By Teresa J. Y. Kim, HRNK International Outreach Fellow
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
Lee Min-Hak, a veteran of the Korean War (1950–53) and a North Korean refugee, never spoke of the war with his family during his lifetime. It was too painful to recount.
He did, however, leave a journal behind. A few years after his passing, I watched my mother – his daughter – pull out his journal from under a pile of his belongings. She held back her tears as she began sifting through its pages. The journal is beautifully intact, its pages orderly and neat. In his journal entries, you can see faint pencil ruler markings underneath the dark, glossy black ink of his carefully written script of Hangul (the Korean language) and Hanja (the use of Chinese characters for writing in the Korean language).
Following Lee Min-Hak’s service in the South Korean Army during the Korean War, he continued to serve in the army as a military engineer. He soon joined the officer corps (장교단) and eventually retired as a colonel (공병 연대장) from the Engineer Battalion.
Lee received multiple awards for his service to the country from the government of the Republic of Korea. Most notably, he received awards from President Park Chung-Hee (October 1, 1971) and President Kim Young-Sam (June 1, 1993). He also received a medal from the United Nations acknowledging his role as a “6.25 War Correspondent” for the Republic of Korea, which is shown below.
The red markings on this map by Lee Min-Hak retraces his route from his hometown in Dancheon, northern Korea to the southernmost area of the Korean Peninsula in Busan. Lee met his wife close to the time of the armistice (1953) in Busan. On the left of the map, Lee circled his new home, Ilsan-dong, where his wife still lives to this day. © Teresa J. Y. Kim 2022.
When the war first erupted, Lee Min-Hak was a young, 21-year-old schoolteacher in his hometown in Dancheon.
One day, South Korean soldiers came to the playground of the school to warn him that he, being a schoolteacher, was in imminent danger. The soldiers offered him a seat on their truck that was leaving Dancheon that very day.
Fearful of what the South Korean soldiers told him, Lee went home, packed a bag, and quickly said goodbye to his mother with the mind that he would return home once it was deemed to be safe again. He got onto the truck with the South Korean soldiers. Lee was then driven out of Dancheon. He neither returned nor saw his family ever again.
Once he arrived in southern Korea, Lee chose to enlist as a South Korean soldier purely out of necessity. During the war, there was virtually no other choice for a young man like Lee. Not to mention, Lee was essentially a refugee, with no form of identity or a place to belong in unfamiliar surroundings. This was why Lee became a soldier. He had to survive and defend himself as a young Korean man living through war.
The diary that Lee left behind offers deeply emotional entries about missing his hometown back in Dancheon, a port city in the north-eastern part of South Hamgyong Province in North Korea. Throughout his diary, he describes the agonising pain of not being able to reunite with his family members, who remained in Dancheon after the armistice was signed in 1953.
Upon reading his writings, “missing” family seems like an understatement. What Lee conveys in his diary is a lifetime of deep sorrow, having been forcibly separated from his parents and siblings due to the war. Most of his entries express this unending sadness. Not knowing whether his family is still alive and if he will be able to reunite with them in a “unified Korea” is met with a heart-wrenching acknowledgement by those who are willing to resonate with a man’s experience of war.
Lee Min-Hak was 86-years-old when he passed away on the 18th of May, 2016. He is now laid to rest among fellow veterans amidst the tranquil beauty of rolling hills and green landscapes provided as open spaces for loved ones to visit and pay tribute, especially during Chuseok (Korean Harvest Day), at the Daejeon National Cemetery (국립대전현충원).
Lee’s life and legacy represents one of many narratives surrounding war, migration, and displacement. As aforementioned, Lee fought for peace so he could return back home to Dancheon to be with his family. Yet, his story is only one of countless experiences of people who were pushed into a life of war and displacement without being given a choice other than to fight. As a generation of Korean War veterans pass away, we must not forget why they fought in the first place. After all, to honour the efforts of advocating for North Korean rights is to honour the lives of people like Lee Min-Hak.
This article is written by Teresa J. Y. Kim, granddaughter of Lee Min-Hak.
Teresa J. Y. Kim is the International Outreach Fellow and Head of the Legal Research Division at HRNK. She received a Master of Laws (LLM) in International Law from the University of Edinburgh, with Distinction, in December 2021. Previous to this, she received a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in History and International Relations from King’s College London in 2020. Teresa hopes that in sharing Lee Min-Hak’s story, she can shed light on North Korean human rights in the context of a young Korean man who fought in the Korean War.
All images used in this article are copyrighted by Teresa J. Y. Kim.
By Audrey Gregg, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
March 8, 2022
On March 9, South Korea will hold its eighth democratic election since its transition to democracy in 1987. The next president will follow the incumbent, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer born to North Korean war refugees and whose presidency has been marked by his attempt, and failure, to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The two forerunners are ex-civil rights attorney Lee Jae-myung and former public prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol of the Democratic and People Power Party, respectively. Also in the running is Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party, who is polling much lower. Though this election cycle has largely focused on domestic issues such as housing prices, debt, and discrimination, the next president of South Korea will inherit the consequences of President Moon’s foreign policies and must pursue policies that balance the security of the citizens of South Korea, pressure from the international community, including the U.N., NGOs, and foreign governments, and the current human rights crisis in North Korea.
This election cycle has been dominated by mudslinging, scandals, and personal attacks. Over fifty percent of South Koreans do not care for either major candidate, and many feel that they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Yoon and Lee’s campaign platforms fall, for the most part, within the historical legacies of their respective parties. Policy surrounding North Korea has always been a divisive, partisan issue. Traditionally, the conservative People Power Party and its predecessors have taken a hardline stance, advocating for measures including the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and stricter sanctions. In contrast, the Democratic Party favors diplomacy in the form of peace talks, summits, and inter-Korean dialogue.
Yoon has stated that foreign affairs, including diplomacy with North Korea, should be considered separate from human rights issues. In a press conference in January, he suggested that, "The only way to deter this threat is a pre-emptive strike using the Kill Chain,” a contingency plan that calls for identifying and destroying North Korean missile launch pads and facilities if an attack is deemed to be imminent. Lee, on the other hand, prefers to roll back sanctions in hopes of denuclearizing North Korea, continuing peace talks and summits, and declaring an end to the Korean War. His stance is reminiscent of the Sunshine Policy, a policy initiative pursued by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to provide economic assistance and encourage civilian exchanges between the two countries.
If it seems that one of these platforms is much more humane than the other, consider the fact the Sunshine Policy ultimately had little effect on inter-Korean relations. Past experience demonstrates that promoting dialogue between the two Koreas usually comes at the cost of disregarding North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, as well as the voices of human rights activists who are silenced by the South Korean government to placate the North. This is a common criticism of Moon Jae-in’s “Anti-Leaflet Law,” which was, according to Robert King, former Special Envoy for North Korea human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State, “in direct response to an acerbic public outburst against defectors from the North now living in the South by Kim Yo-jong.” In 2019, South Korea declined to co-sponsor the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation, the same year it forcefully repatriated two North Korean fishermen without due process. Despite these gestures and President Moon’s best efforts, Pyongyang responded with violence. It blew up the newly constructed liaison office at Kaesong, cut lines of communication with South Korea, and continued its missile tests. There is no evidence to suggest that a “gentler” approach to diplomacy in North Korea has been met in kind. Clearly, a viable long-term solution must include policies that present Pyongyang with clear and meaningful incentives.
Another controversy in the election campaign is the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a U.S. defense system designed to detect and intercept ballistic missiles. Yoon fully supports the deployment of additional THAAD units and tactical nuclear weapons in an emergency, emphasizing the security of South Korean citizens and the importance of neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities over dialogue. In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, he criticized the Moon administration, stating, “Dialogue with the North was once a specific means to a specific end: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in, however, dialogue with the North has become an end in itself.” Lee opposes the deployment of additional THAAD batteries, but is willing to accommodate the units that are already in the country. THAAD also affects South Korea’s relationship with China, which retaliated to its initial deployment in 2017 with harsh economic measures.
So where does the upcoming election leave the people of North Korea, escapees who have resettled in South Korea, and the families of those who were abducted by North Korea? The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on North Korea’s economy, and many experts report that conditions within the country may be as dire as they were during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans remain imprisoned without due process, and millions more endure systemic abuse, torture, surveillance, and other restrictions on their fundamental human rights. In the upcoming South Korean presidential election, diplomacy with North Korea is framed in terms of South Korea’s relationships with China and the U.S. Regrettably, there is no room at the bargaining table for the people of North Korea.
Audrey Gregg is a graduate of New York University and has spent the last two years advocating for North Korean defectors residing in Seoul, South Korea. She has worked both in translation and resettlement efforts.
 Charlie Campbell, “South Korean President Moon Jae-in Makes One Last Attempt to Heal His Homeland,” Time, June 23, 2021. https://time.com/6075235/moon-jae-in-south-korea-election/.
 Editor’s Note: Ahn Cheol-soo, another third-party candidate, exited the race on March 3 and announced that he would join forces with Yoon.
 “Campaigning for next President Kicks off in South Korea,” Al Jazeera, February 15, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/15/campaigning-for-next-president-kicks-off-in-south-korea.
 “Both Main Candidates for the South Korean Presidency Are Reviled,” The Economist, January 20, 2022. https://www.economist.com/asia/2022/01/20/both-main-candidates-for-the-south-korean-presidency-are-reviled.
 “A Rundown of Leading Candidates' Positions on Defense, Foreign Relations and the Economy,” The Korea Herald, February 16, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220216000621.
 Nam Hyun-woo, “Will North Korea Sway South Korea's Presidential Election?” The Korea Times, January 13, 2022. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/01/356_322153.html.
 Choi Hyeon-ho, “Lee Jae-myung announces North Korea policy: conditional sanctions relief and step-by-step reciprocity” [in Korean], Gyeonggi Ilbo, August 22, 2021. http://www.kyeonggi.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=2377465.
 Norman D. Levin and Yong-Sup Han, “THE SUNSHINE POLICY: PRINCIPLES AND MAIN ACTIVITIES,” in Sunshine in Korea: The South Korean Debate over Policies Toward North Korea, 1st ed. (RAND Corporation, 2002), 24–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mr1555capp.9.
 Ronald Popeski, “Sunshine Policy Failed to Change North Korea: Report,” Reuters, November 18, 2010. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-north-sunshine-idUSTRE6AH12520101118.
 William Gallo, “Don't Ignore North Korea Human Rights, UN Says,” VOA, September 8, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/a/east-asia-pacific_dont-ignore-north-korea-human-rights-un-says/6195598.html; Jieun Baek, “A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Harvard Kennedy School, August 2021. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/policy-public-diplomacy-north-korea.
 Robert King, “North Korea Human Rights and South Korea’s Upcoming Presidential Election,” Korea Economic Institute of America, January 19, 2022. https://keia.org/the-peninsula/north-korea-human-rights-and-south-koreas-upcoming-presidential-election/.
 Ahn Sung-mi, “Seoul Declines to Back UN Resolution on NK Rights,” The Korea Herald, March 24, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210324000830; Eugene Whong, “South Korea Deports Two North Koreans Accused of Murder, Angering Rights Groups,” Radio Free Asia, October 11, 2020. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/nk-fishermen-deportation-11072019172700.html.
 Victor Cha, “The Last Chance to Stop North Korea?” Foreign Affairs, February 2, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2021-09-22/last-chance-stop-north-korea.
 “Yoon Pledges Additional THAAD Deployment after N.K. Launch,” Yonhap News, January 30, 2022. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220130003100315; “Yoon Says He Will Request Redeployment of U.S. Tactical Nukes in Case of Emergency,” Yonhap News, September 22, 2021. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210922005300320.
 Yoon Suk-yeol, “South Korea Needs to Step Up,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/south-korea/2022-02-08/south-korea-needs-step.
 Ko Jun-tae, “Lee Jae-Myung against Beijing Olympics Boycott, Opposes THAAD Missiles,” The Korea Herald, December 30, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211230000590.
 Joung Eun-lee, “Is the North Korean Economy Under Kim Jong Un in Danger? ‘Arduous March’ in the Age of COVID-19?” 38 North, July 15, 2021. https://www.38north.org/2021/07/is-the-north-korean-economy-under-kim-jong-un-in-danger-arduous-march-in-the-age-of-covid-19/.
By Jungeun Lee, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
March 1, 2022
The 2022 presidential election in South Korea is scheduled to take place on March 9. According to a “poll of polls” by MBC and a research team at Seoul National University, there is a close race between the main opposition presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) and Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, with each candidate drawing around 40% support with little over a week left. President Moon Jae-in has consistently been subject to criticism over his administration’s failure to meaningfully address North Korea's human rights violations, driven by the goal of developing inter-Korean relations and easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), pointed out that “What South Korea’s action does is to convey to North Korea that human rights have low priority with South Korea and can be bartered away for other objectives.” What can we expect, then, from the next administration to enter the Blue House? When it comes to North Korea’s human rights issues and inter-Korean relations, Lee and Yoon are poles apart.
Lee has vowed to pursue “pragmatic coexistence between the two Koreas by establishing a peace economy system on the Korean Peninsula,” largely inheriting the Moon Jae-in government’s peace process initiative. This may be good news for Moon’s supporters, but the broader South Korean public is unlikely to support this policy, given that there has been no meaningful, lasting progress for the past five years. Despite his ambitious plan for the end-of-war declaration, Moon’s approval ratings have steadily decreased and dropped to 29 percent during his presidency. In a January 2022 poll, North Korea policy was the fifth most cited reason (6%) among respondents who disapproved of the Moon administration. Critics have also noted that the number of North Korean missile tests has increased six-fold compared to the Park Geun-hye administration.
On North Korean denuclearization, Lee supports the pursuit of an “action for action, simultaneous” and “small deal” approach, which is favored by North Korea, China, and Russia. In addition, he proposes easing economic sanctions against North Korea with a “snapback clause,” which would immediately enforce sanctions again if North Korea fails to abide by its promises. In November 2021, Lee stated that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to engage with Kim Jong-un was “too rosy, trying to strike a ‘big deal’ to resolve all issues all at once.” Disappointingly, Lee has not mentioned North Korean human rights issues despite his career as a human rights lawyer. Yoon criticized Lee’s idea of the “snapback clause,” pointing out that such a policy would begin by easing sanctions and restore them if peace efforts backfire. Yoon also questioned how South Korea will restore sanctions if China and Russia disagree. He claimed that Lee’s foreign and security policies are based on “pro-North, pro-China, and anti-U.S.” ideas.
Yoon, in contrast, has proposed a starkly different policy: planning for deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea during emergencies and conducting regular joint military drills “to raise confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella.” Some experts have criticized this approach as “unrealistic,” as the United States would not pursue “nuclear sharing” with South Korea. Nonetheless, Yoon’s starting point to denuclearization is enhancing deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. He supports large-scale joint field exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and emphasizes the necessity of deploying U.S. strategic assets. Yoon’s plan first seeks “substantial” denuclearization steps from North Korea, which will then be reciprocated with economic support and other incentives.
In the first televised debate among the four leading presidential candidates held on February 3, Yoon revealed that his diplomatic policies will be centered on restoring ties with the U.S. and Japan, which he argues have deteriorated under the Moon administration, primarily due to its rejection of the Japan-South Korean 2015 bilateral agreement concerning the “comfort women” issue. He has called for resuming so-called “shuttle diplomacy” with Japan, with the two countries’ leaders making reciprocal visits to each country, a practice that has been halted since 2011. While Yoon said that humanitarian issues in North Korea should not be neglected, he has not offered a detailed, forward-looking plan for the North Korean people and North Korean refugees. Lee has criticized Yoon for suggesting a preemptive strike against North Korea, stating that the remark will heighten tensions between South and North Korea. Lee also strongly opposed Yoon’s remarks about the possibility of canceling a symbolic inter-Korean military agreement, warning that the idea itself poses a serious threat to national security. Leif-Eric Easley, Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University, commented that “The PPP candidate will likely emphasize strengthening the U.S. alliance, be less muted about the Kim regime’s human rights abuses, and be more vocal about China’s role in North Korean sanctions violations.”
Voters who are interested in North Korea policy have two main choices: Lee Jae-myung, whose policy is not much different from that of the Moon administration, or Yoon Seok-yeol, whose slogan is clear but lacks specifics. During the presidential campaign, policy issues have so far been overshadowed by bizarre scandals and petty controversies, ranging from serious corruption allegations surrounding a housing development project to a self-professed acupuncturist who claimed to heal nerve damage. Arirang-Meari, a North Korean propaganda website, mocked the South Korean presidential candidates by naming Lee “perfectly rotten alcohol” and Yoon “unripe alcohol.” There are still many undecided voters who believe that both leading candidates are hypocritical or incompetent, saying that “it is a sad reality that we have to choose the lesser evil.”
South and North Korea marching in under a united flag at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony and Crash Landing on You, a popular South Korean television series about an implausible love story between a South Korean heiress and North Korean army captain, were not enough to convince South Korean citizens that the North is willing to give up its nuclear weapons or dismantle its prison camps. It is impossible to reach a compromise and achieve denuclearization as long as Kim Jong-un refuses to discuss his regime’s bleak human rights record, which is arguably a simpler problem to address than his nuclear weapons. Amnesty International condemned South Korea’s presidential candidates for failing to be attentive to human rights in North Korea: “Rather, the South Korean government has not spoken out about North Korea’s human rights issues. The attitude of the South Korean government in engaging with North Korea contradicts the recent international trend of putting the agenda for human rights as a top priority.” Even though North Korean human rights may not be a key topic in the South Korean election, the two candidates have different views over the issue of human rights violations in North Korea. The outcome of the 2022 election could change the lives of North Koreans as well as that of escapees who have resettled in South Korea.
Jungeun Lee is a freshman at Hanyang University, pursuing a major in chemistry. After witnessing North Korea's hardships and as a young Korean interested in science, she believes that science education will play a critical role in the country's reconstruction and development.
 Available at http://poll-mbc.co.kr/.
 Baik Sungwon, “Seoul’s North Korea Human Rights Policy Faces Heavy Criticism” [in Korean], VOA News, March 16, 2021. https://www.voakorea.com/a/korea_korea-social-issues_north-korea-human-rights-9/6056992.html.
 Ji Da-gyum. “Delving into Presidential Hopefuls' N. Korea Policy: What's in the Box?,” The Korea Herald, November 29, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211129000555.
 Lee Chi-Dong. “Moon's Approval Rating Hits Record Low of 29 Pct: Gallup,” Yonhap News, April 30, 2021. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210430005200315.
 “Daily Opinion No. 478 (Week 1, January 2022) – Approval for Presidential Candidates, Factors Determining Choice of Candidate, Favorability Ratings, and Policy Priorities for the Next Administration” [in Korean], Gallup Korea, January 7, 2022. https://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=1264.
 Kim Myeong-seong, “North Korea Engaged in 30 Provocations Since Moon Entered Office, 6 Times More Often than Under the Park Geun-hye Administration” [in Korean], The Chosun Ilbo, January 8, 2022.
 Ko Jun-tae, “Lee Jae-Myung's Policies Rooted in 'pro-North, pro-China, Anti-US' Ideology: Yoon,” The Korea Herald, February 11, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220211000768.
 Mitch Shin, “How Would a Yoon Suk-Yeol Administration Approach North Korea?,” The Diplomat, December 22, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/11/how-would-a-yoon-seok-youl-administration-approach-north-korea/.
 Ji, “Delving into Presidential Hopefuls' N. Korea Policy.”
 Shin Ji-hye, Ji Da-gyum Ji, and Ko Jun-tae, “A Rundown of Leading Candidates' Positions on Defense, Foreign Relations and the Economy,” The Korea Herald, February 16, 2022. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220216000621.
 Byun Duk-keun. “Moon Says 'Comfort Women' Issue Cannot Be Resolved Diplomatically,” Yonhap News, August 14, 2018. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20180814006351315.
 “South Korea Candidate's Aide Aims for Restart of Shuttle Diplomacy with Japan,” The Japan Times, February 9, 2022. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/02/09/national/south-korea-japan-shuttle-diplomacy/.
 Shin, “How Would a Yoon Suk-Yeol Administration Approach North Korea?”
 Kim Myeong-seong, “North Korea Criticizes Lee, Yoon, and Ahn” [in Korean], The Chosun Ilbo, November 22, 2021.
 Jo He-rim, “[Election 2022] Fatigue Grows in the Presidential Election Riddled with Scandals,” The Korea Herald, December 23, 2021. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20211223000722.
 Kim Young-gwon, “Amnesty International Calls for South Korea’s Presidential to Openly Pledge Support for Improving North Korea’s Human Rights Situation” [in Korean], VOA Korea, February 8, 2022. https://www.voakorea.com/a/6433202.html.
By Diletta De Luca, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
February 22, 2022
Today, North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK) is the least Internet-friendly country in the world, where access to the World Wide Web is only permitted to a few authorized individuals. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un’s regime, as well as many other authoritarian governments, also recognize the potential to use digital tools and Internet technologies as new forms of social and political control. Considering these actions by authoritarian regimes, digital rights—the right to access, use, create, and publish digital sources and open Internet technologies—should be recognized as human rights that must be respected and protected.
Digital Tools & Authoritarian Regimes
With the diffusion of information, knowledge, and social mobilization through the Internet, political scientists once anticipated a worldwide wave of democratization. Increased access to online tools was initially considered as the missing but necessary catalyst for democratization. However, there are now contrasting opinions regarding the influence of digitalization under authoritarian regimes. “Cyber-optimists” regard digitalization as an opportunity for citizens to gather information that challenges state propaganda, in turn fostering anti-regime sentiment and mobilization by facilitating collective action. In other words, even if authoritarian regimes impose strict control over the Internet, citizens are still able to access various information online that undermines authoritarian rule in the long term. Conversely, “cyber-pessimists” hold that repressive regimes are able to weaken anti-regime sentiment through sophisticated control over the Internet. They believe that authoritarian powers have shifted their control strategy in recent decades from suppressing communication flows and engaging in censorship to strengthening surveillance mechanisms. Many of today’s authoritarian powers have acquired new capabilities to control and repress individuals both inside and outside their borders by suppressing alternative voices while strengthening their political control.
Digitalization Developments in North Korea
In North Korea, high-level elites have relatively free access to the Internet since members of the regime’s leadership tailor their political decision-making based on foreign trends and events. Furthermore, digitalization-related developments, such as increasing cybersecurity measures and surveillance tools, are gradually unfolding in the country. A recent United Nations report highlights how North Korea is also launching cyberattacks and stealing money in the form of cryptocurrency to fund the government’s missile and nuclear programs. Nevertheless, most of the population can only access a government-controlled intranet. Furthermore, all media content and broadcasts within the country are controlled by the Korean Workers’ Party, the founding and sole ruling party in the DPRK. All external telecommunications signals, including Wi-Fi, are banned within the country, and government officials constantly monitor citizens’ emails and telephone communications. Central to North Korea’s Internet strategy is the severe punishments faced by citizens if found to be in possession of unauthorized online materials and information. However, despite these punishments, studies and reports suggest the presence of a considerable black market from which foreign movies, cell phones, and radios that can connect to the outside world are sold. Such materials present the population with alternatives to the regime’s propaganda. Based on the opinions of cyber-optimist scholars, such exposure could in turn lead to collective action, motivating citizens to call for more freedom and openness in the country. The detachment and separation of the country from the outside world and high risks of punishment for accessing outside information, however, make a large-scale wave of social change unlikely in the short term.
Implications for Human Rights in North Korea
In limiting the ability to access, use, create, and publish digital and open media, the North Korean government curtails the human rights of its citizens. Ever since access to the Internet and communication technologies became an essential part of modern society, digital rights have been recognized as an extension of human rights, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also applies to the online digital world. Closely linked to digital rights are, in fact, the right to privacy and the freedom of expression, which are both almost entirely disregarded in North Korea. For this reason, advocacy groups and international organizations should advocate to ensure full respect for these human rights in North Korea in their traditional and online forms, as digital access could be the missing step to a significant opening up of North Korea.
Diletta De Luca is a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, pursuing a Master of Science in International Relations. She focuses on authoritarian practices and gender inequality.
 People for Successful COrean REunification (PSCORE), “Digital Life & Digital Rights,” 2021. http://pscore.org/life-north-korea/digital-life-digital-rights/.
 Eric Talmadge, “North Korea's digital divide: Online elites, isolated masses,” Chicago Tribune, November 17, 2017. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/blue-sky/ct-north-korea-digital-divide-20171111-story.html.
 Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright, "Digital repression in autocracies," Varieties of Democracy Institute Users Working Paper, no. 27 (2020). https://www.v-dem.net/media/publications/digital-repression17mar.pdf.
 Seva Gunitsky, “Corrupting the cyber-commons: Social media as a tool of autocratic stability,” Perspectives on Politics 13, no. 1 (2015): 42–54.
 Ibid.; Kris Ruijgrok, Internet Use and Protest in Malaysia and Other Authoritarian Regimes: Challenging Information Scarcity (Cham: Springer Nature, 2021).
 Kris Ruijgrok, “Illusion of control: how internet use generates anti-regime sentiment in authoritarian regimes,” Contemporary Politics 27, no. 3 (2020): 247–70.
 Gunitsky, “Corrupting the cyber-commons.”
 Marcus Michaelsen, “Exit and voice in a digital age: Iran’s exiled activists and the authoritarian state,” Globalizations 15, no. 2 (2018): 248–64.
 Talmadge, “North Korea's digital divide.”
 Edith L. Lederer, “UN expert: North Korea stealing millions in cyber attacks,” AP News, February 7, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/technology-business-global-trade-united-nations-north-korea-25b1c7199519b31fe592dace54e119d9.
 Martyn Williams, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019). https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Williams_Digital_Trenches_Web_FINAL.pdf.
 Johannes Gerschewski and Alexander Dukalskis, “How the Internet Can Reinforce Authoritarian Regimes: The Case of North Korea,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 19, no. 1 (Fall 2018): 12–19.
 Martha Kuhnhenn, Micky Lee, and Weiqi Zhang, “Media Liberalization: Control and Consumption of Foreign Media in North Korea, China, and East Germany,” International Journal of Communication 14 (2020): 1421–37.
 PSCORE, “Digital Life & Digital Rights.”
By Claire McCrea, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
February 17, 2022
On December 13, 2020, South Korea’s National Assembly sparked international controversy by amending the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act, prohibiting activists from sending balloons into North Korea containing anti-regime leaflets or USB drives. Activists both inside and outside of South Korea have decried this amendment, known colloquially as the “Anti-Leaflet Law,” for restricting the civil liberties of NGOs and citizen activists and stifling the flow of outside information into North Korea. The South Korean government has defended the amendment by stating that anti-Kim regime leaflets unnecessarily provoke North Korea, and that this prohibition will “contribute to the improvement of inter-Korean relations and promotion of peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Conflict over cross-border leaflet campaigns is not new in South Korea. Leaflets were first dropped on North Korean territory during the Korean War by UN forces to counter communist propaganda, spreading information about the world outside North Korea and encouraging defection to the South. Government-led leaflet campaigns continued for decades until they were officially halted by the Kim Dae-jung administration to meet one of Kim Jong-il’s preconditions for the Inter-Korean Summit on June 15, 2000. Similar concessions would be made over the next twenty years: Roh Moo-hyun’s decision to end all inter-Korean border propaganda activities in 2004, Moon Jae-in’s agreement with Kim Jong-un in 2018 to end the dissemination of leaflets along the Military Demarcation Line, and finally, the South Korean National Assembly’s 2020 amendment banning civilians from launching leaflets across the border. In all four cases, the South Korean government leveraged bans on cross-border information dissemination in an attempt to draw North Korea to the bargaining table and ease inter-Korean tensions.
Despite the government’s belief that banning leaflets will improve inter-Korean relations, many activists and NGOs (such as Fighters for a Free North Korea, one of 289 organizations under investigation by the Ministry of Unification as of December 2020) are concerned about the adverse effects this law will have on the human rights situation in North Korea as well the credibility of democracy in South Korea. Despite these criticisms, the South Korean government has maintained its stance that certain concessions are necessary in the long term to achieve peaceful inter-Korean relations. Thus, an important question presents itself: is the appeasement of North Korean demands a valid and effective means of fostering peace and security on the Korean Peninsula?
The history of inter-Korean relations is a story of alternating hostility and detente. As hostilities increase, the South Korean government is often the first party to offer concessions to ease tensions. When North Korea decides it is satisfied with these concessions and adopts a less hostile posture, relations typically improve for a limited period. This short-term detente often ends when the North Korean regime reneges on a negotiated promise or finds fault in South Korean policy.
For example, in 1992, there was a phase of detente after the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (JDD), which was to be carried out through the Joint Nuclear Control Commission. However, throughout the course of two years and more than thirteen missions, any possible advancement toward denuclearization was prevented by North Korea’s refusal to meet the JDD’s requirement for arms inspections. South Korea continuously offered incentives and concessions in exchange for North Korea’s meeting these basic requirements: the cancelation of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, accepting North Korea as part of the international community, ending diplomatic confrontation, and more. Despite these attempts, North Korea refused to allow nuclear inspections and in 1993 announced its intention to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Instead of holding the Kim regime accountable, South Korea offered to help the DPRK build light reactors as an incentive for staying in the NPT. In 1994, the U.S. and the DPRK signed the Agreed Framework, and the regime was rewarded for this effort despite not following through with any of its stipulations in the long term. By 2003, the Agreed Framework had collapsed and North Korea had left the NPT, rendering all of South Korea and the United States’ concessions fruitless.
History clearly suggests that appeasement is not an effective strategy for improving inter-Korean relations and fostering regional and international peace. It is thus important to consider the context in which the Anti-Leaflet Law was passed and promoted, as well as the contexts in which past concessions have been made. One factor often plays a major role in these cases: domestic and international pressure for progress toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. President Moon Jae-in came into office due, at least in part, to his promise to bring about tangible improvements in inter-Korean relations. As his term comes to an end, he has become increasingly more willing to appease North Korea in exchange for symbolic gestures of peace in the short term. Past administrations, faced with similar pressures by both their constituents and the international community, were also more willing to make concessions for short-term peace at the expense of South Korea’s long-term credibility.
Ultimately, however, consequential foreign policy decisions should not be made based on short-term political goals. Based on the prior history of inter-Korean relations and negotiations surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program, it is clear that the Anti-Leaflet Law will not produce any meaningful change in North Korea’s willingness to pursue peaceful reunification, denuclearize, or improve its human rights record. Instead, this amendment will only further empower the Kim regime to continue suppressing the freedom of information and damage the credibility of South Korean democracy. Going forward, South Korean policymakers should take a tougher stance on North Korea. While the Kim regime should not be provoked unnecessarily, policymakers must avoid making concessions that produce no meaningful long-term results, nor should they continue to bow down to North Korean pressure for the sake of their political image. As these patterns of appeasement continue into the 21st century, North Korea’s bargaining power only grows stronger—at the expense of that of South Korea.
Claire McCrea is a first-year student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), pursuing an M.A. in International Relations. Her concentrations include human rights, the Korean Peninsula, and nuclear nonproliferation.
 This article was originally submitted as an academic assignment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in October 2021 and is published here with the instructor’s permission. It has been lightly edited and updated to reflect current events since the assignment was submitted.
 Olivia Enos, “Anti-Leaflet Law Poses Threat To Freedom In North And South Korea,” Forbes, December 17, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2020/12/17/anti-leaflet-law-poses-threat-to-freedom-in-north-and-south-korea/?sh=581bdd437198.
 Tae Yong-Ho, “Anti-Leaflet Law in South Korea & Freedom of Expression in North Korea,” HRNK Insider, January 5, 2021. https://www.hrnkinsider.org/2021/02/anti-leaflet-law-in-south-korea-freedom.html.
 “Psychological Warfare in Korea,” Public Opinion Quarterly 15, no. 1 (Spring 1951): 65–75.
 Tae, “Anti-Leaflet Law in South Korea.”
 Editor’s Note: In January 2022, South Korean prosecutors indicted Park Sang-hak, the Chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, for an attempted violation of the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act. On February 15, 2022, Park’s lawyers requested the Act to be referred to South Korea’s Constitutional Court for constitutional review. See Huh Jin-moo, “Prosecutors Indict Park Sang-hak, Chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, for Launching Leaflets to North Korea” [in Korean], The Kyunghyang Shinmun, January 28, 2022. https://www.khan.co.kr/national/court-law/article/202201281626001?www; and Ryu Jae-min, “Park Sang-hak Requests Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act to be Referred to Constitutional Court” [in Korean], The Chosun Ilbo, February 15, 2022.
 Enos, “Anti-Leaflet Law Poses Threat.”
 Park Kyung-Ae and Sung-Chull Lee, “Changes and Prospects in Inter-Korean Relations,” Asian Survey 32, no. 5 (1992): 429–47.
 Park and Lee, “Changes and Prospects in Inter-Korean Relations.”
 “Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, October 26, 2011. https://www.nti.org/education-center/treaties-and-regimes/joint-declaration-south-and-north-korea-denuclearization-korean-peninsula/.
 Park and Lee, “Changes and Prospects in Inter-Korean Relations.”
 “Joint Declaration of South and North Korea,” Nuclear Threat Initiative.
 Sang-Hyun Lee, “Inter-Korean Relations at Moon Jae-in Government’s Half Term: A Glass Half Empty,” 38 North, January 16, 2020. https://www.38north.org/2020/01/shlee011620/.
 Park and Lee, “Changes and Prospects in Inter-Korean Relations.”
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.