- How does the DPRK position itself with respect to international standards and the discourse on universal human rights?
The report does a fairly slipshod job of establishing that North Korea’s concept of human rights deserves its own standard of evaluation. A very weak attempt is made to assert that the concept of universal human rights was more or less summed up in statements made by the United States and France in 1776 and 1789, both of which merit discarding because they came from “the capitalist world [and] consolidated the political and economical hold of the bourgeoisie” (page 14). But there is no need to get overly complex; the report bluntly states that “there is no human rights standard which every country can except” (page 16) and goes on to argue essentially ), for obviating the very concept of universal human rights: “International human rights standard should be established to be fit for the demand and reality of the national state and each state can establishing standards of their own and apply them” (page 17).
Page 17 contains the strongest refutation of the very notion that any system involving the United States or former colonial powers to establish human rights norm has legitimacy. “Nobody in [the] international community empowered them to establish the international human rights standards” (page 17). While this shocking statement from a member of the United Nations and signatory to various international human rights regimes, perhaps it is best likened to the country’s UN delegate in Geneva, who said, famously, ‘Mind your own business’ to the Human Rights Council.
- Why does the report spend so much time laying out a narrative of the legal and institutional foundations of the DPR K in the mid to late 1940s?
Is all of this verbiage meant to speak to a domestic constituency? Probably not, but it certainly attests to the depiction of worldview that at least attempts to show that human rights (as interpreted as material social benefits) are important to the DPRK. They are also bound up with notions of postcolonial freedom first and foremost. And there can be no mistake there; describing the difficulty of uprooting the Japanese system in 1945, the report says “each and every law manufactured by Japan in Korea in the past was unprecedently evil, anti-human rights laws aimed at depriving Korean people of all freedoms and rights and forcing colonial slavery upon them” (p. 19).
There is a great deal of discussion in the report of the role of local People’s Committees in the mid-1940s, and in their role in administering justice to pro-Japanese collaborators. The DPRK wants more credit for cleaning the ‘pro-Japanese elements and national traitors’ out of the judicial system, which was a major undertaking obviously done with the help of the USSR. (p.22). Other public security laws and judicial norms had their roots in 1946 and 47, discussed in more than passing detail on pages 22 and 23 of the report. This is all, perhaps, relevant, although (to my understanding) many of these laws were subsequently subverted and changed, not just by the system set up in the 1960s, but even earlier in the establishment of the gulags in the late 1950s. Call this section of the report a simple space-filler if you wish, but here I believe the point was to depict North Korea not as some ahistorical and lawless Hobbesian space, but as a country whose foundational systems have worked in the past, and continue to serve as a legal foundation from which North Korea is working. It also bears recalling that while the state has failed miserably to demonstrate these principles in the two more recent show trials (Jang Song-taek and Matthew Miller, to name two), we are still lacking basic data about current legal procedures in the DPRK, shouldn’t exclude the possibility that North Korean judges and trial procedures are able to improve.
The report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies is available in full here, and Part 2 of this series is available here.
The featured image is a postage stamp of Kim Jong-suk, about ten years before the DPRK state narrative has her participating in early meetings of the Democratic Women’s League in 1945-46; private collection of the author.