Editor's Note

Kipoom Jeong, M.A. Candidate at Seoul National University, highlights the importance of developing South Korea’s stance to ameliorate the human rights condition in North Korea based on the understanding of how other states react to it. She compares the two different approaches of the United States and European nations toward North Korean human rights issues and emphasizes that South Korea can adapt them by maintaining a universalistic perspective, supporting the improvement of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights while condemning the infringement of Civil and Political Rights and be consistent with its policies regardless of the change of the governing party.

North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) has been a controversial and divisive political issue among South Koreans for a long time. In recent years, perspectives of NKHR have diversified, so there are now a great variety of opinions. Traditionally, however, there have been two main perspectives toward NKHR. Those differing views can be seen as representing two different types of rights within the broader concept of human rights. Conservatives have conventionally focused more on Civil and Political Rights (CPR); they find North Korean leadership accountable for the human rights violations. On the other hand, liberals have emphasized Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCR), and attribute the poor condition of NKHR to the environment in which North Korea is placed.


While the conflict regarding NKHR ever deepens in South Korea between people with different political leanings, it is crucial to understand how other states react to this matter in regards to improving the condition of NKHR. In a chapter of my thesis "Human Rights in North Korea: the Conflict between Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights", I analyze the approaches of the United States and the European Union towards NKHR and suggest the way South Korea should take.


Since the founding of the United States of America, values such as independence, freedom, and civil rights have been at the core of the nation’s understanding of itself and indeed of the world. This attitude is easily understandable considering America’s foundational War of Independence and the subsequent propaganda and justification of that war. Accordingly, among human rights, the US prioritizes CPRs over ESCRs. The US Declaration of Independence famously states that the government exists for the purpose of securing the human rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The people also have the right and duty to change the government when it fails to perform its purpose. To put it in another way, their CPRs are protected by the US Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, America's selective ratification of international treaties demonstrates its emphasis on CPR over ESCR. Although it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992, it has yet to subscribe to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).


It is also important to recognize that US security is affected by North Korea's actions. The US has been deeply involved in the matters of the Korean peninsula since 1945, when the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union decided in the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers that the Soviet Union and the US would govern Korea under multiple trusteeships. The DPRK has mostly had a hostile relationship with the US because it believes that the US infringed Korea’s sovereignty just as Japan had before. When Kim Jong-un displayed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) during the military parade to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the army, he was obviously posing a threat to the US, along with South Korea and Japan. Kim's statement during the parade - that he would utilize the nuclear weapons against whoever disrupts North Korean interests - especially displays his will to threaten the US. Moreover, Kim explicitly claimed that North Korea's weapons are ready to deter "any military threat" of "US imperialism" when he claimed that the North launched ICBM Hwasong-17 in March 2022.


Thus, the attitude of the US towards North Korea and the specific issue of NKHR is often coercive. The details of the approach differ according to various factors such as the personal characteristics of the president, the policies of the governing party, and the international environment of the time. Nonetheless, the US mainly focuses on CPRs and criticizes North Korea for infringing them. It also uses the concept of NKHR to pressure the North because denuclearization of the DPRK directly affects American interests.


The EU, on the other hand, has the protection of human rights as one of its core values. In order to realize its values, the EU has been voicing its concerns about actions that it considers to be human rights violations even in issues that do not have a direct link to the EU's own interests. For example, in October 2018 the EU ambassadors to South Korea requested that the South end capital punishment. In the same way, the EU has continued its political ties with and humanitarian assistance for North Korea with the goal of improving the condition of NKHR. The EU has also censured the DPRK for its nuclear weapons production, using various means such as supporting the UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1814, in 2006 and 2009 respectively, and imposing sanctions on travel, imports, and exports in 2006.


As such, the EU takes a different approach toward the issue of NKHR compared to the US. While criticizing the infringements of CPR of North Korean leadership, the EU also continues to support the North with humanitarian aid and does not use NKHR discourse for its own political goals. Furthermore, it is easier for the EU to care for the ESCR as well as CPR of North Koreans, and assist the North with humanitarian aid so that it can improve its ESCR conditions because the EU is affected less by North Korea's actions compared with the US.


Currently, there are no channels for dialogue between the EU and the DPRK due to the DPRK's continuous weapons tests. Also, the number of sanctions the EU imposes on North Korean individuals and organizations keeps increasing. Correspondingly, the DPRK insulted the EU for its actions. Nevertheless, the hostility the North shows towards the EU cannot exceed that which it has towards the US, considering the participation of the US in the Korean War, which the North claims was started by South Korea and the US. Therefore, the EU has more freedom than the US or the ROK in choosing a less harsh approach to promoting human rights in the DPRK; the potential impact of North Korea’s behavior is less powerful on the EU than it is on the US or South Korea.


It is critical to understand the standing points of the ROK’s important partners – the US and the EU – regarding NKHR. Nonetheless, they are actors with different situations and interests from those of South Korea, and they cannot show the way South Korea ought to go. While considering the attitudes of the US and the EU, the South should develop its own stance to ameliorate the condition of NKHR. In the following session, I develop my suggestion based on the concept Bo-hyuk Suh suggested originally in his book Korean Human Rights. [1]


First, South Korea has to maintain the universalistic view of human rights, as well as have a contextual understanding of North Korea's current status. Human rights should be protected regardless of nationality, ethnicity, and cultural background. Whether the North Korean state has the ability to protect these rights in the North, however, is another issue. Because the North Korean leadership is not capable or willing to protect its citizens' rights, the international society - including the ROK - ought to support the North Korean people's needs in certain fields.


Furthermore, protecting human rights does not mean only assisting the North according to its needs; it also includes condemning abuses. The DPRK generally desires assistance in improving the situation of ESCR, while trying to avoid its responsibility for CPR. Thus, alongside international partners, South Korea should raise its voice against CPR violations whenever it happens, just as the US generally does, while continuing its efforts to improve the environment for ESCR as the EU does.


Ultimately, consistency is one of the most necessary values for South Korea's attitude towards the DPRK in order to ameliorate the condition of NKHR in the long run. Due to the deep division in politics in South Korea, the issue of NKHR is highly politicized. Accordingly, the official position of the South continuously changes depending on the party in power. This kind of behavior breaks trust and makes the ROK an unreliable partner. This problem is equally present in the South’s position towards the North. Even though the DPRK would not accept the South's stance on CPRs and ESCRs at first, consistently presenting the same attitude would make difference in the long run.


The US and the EU both have particular standpoints when it comes to the issue of NKHR; they are clearly in very different situations compared to South Korea. Still, the ROK can adopt and adapt the approaches of its partners to suit its own situation. In regard to NKHR, South Korea ought to 1) maintain a universalistic perspective, and also consider the practical situation of North Korea; 2) support the improvement of ESCR, while criticizing infringement of CPR; and 3) be consistent with its policies regardless of the change of the governing party.■



[1] Bo-hyuk Suh, 2011, “Korean Human Rights North Korean Human Rights and Peach in the Korean Peninsula,” 171-175.



Kipoom Jeong is a master’s student in Seoul National University's (SNU) Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS). She is a former President of the Student Council and former member of the Global Asia Leadership Forum. She worked at the SNU Human Rights Center, and is currently a researcher for Smart Health City project in SNU, and an intern at the UN Project on Governance.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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