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In propaganda from Pyongyang, North Korea is an envied, self-reliant country. In reality, 40 percent of the population is experiencing a food crisis, and civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution remain a mirage. North Korea’s widespread violations of human rights are common knowledge – but what can the rest of the world do about it?
That’s a particularly poignant question for South Korea, united by history, language, and sometimes family with its reclusive neighbor to the north. Some people – including in the administration of President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer – see normalizing relations as the best route to improving North Koreans’ lives. But in the short term, that may mean leaving human rights out of the conversation.
“You can’t raise human rights with North Korea. If you do, they won’t listen after that,” says Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to the president. Defusing the nuclear threat is the first step, he says.
Not everyone agrees that strategy will pay off.
“A nuclear deal might be good for the rest of the world,” says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. “But it won’t change the lives of the North Korean people one bit.”
Young-jun Park recalls life in North Korea as defined by deprivation. Food shortages that wrought starvation. The lack of health care that brought more death. The absence of opportunity as the state forced workers into jobs with inhumane conditions.
The teenager foresaw a future bereft of hope. So when his father died a decade ago, in part because of inadequate medical care, Mr. Park, along with his mother and younger sister, decided to risk death to escape to South Korea. The trio feared arrest and potential execution less than living under the yoke of a totalitarian regime.
After slipping first into China, Mr. Park and his family eventually found their way to Seoul. In the ensuing years, he finished high school and graduated college, and he now works at a nonprofit funded by the South Korean government that assists North Korean refugees.
“North Koreans are struggling so much,” he says. “The real face of North Korea is not the extravagant life in Pyongyang you see through its government media.”
Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations confirm that a thriving North Korea exists only in propaganda promoted by President Kim Jong Un. Yet as U.S. and South Korean officials seek to persuade him to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, they have seldom broached the issue of human rights. The omission has drawn scrutiny from advocates as much for the proximity and shared history of the countries as for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s background as a human rights lawyer.
South Korean leaders insist they understand the depth of need across the border and earlier this month approved sending $8 million in food aid to North Korea through international relief agencies. At the same time, Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to President Moon, asserts that pushing human rights to the fore would sink negotiations – and perhaps the best chance to normalize relations between the countries and ease the plight of North Koreans.
“You can’t raise human rights with North Korea. If you do, they won’t listen after that,” Chung-in Moon says. He views defusing the nuclear threat as a necessary first step. “Once we solve that, then we can address the issue of human rights, and North Korea will be more open to doing its part.”
President Donald Trump will meet with President Moon in Seoul later in June to discuss reviving talks with North Korea, which collapsed after the U.S. leader’s second summit with Mr. Kim earlier this year in Hanoi, Vietnam. Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, considers the silence from U.S. and South Korean officials on North Korea’s living conditions a form of abandonment.
“A nuclear deal might be good for the rest of the world,” he says. “But it won’t change the lives of the North Korean people one bit.”
‘A long way to go’
The reports from Human Rights Watch and the U.N. show that little progress on human rights has occurred in North Korea since Mr. Park fled in 2009, or in the five years since a U.N. investigation found that its government had committed “a wide array of crimes against humanity.”
The state-imposed violations include forced labor for adults and students, torture and execution of political prisoners, and pervasive abuse of women, children, and people with disabilities. Civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution – freedom of speech, religion, and the press – remain a mirage.
The funneling of state resources into weapons programs, coupled with a poor harvest season and the impact of international sanctions, has created a food crisis for some 10 million North Koreans, 40% of the population. Human rights advocates warn of a recurrence of the mid-1990s famine that killed as many as 3 million people if conditions fail to improve.
Weeks before the Hanoi summit in February, the U.N. human rights envoy to North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, suggested that the focus on ending the country’s nuclear program has obscured the suffering of its people.
“The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters in January.
An estimated 30,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea, according to the Korea Hana Foundation, where Mr. Park works. Under Mr. Kim, who has tightened border security since taking power in 2011, the annual number of people escaping to the south has dropped by more than half, to less than 1,200 last year.
North Korea has enlisted China’s help to stop the flow of refugees – the Chinese government sends back defectors as a matter of policy – and those arrested face punishment ranging from indefinite prison terms to the death penalty. Even so, desperate to find freedom, thousands attempt to flee every year.
“They know there’s no future in North Korea,” says Gyoung-bin Ko, president of the Hana Foundation. “They want to give a better life to their children.”
The organization, established by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification in 2010, provides an array of resettlement services to refugees. Mindful of the ministry’s oversight, Mr. Ko demurs on the subject of whether government officials should press Mr. Kim on human rights. He says simply, “We have a long way to go.”
A desire to help
The demilitarized zone that splits the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel bisects the South Korean province of Gangwon and the North Korean province of Kangwon. The two provinces were one before the Korean War, and a sense of compassion and a spirit of cooperation still bridge the divide.
In the aftermath of heavy flooding in Kangwon last summer, Gangwon officials sent food, supplies, and other humanitarian aid to their neighboring province. The provinces have organized sports and cultural exchanges and joined forces to build a salmon hatchery in Kangwon, and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangwon Province’s Pyeongchang County deepened the cross-border ties.
Working with their Kangwon counterparts has given Gangwon officials a greater awareness of the urgent needs of North Koreans, and a tantalizing glimpse of how normalized relations could alleviate their circumstances.
“People in Gangwon have more of an understanding of the conditions on the other side,” says Lee Gyeong Seon, a provincial spokeswoman. “People here want to help.”
The same kind of collaboration could flourish on the national level if Pyongyang ceases pursuit of a nuclear weapon, contends Spencer Kim, co-founder of the Pacific Century Institute, a nonprofit policy and research firm that works with countries throughout Asia.
“Peace will mean the end of sanctions and bring outside investment,” he says. “That will be the biggest driver of human rights.”
The optimism of that rationale contrasts with the reality of the missile tests that Mr. Kim has conducted since the Hanoi summit and reports that he may have ordered the execution of one or more members of his negotiating team.
As diplomatic efforts continue, Kim Ick Sun prays for the people of his homeland. A retired teacher who lives in Sokcho, a coastal village in Gangwon, he fled North Korea in 1950 soon after the war began.
Mr. Sun regards the issue of human rights as a matter more of the heart than the mind, and almost 70 years after his escape, he clings to a singular hope. “I am longing for peace,” he says.
Reporting for this story was made possible by a travel fellowship provided through the East-West Center.