Notes on the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies (Part 2)

  1. What is the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies[조선인권연구협회]?

According to their extensive 13 September report, the association was founded in August 1992 and is said to include some 150 individuals involved in the areas of law and public security as well as “population study.” Interestingly, apart from the sort of activities that one would expect — that this association exists to monitor implementation of International human rights treaties in the DPRK, which it certainly purports to do  – the association also is also charged with “arousing public opinions to carry out investigations on criminal acts of foreign forces violating Korean people human rights and take measures against them” (p. 73).

This statement, along with the involvement of public security organs and interface with them in the process of building the report, makes quite clear that this report is to be primarily defensive, much in the way that the People’s Republic of China has constructed institutes for the study of soft power. To put it somewhat less kindly, from a North Korean state perspective: ‘Human rights standards remain a foreign framework which we cannot avoid interfacing with, but, to the extent that we can mimic their structures and use a limited version of their vocabulary, we can better subvert its purpose.”

  1. Which DPRK government agencies were responsible for producing the Association’s report?

The report refers to aid rendered by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The association also drew from expertise of the law college of Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences. Given that much of the report overlaps with materials already presented to the UNHCR, it seems likely that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have taken of the preeminent role in the construction of this document.

  1. What is the Association’s report based upon? Is any new data presented?

The report largely mirrors information presented to the UN human rights committee with respect to Universal Periodic Review, receded by quasi-philosophical positioning of what amounts to an argument for ‘Juche rights’ (i.e., to summarize, ‘Juche is infallible and a better guarantee of human rights as defined by us than any foreign system’). The report then moves into some standard but sustained attacks on the Commission of Inquiry report, then ventures into critiques of the United States security posture in East Asia.

  1. Is there anything noteworthy in the introductory section of the report describing North Korean geography and history?

I think the question of baselines are very important when you talk about North Korea’s perception of its own ability to defend and interpret the human rights of its own people. For better or worse, the two arguments that seem to be put forward in this text are: One, that life in North Korea is much better than it was under Japanese imperialism and that citizens have no desire to go back to foreign domination, because that represents the abnegation of all of the progress made since 1945. (Obviously, this is a false choice, since the collapse of the DPRK would surely not mean a return to Japanese colonial rule, but this is how it is presented.) Two, the text puts for the argument that North Korea should be given some credit for not collapsing in the late 1980s and early 1990s “when many countries were undergoing great political turmoil due to the collapse of the socialist system” (p. 7).  As stated on page 8 of the report, “the Korean people [therefore] enjoy a worthwhile and happy life without any social and political uncertainty.” In other words, by preventing its own undermining and collapse, North Korea keeps its people from falling back into going to colonial penury. Our view that post-DPRK North Koreans would become quasi-affluent South Koreans is never presented as the alternate reality in this text, which I think is worth remembering. North Korea still wants respect for being proudly post-colonial, when most of us in the West see this identity irrelevant, if not a patently deceptive means of avoiding contemporary responsibilities.

  1. What is the DPRK report knew it talks about ‘independence of people in all aspects of social life’? Isn’t that a paradox?

When the association’s report talks about ‘independence,’ what that means is that North Korea is not been invaded and colonized by a foreign power; it’s not about the independence or autonomy of the individual. When, on page 8, the report describes how the DPRK is ‘realizing the independence of the people in all aspects of social life,’ this is code for Party life; essentially the good socialist life which is wrapped up in a collective organizations.

Take page 10, for instance: “The rights that do not embody independent will and demand of man or feel to realize them are not human rights in the real sense of the word.” So much of this type of quasi-philosophical prose is really just of a rehash of Kim Jong-Il’s prolix and meandering writings about Juche from the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Independent’ is thus to be interpreted here as the ‘independent sovereignty of the state which that interprets what people need’, not the autnomoy of the individual with free will. As stated on page 11, “the independent demand of the social collectives for the existence and development of the collective is the comment demand of the social members and the independent demand of the individual is the demand which one deserves as the member of the society would guarantee from the collective.”

Or, further: “The demand of the popular masses [&] social collective represents the demand of the community and [happily and always!] coincides with the demands of each member of the social collective.” (p.11) Or, on page 12, “human rights is state sovereignty… People need their independent need to need to national state as a unit.” There it is: Human rights is state sovereignty, so to the extent that North Korea is not collapsing is the extent to which the world should leave it alone, completely, as the custodian of its citizens’ human rights.

  1. Why is there such emphasis early in the report on cultural activities and the ability of people to participate in those?

The DPR K is very proud of its arts education, and system of structured leisure activities for people who follow the rules and live in urban areas in particular. On page 8 of the report, the Korean Workers’ Party is aptly described as “the organizer of the people creative abilities activities”; the report talks about creating a “affluent and supplies living standard with the cultural system that enables people to create and fully enjoy socialist culture”. Perhaps the purpose here is to indicate to outside audiences that people in the DPRK are not living in hell, that there is not an absolute struggle for daily life in the country; it’s a very pure vision of itself that has nothing to do with the breakdown of the Public Distribution System, systemic bribery, drug use in daily life, etc. It’s quite remarkable the extent to which this report stays away from those kind of dangerous questions of foreign information coming into the into the DPRK — the polluting effect and so on – but the incessant need to discuss socialist culture seems to be an inoffensive way of inoculating the report and the body politic against such outside influences.

  1. Are the gulags mentioned in the Association’s report?

No, because the official stance is that they don’t exist. However, by discussing the need for “hypervigilance which is required not permit any active interference by some countries and international human rights organization under the name of human rights protection” (p.13), the implication is, essentially, that to remove the gulags is to destroy DPR K state sovereignty. This is something we do need to ask ourselves, and them: If the gulags are in fact so central to the existence and maintenance of the Workers’ Party state, then does this change the way we interact with the DPRK about the camps? In other words, is to discuss the camps tantamount to endorsing the violent collapse of the DPRK as an entity?

Also with respect to the camps, the closest the report gets is on page 53-54, where article 27, paragraph 28 of the criminal law is discussed, describing penalties including “reform through labor for an indefinite period, reform through labor for a definite period, and disciplining through labor.”

Part One of this series of posts, and the full text of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies report, is available here

The photo illustrating this post is copyright Lucas Shiefres, via Photobank.  


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