Let the Escapees Escape: A Report on the Ongoing Human Rights Crisis of North Korean Escapees and International Human Rights Law
By Damian Reddy, HRNK Legal Counsel and Project Development Associate
Edited by Eric Ryu, former HRNK Research Intern & Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
May 23, 2022
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as the “hermit kingdom” because of its extreme isolation from the rest of the world, is notorious for its human rights violations. According to the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (hereafter “Report”), its human rights record is “without parallel in the contemporary world.”
Under the Kim family’s rule, the North Korean regime has terrorized its people for over seventy years. Those who attempt to cross the border are seriously punished if caught. Those who successfully escape are at risk of suffering from another evil: forcible repatriation. While this issue of forcible repatriation has previously been addressed, very little has been done on the ground. This essay seeks to not only serve as a reminder of this vital issue, but also urge relevant countries to act. Simply condoning forcible repatriation is a major violation of international human rights law.
International Human Rights Violations by the North Korean Government under the Kim Family
The DPRK has ratified significant international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Despite being bound by these treaties, the North Korean regime is notorious for ignoring the rules. To date, there has regrettably been little progress in improving the human rights situation in the DPRK.
After extensive investigation, the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that “the North Korean government systematically violated human rights including freedom of thought, expression and religion; freedom from discrimination; freedom of movement and residence; and the right to food.” It further concluded that the DPRK had committed all crimes against humanity as listed in Article 7(1) of the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, except for the crime of apartheid. The government vehemently denies having any part in the ill-treatment of its people and refuses to comply with international human rights standards. The Report is well-documented, however, and provides sufficient evidence detailing the North Korean government’s continued violations of international human rights law.
The North Korean regime’s human rights record has been a regular topic of discussion at the United Nations (UN). Since 2005 and 2003 respectively, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have passed annual resolutions condemning the DPRK for its human rights record. There has been an emphasis on pursuing accountability, especially after the 2014 Report of the Commission of Inquiry. Furthermore, in 2019, the North Korean regime underwent its latest Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, where it only accepted 132 out of 262 recommendations. This is a clear indication of the government’s indifference to international law and human rights mechanisms, which has been the North Korean regime’s attitude towards human rights since 2009, when the DPRK underwent its first review and did not accept any recommendations. While the most recent review shows some willingness to respond, it is important to remember that accepting recommendations does not necessarily mean that the regime implements them.
Since 2019, the North Korean regime has increased measures to prevent its citizens from leaving the country. North Korean law criminalizes the act of leaving the country without official permission. People who are caught trying to leave are apprehended and subjected to punishment, including, inter alia, public forms of punishment, imprisonment, and sometimes death. The government has also encouraged the Chinese government to thwart the ability of North Koreans trying to escape by repatriating them to the DPRK. Such repatriation is followed by harsh consequences. This is an egregious violation of the principle of non-refoulement, a sacred tenet of international law.
It is the harsh treatment by the North Korean regime that forces citizens to leave, even when the risks are high and life-threatening. Food shortages, a failing economy, and severe consequences for not obeying the regime are among the many reasons driving people to escape. It is unfortunate that tighter border control and the emergence of Covid-19 have resulted in a drop in the number of escapees in recent years. However, based on publicly available information, there seems to be a trend of higher-ranking officials who are attempting to escape. The continued attempts to escape are a clear indication of the North Korean regime failing to meet its responsibilities and duties to the people under international human rights law. People would not risk their lives to escape if they were truly happy.
International Human Rights Violations by China
Most North Koreans attempting to escape the tyrannical rule of the Kim regime first attempt to enter China en route to South Korea, the United States, or other destinations. However, the Chinese government has been cracking down on North Korean escapees, capturing and forcibly repatriating them to the DPRK, where they are subjected to harsh consequences. The Chinese government argues that North Koreans are not seeking asylum or refuge but are simply looking for economic opportunities. The government terms them as economic migrants. However, the lack of formal assessments for the escapees and such arbitrary repatriation are violations of international human rights law.
China is notably a member of the Refugee Convention and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, having acceded to the convention and Protocol in 1982. A cornerstone of the Refugee Convention is the principle of non-refoulement in Article 33, which states that “no Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This means that a refugee should not be returned to a country if he or she faces serious threats to life or freedom. The term refugee is given a wide interpretation and includes asylum seekers. The UN Human Rights Council refers to asylum seekers as prima facie refugees and affords them the same treatment as that of formally recognized refugees.
China is failing to uphold its obligations under the Refugee Convention by arbitrarily labelling North Korean escapees as economic migrants and simply sending them back while knowing the consequences these individuals could face. The Refugee Convention calls for a proper assessment to be conducted before an individual is repatriated, which the government is failing to do. The submission to the principle of non-refoulement is especially important for North Koreans because repatriation results in severe punishment and even death. China’s current practice of violating the principle of non-refoulement directly undermines the principles of the international refugee protection regime enshrined in the Refugee Convention.
In addition, China ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1988. The CAT is clear when it references the principle of non-refoulement by stating in Article 3 that “No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” It goes further to implore governments to consider all relevant circumstances and propensities of human rights abuses before deciding whether or not an individual is to be repatriated. The scope of CAT is wider than the Refugee Convention, as it applies the principle of non-refoulement to all human beings, making no distinction between refugee and asylum seeker.
Furthermore, CAT refers to torture and ill-treatment as reasons for providing protection. These terms, especially ill-treatment, carry a wide and all-encompassing interpretation. In effect, this lowers the legal threshold for the Chinese government to comply with its responsibilities and duties under CAT when protecting North Korean escapees, who are escaping severe and harsh treatment by the regime. The term ill-treatment can refer to any justified form of serious fear to life or freedom as envisioned by the Refugee Convention and the CAT.
China is a member to several other international treaties, all of which advocate for non-discrimination and the protection of all persons. CAT aptly mentions that all people are “members of the human family.” Therefore, such arbitrary repatriation by the government is a clear violation of international human rights law, for which China has been reprimanded on numerous occasions. The Chinese government argues that it enjoys bilateral agreements with the DPRK that allows it to return North Korean escapees. However, when governments subscribe to treaty law, they are under a duty to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties. This means that bilateral agreements contrary to international law and standards are, in principle, invalid. Therefore, the government cannot simply rely on its relationship with the DPRK.
It is important to note that the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry assigned liability on the Chinese government for aiding in crimes against humanity by its forcible repatriation of North Korean escapees. The Report highlighted evidence of Chinese officials being fully aware of the treatment of escapees, especially pregnant women who were—and still are—subjected to forced abortions by the North Korean regime. The Report condemned the government for such inhumane violations of international human rights law.
The Chinese government’s tendency to flout international law is not only a violation on its part, but consequently aids and abets the North Korean government in continuing to violate the human rights of North Koreans. China’s own human rights record has been far from commendable, especially since it has been preventing UN human rights officials from entering the country. The Chinese government could bring immense, positive improvement to the plight of North Korean escapees by providing protection instead of returning them to a tyrannical regime. China should not rely on relationships or bilateral agreements to evade its international law responsibilities and duties. As rightly said by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, loyalty should not be a reason to violate human rights.
International Human Rights Violations by South Korea (2019)
In 2019, the South Korean government shockingly repatriated two North Korean fishermen who were discovered by the South Korean navy. According to official statements from Seoul, these two men were suspected of murder. The South Korean government’s decision to arbitrarily repatriate the two men was a violation of its domestic laws and international human rights law. Moreover, it called into question the integrity of the South Korean government and its commitment to upholding human rights.
The government argued that the two men were serious criminals and were not eligible for protection. This, however, violates South Korea’s Constitution, which extends its domestic laws to all Koreans on the Peninsula. By this standard, the two men should have undergone due process for their alleged crimes. Furthermore, South Korea’s refugee laws explicitly prohibit the refoulement of persons who seek refuge, even if he or she is not immediately identified as a refugee. The principle of non-refoulement was clearly violated under the Refugee Convention and CAT. South Korea is a member state to both instruments. While the provisions of these treaties do not extend to non-political, serious criminals, such allegations must first be proved, and the treaties still do not condone repatriation in such circumstances when there is a serious fear to life and freedom.
The South Korean government was criticized for its improper conduct. Besides the shame of violating domestic and international law, it was condemned for allowing diplomacy and bilateral relations to guide its decision-making at the expense of human rights. Many experts cautioned the Moon administration against allowing the pursuit of inter-Korean diplomacy to hinder honoring its human rights obligations. Again, fostering loyalty cannot be reason enough to flout the imperative to preserve human rights.
Recommendations & Conclusion
Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggested in 2002 that the North Korean government immediately stop its practice of punishing those who wish to leave the country, but to no avail. HRW has appealed to the government to repeal all laws, decrees, rules, and policies that result in any form of reproof. International verification has also been suggested to confirm that the government has indeed implemented these reforms. Furthermore, all detained persons are requested to be released with immediate effect, including non-residents who have been detained for assisting North Koreans to escape.
These recommendations remain valid, even more so as the situation seems to be worsening. HRW continues to make such recommendations, together with other international human rights organizations, including the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which continues to submit practical and specific measures for advancing human rights in North Korea. Some of these measures and recommendations include the following.
The Chinese government is strongly urged to comply with its duties and responsibilities under international law. The government is requested to immediately stop the detainment and forcible, arbitrary repatriation of North Korean escapees until a proper and full assessment of the escapee has been conducted. The government is also advised to allow access to and work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to design and implement a workable process of assessing those persons escaping into China and to grant interim protection to North Korean escapees while due processes are conducted. The Chinese government must bear in mind that it is an executive member of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme which advises the UNHCR, so they are expected to maintain the standard in terms of its treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees according to international human rights law.
Governments around the world are encouraged to become more involved in issues that pertain to the repatriation of North Korean escapees, especially those who attempt to escape to China. Governments who enjoy bilateral agreements with the DPRK and China are urged to monitor and ensure that human rights standards are realized and upheld. In addition, this issue can be addressed at governmental meetings, forums, and conferences to ensure awareness and to discuss possible solutions. All suggestions should be relayed to the UNHCR for potential implementation. It is important that constant pressure is applied on China, and a constant spotlight is shed on China’s human rights record. Any positive appeals and proposals made by the UNHCR must be supported by governments around the world to increase pressure on the Chinese government.
The United States can, together with other countries—including South Korea, Japan, and EU member states—engage with China to discuss resettlement strategies, especially since most North Korean escapees resettle in South Korea or the United States. It is important to adopt a multilateral approach in the attempt to protect human rights. While this may require complex bargaining and compromise, the result can be better if other governments can show a willingness to admit North Korean escapees instead.
The South Korean government is called upon to adopt a more robust approach to human rights issues in the DPRK and to be more active in admitting and assisting North Koreans with resettlement. South Korea, as a country that accords constitutional rights to all Koreans in the entire Peninsula, should adopt legislation and policies to alleviate the human rights abuses faced by North Korean escapees. This is a recommendation of the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry Report, which is yet to be fully realized by the South Korean government. There is much hope in the new Yoon Suk-yeol administration to advocate for human rights in the DPRK. Yoon has promised to make a greater effort to promote freedom and human rights around the world, including in the DPRK.
International human rights law was put into place to guide governments in protecting people against human rights abuses. Individual governments have the responsibility to honor their obligations under international human rights law. The issue of repatriating North Korean escapees has been an ongoing matter since the late 1990s, and it has still not been resolved. We should not forget that this is a serious human rights issue and strive to remember North Korean escapees in our efforts to defend human rights.
Damian Reddy is a Law graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and he is also an admitted attorney in South Africa. He is currently completing his Master of Laws degree in human rights.
 UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/hrc/coidprk/pages/reportofthecommissionofinquirydprk.aspx.
 UN OHCHR, “UN Treaty Body Database: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” accessed May 23, 2022. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=47&Lang=EN.
 UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
 The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States and provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. See https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/upr/pages/uprmain.aspx for further details.
 “Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 23 March 2021: 46/17. Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Relief Web, accessed June 29, 2021. https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-peoples-republic-korea/resolution-adopted-human-rights-council-23-march-2021-4617.
 Article 63 of the Criminal Law of the DPRK (2015) refers to escaping the country as treason against the state.
 U.S. Government Publishing Office, “China's Repatriation of North Korean Refugees: Hearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China,” March 5, 2012, accessed June 29, 2021. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-112hhrg74809/html/CHRG-112hhrg74809.htm.
 See, for instance, the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s statistics on recent escapee arrivals at https://www.unikorea.go.kr/unikorea/business/NKDefectorsPolicy/status/lately/.
 “North Korea’s Elite Defectors,” The Diplomat, accessed April 2, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/north-koreas-elite-defectors/.
 Joel R. Charny, “North Koreans in China: A Human Rights Analysis,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 13, no. 2 (2004): 75-97. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/47a6eba2o.pdf.
 “China responsible and supportive on refugee issues: UNHCR representative,” Global Times, accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1201133.shtml. China is one of the first countries in Asia to accede to these instruments.
 Article 33 of the Refugee Convention relates to the prohibition of expulsion or return (https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10).
 UNHCR, “Asylum-Seekers,” accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/asylum-seekers.html.
 Article 32(2) of the Refugee Convention indicates that a decision of expulsion must be made in accordance with the due process of law. The article allows for evidence to be adduced, representation to be made and appeals to be lodged against decisions.
 Escaping North Korea is viewed as treason against the regime and is punishable by North Korean Criminal Law.
 UN OHCHR, “UN Treaty Body Database: China,” accessed May 23, 2022. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=36&Lang=EN.
 Article 3(1) of the CAT.
 Article 3(2) of the CAT states that the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.
 See introduction of the CAT which states that the convention recognizes the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
 United Nations, “The Foundation of International Human Rights Law,” accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/udhr/foundation-of-international-human-rights-law.
 Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “UN Report Criticizes China for Treatment of North Korean Refugees Amid Worsening Situation,” accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/un-report-criticizes-china-for-treatment-of-north-korean-refugees.
 Human Rights Watch, “UN: Governments Should Urge Xinjiang Inquiry,” accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/12/un-governments-should-urge-xinjiang-inquiry.
 Judge Navi Pillay, “South Africa's Engagement with International Human Rights Law,” 15th Annual Human Rights Lecture to Celebrate the Centenary of the Law Faculty, University of Stellenbosch, May 20, 2021.
 Article 3 of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution of 1948, with amendments through 1987.
 Article 3 of South Korea’s Refugee Act (Act No. 14408) relates to the prohibition of compulsory repatriation, including those persons not yet recognized as refugees. See this link for an English translation of the law provided by the Korea Legislation Research Institute: https://elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_service/lawView.do?hseq=43622&lang=ENG.
 Human Rights Watch, “The Migrant's Story: Contours of Human Rights Abuse,” accessed July 5, 2021. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/northkorea/norkor1102.htm.
 U.S. Government Publishing Office, “China's Repatriation of North Korean Refugees: Hearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.”
 This is referred to as prima facie refugees.
 UNHCR, “UNHCR Representation in China,” accessed July 5, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/hk/en/about-us/china.
 U.S. Government Publishing Office, “China's Repatriation of North Korean Refugees: Hearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.”
 Choe Sang-Hun, “In Korea, a New President in the South Vows a Harder Line on the North,” The New York Times, May 11, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/10/world/asia/south-korea-yoon-president.html.
The Story of Lee Min-Hak (1930–2016), a Korean War Veteran and North Korean Refugee
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.
South Korea’s Upcoming Presidential Election and the Future of Diplomacy with North Korea
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/.
How important is North Korean human rights in South Korea’s upcoming presidential election?
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.”
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.