, the subsequent rise to power of his son Kim Jong Un. Unfortunately, one thing has not changed: the human rights situation in the North remains deplorable.

Reflecting upon North Korea's humanitarian and human rights issues, I remain convinced of two things. First, we must continue to hold the North Korean leadership accountable for its deplorable human rights record, we need to call attention to the problems. Second, we must also work to break down the barriers to information and increase North Korea's exposure to the outside world to create the kind of positive change necessary to solve both the security and humanitarian challenges on the Korean Peninsula.

Calling Attention to Human Rights Abuses

The deplorable human rights conditions inside the DPRK are well-documented. Just a few weeks ago, Secretary Kerry released the most recent State Department annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report notes that North Korean defectors continue to report extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, and torture. The judiciary is not independent and does not provide fair trials or due process. The North Korean government continues to control almost all aspects of citizens' lives, denying freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and association. Reports continue that the government severely restricts freedom of movement and subjects its citizens to forced labor. It is disappointing to see little change from year-to-year in our human rights reports on the North.

One important development in calling attention to human rights abuses was the decision made by the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year to create a Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK.

The U.S. has actively supported the discussion of DPRK human rights in the UN Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly. For over ten years, these two bodies have adopted resolutions annually calling for improvements in human rights, and the UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur to investigate and report on abuses.

Last October, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman, in his report to the UN General Assembly, identified nine disturbing underlying patterns - from violations on the right to food and right to life, to torture, to arbitrary detention, to freedom of movement. After a comprehensive review of all of the UN reports and resolutions on the DPRK since 2004, Mr. Darusman called for the creation of an inquiry mechanism.

In January of this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for the establishment of such a mechanism of inquiry into North Korea's human rights violations.

The United States co-sponsored the resolution creating a Commission of Inquiry which was proposed by Japan and the European Union with the strong support of the Republic of Korea. The resolution directs a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to examine the "grave, widespread, and systematic violations of human rights."

Earlier this week, the President of the UN Human Rights Council announced the members of the Commission: Mr. Michael Kirby of Australia, a former Justice of the Australian Supreme Court; Ms. Sonia Biserko of Serbia, leading human rights advocate in the Balkans; and Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, the distinguished former attorney general of Indonesia

We will continue to work with our partners to support the Commission of Inquiry on its important work and look forward to its recommendations when the Committee presents its findings to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014.

It is significant that the resolution criticizing the DPRK and establishing the COI was adopted by consensus. The last three resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly have all passed decisively without need for a recorded vote. Over the next year, we will see an increased focus on human rights conditions in the DPRK and greater pressure for improved conditions for the North Korean people.

International awareness of the DPRK political prison camp system increased substantially in the last year with publication of Blaine Harden's book Escape from Camp 14 based on interviews with Shin Dong-hyuk, the only political prisoner known to have escaped from the most secure of North Korean prison camps. Additionally, David Hawk's sequel to Hidden Gulag combined prison information publicly-available from satellite imagery of prisons with detailed personal accounts based on interviews with refugees incarcerated in these prisons who have now fled North Korea.

These and other reports indicate between 100,000-200,000 North Koreans are incarcerated in an expansive network of political prison and detention facilities where human right abuses persist and many prisoners are not expected to survive.

Breaking the Information Blockade

While North Korea is one of the most closed societies on this planet, we have recently seen very modest indications that, despite government restrictions, this is beginning to change. With U.S. State Department funding, the U.S. research institute InterMedia published a detailed and comprehensive report entitled, "A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment."

While this survey of North Korean defectors indicates there is still virtually no general Internet access and it is still illegal to own or have in one's possession a tunable radio that permits listening to any stations other than state-controlled information channels, 20 to 30 percent of defectors interviewed said they had listened to foreign radio broadcasts. This shows that at least some North Koreans are willing to risk punishment to hear information about the outside world. Foreign DVDs are seen by even larger numbers - roughly half of those interviewed had seen foreign DVDs in North Korea. Other studies suggest that this number has reached 80 percent.

Cell phone communication is possible but severely restricted. Calls within the country are possible, though probably closely monitored. Calls to parties outside the country are extremely difficult. Nevertheless, there are now as many as two million cell phones that permit North Koreans to communicate with each other.

The government's strict control of information not only limits what North Koreans know about the outside world but also limits what we know about what is happening in their own country. I am hopeful that we are beginning to see changes.

Given the closed nature of North Korean society, foreign broadcasting is one of the most effective means of sharing information about the outside world with residents of the country. Thanks to U.S. government support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Voice of America (VOA), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) which broadcast ten hours daily via medium wave.

The North Korea Problem - A Matter of Choice

The DPRK has a choice to invest its resources in feeding and educating its people, or continue down the path of isolation.

We would welcome meaningful measures-economic or otherwise-that would improve the lives of the people of North Korea. One way for Pyongyang to do this would be to undertake good-faith efforts toward denuclearization, something that would offer tangible benefits to all parties involved.

We've long made clear that we are open to improved relations with the DPRK if it is willing to take concrete actions to live up to its international obligations and commitments, though given the events of the past ten months, the bar for a resumption of meaningful engagement is certainly now higher. President Obama put it best during a major speech he gave in November in Burma. In a passage directed at Pyongyang, he said: "...let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America."

If North Korea ultimately wants to takes steps to join the international community, it needs to refrain from actions that threaten the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, and comply with its commitments in the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks and its obligations under relevant UN Security Council resolutions to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. North Korea will also have to address its human rights record.

North Korea's choice is clear. Investment in its people and concrete steps toward denuclearization can lead to a path of peace, prosperity, and improved relations with the international community, including the United States.


Our deep concern about human rights in North Korea and the well-being of the North Korean people reflects the American commitment to the rule of law and respect for individual rights and our support for these rights is an essential part of what defines us.

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