The United States is “deeply concerned” about human rights in North Korea, the administration’s special envoy told a Washington conference.
Yet the meeting heard concerns that security and nuclear issues would take precedence over human rights in any future rapprochement with Pyongyang.
Activists took heart from recent developments which suggest that the regime is becoming less monolithic and the country’s citizens more restive.
The current leadership crisis, in which Kim Jong Eun emerge as his father Kim Jong Il’s successor, has seen elite factions jockeying for advantage, holding out the prospect of an eventual fracturing of the ruling class.
Members of an elite schooled in Marxism-Leninism must be uncomfortable with being the world’s only communist dynasty, the forum heard, and the regime’s patrons in China are openly contemptuous of the third-generation succession.
The badly-managed currency conversion not only prompted widespread protests, but also left a legacy of distrust in the government’s basic competency and fitness to rule.
“We are deeply concerned about human rights conditions and the plight of North Korean refugees,” Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights, told a forum at the National Endowment for Democracy.
President Barack Obama denounced “a North Korean regime that enslaves its own people” in his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
Ten years after calling for an end to the silence over the regime’s human rights abuses and atrocities, NED president Carl Gershman is encouraged by the growing signs of changes within the secretive state and in the international community’s concerns.
The most significant development is the emergence of 20,000 defectors who are providing vital information and insights into life under the regime, he told the forum, co-sponsored by the endowment, the Network for Democracy and Human Rights in North Korea (NKNet) and the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank.
“The totalitarian system will come to an end,” Gershman said, but it is vital to prepare the country for a genuinely democratic transition.
“Regime change does not necessarily lead to democracy,” he cautioned.
Anticipating the need to nurture a future democratic state is a critical aspect of current assistance programs, the forum heard.
Economic engagement and humanitarian assistance are essential for meeting basic needs and reducing dependency on the regime, said John Knaus, NED’s senior program officer for Asia.
But it is also vital to support initiatives that “help create independent spaces of action and thought,” he said, including samizdat-type initiatives like Imjingang and independent broadcasting – which Kim Jong Il views as the greatest threat to the regime.
Veterans of the struggle against South Korea’s authoritarian regime in the 1970s have emerged as key advocates for democracy and human rights in the north of the peninsula, said Sae Hee Yoo, chairman of Nknet.
The international community’s understandable focus on the nuclear issue should not be at the expense of human rights, he argued.
“As long as the dictatorship continues, the regime will never give up nuclear weapons,” he said.
The prospect of a “perestroika” faction emerging within the ruling elite has been dampened by Kim Jong Eun’s apparent succession, said Dae Sung Song, director of the Sejong Institute. Given the repressive nature of the regime, there is little prospect of genuine change without external pressure.
But his apparent triumph could spark inter-generational discord within the elite, NKnet researcher Kim Young Hwan suggested.
“Kim Jong Il’s succession occurred with Kim in his late 30s, while core cadres were in their 50s and 60s, so there was discord with them,” he noted. “Kim Jong Eun is now in his late 20s, but his core cadres are in their 60s and 70s. Therefore, there is a higher possibility of conflict and constraints.”
Given that the political of the ruling clique are so opaque, there is an “urgent need” to prepare for various outcomes of the current maneuverings, said the Sejong Institute’s Oh Gyeung Seob. We need to prepare measures through close examination of third generation succession success and failure scenarios,” he said.
Kukmin University’s Andrei Lankov has previously argued that regime collapse is “a very likely probability” and, furthermore, that he does not “believe there is going to be a peaceful, gradual end of the North Korean regime. It will be dramatic, and probably violent.”
But he chose to be devil’s advocate, cautioning against expectations of imminent change arising from the elevation of Kim Jong Eun – “the world’s youngest five-star general.”
Just as it is a mistake to assume regime stability, he said, it is equally mistaken to interpret recent internal tensions within the elite as signs of imminent change.
The evidently widespread discontent with the regime means that North Korea exhibits one of the classic indicators of a pre-revolutionary situation, Lankov argued. But it lacks the other two preconditions – a popular belief in a viable alternative and the possibility of organizing politically.
The Asia Foundation’s Scott Snyder questioned the consensus that denuclearization is not possible without regime change. He detected signs of a shift from totalitarianism to authoritarianism and held out the prospect of “regime transformation” – a change in its character – as an alternative to regime change.
There is growing evidence that independent radio broadcasts into North Korea are starting to “change people’s minds and ideology,” said Gwang Baek Lee. Surveys of defectors confirm that broadcasters like Open Radio for North Korea and his own Radio Free Chosun are having an impact, but they need more resources and, most importantly, more frequencies.
While the U.S. and Japan have consistently demanded that North Korea abide by universal human rights norms, South Korea has been less engaged, Korea University’s Ho Yeol Yu complained.
With the government only going through the motions of supporting the human rights law currently stalled in the parliament, there is an urgent need to “institutionalize” efforts to promote North Korean human rights.
NKNet’s Ki Hong Han has made 30 trips to the Hermit Kingdom and he has never seen its citizens so openly subordinate and contemptuous of the regime. He credited the NED with funding efforts to publicize conditions within North Korea and disseminate information within the closed state, including NKNet’s broadcasts of spontaneous protests that regularly occur.
Dismissing the consensus of those experts who claim that we don’t know enough about North Korea, Chuck Downs insisted that it certainly is known that Kim Jong Il will die sooner rather than later, precipitating “tremors” within the regime.
Insight and intelligence from defectors like Kim Kwangjin, a former senior official, suggests that the status quo will prove unsustainable. Kwangjin had correctly foreseen that Kim Jong Eun would be the designated successor and security chief Chang Sung Taek emerge as Regent.
“The next regime, regardless of who succeeds, will be unable to maintain the same policy that the current regime is pursuing,” he had predicted.
We also know the U.S. and the international community place human rights in third place, behind security and the nuclear issue, on their North Korean agenda, said Downs, executive director of the Committee for North Korean Human Rights.
But former Congressman Stephen Solarz, amongst others, has identified several practical policy steps that can be taken, including realistic human rights demands on Pyongyang, from demanding the release of innocent family members from the regime’s gulag to accounting for foreign abductees.
A multilateral framework would help integrate human rights into the broader security agenda, said Brookings Institution’s Roberta Cohen, lending support to Carl Gershman’s proposal for such a Helsinki-type mechanism in north-east Asia.