Dissenting view of David Hawk’s “Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights”


Posted by CanKor Brain Trust Member Paul Evans:

It may appear churlish to offer a dissenting view of David Hawk’s informed and thoughtful report, Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea,” that is featured in CanKor Report #325 and on this blog. I share his sense of outrage at the state of human rights in North Korea and his commitment to encouraging positive change. I agree that North Korean violence against migrant women and the existence of prison camps (“managed places”) are pivotal issues that should not be ignored. It indeed seems almost certain that full normalization of relations with North Korea by the United States and many other countries (Canada included) will depend upon improvements in human rights in that country. And it is difficult to disagree with his general comment that there has been very little progress in advancing either nuclear and missile disarmament or human rights in the past seventeen years.

But the report makes four mistakes that undermine its prescriptions.

First, it is reasonable to argue that issues of human rights and good governance will emerge organically and inevitably if and as the 6-Party Talks move forward, especially in the working groups. But simultaneous negotiations on three fronts (denuclearization, missile delivery systems, human rights) is a non-starter. The allure of the Helsinki process is enduring but misplaced in North Korea and the Asian context. The current approach of prioritizing the nuclear issue and addressing economic and political change at a later stage remains sound.

Second, the 6PTs are not the only channel for engagement with North Korea. Prioritizing the nuclear issue in the 6PTs does not mean that governments, international institutions or civil societies need to be deaf, dumb and blind on human rights matters. Countries with diplomatic relations and other channels of communication should continue to use them. And non-governmental actors can continue the relentless pressure, recognizing that the scope for influence and immediate improvement are minimal. A multi-tiered engagement process demands prudence, not abnegation. The fact that the Conservative government in Canada, in response to bad North Korean behaviour, has jettisoned even its modest means for direct communication with Pyongyang made possible by diplomatic relations is a cautionary tale rather than a model to be emulated.

Third, the ground is shifting under the human rights regime that only a short time ago appeared universal and compelling. Chinese views and Chinese power need to be factored more heavily into the discussion. Another report awaits to be written on the lessons to be applied to North Korea about how external pressure and assistance in the Chinese case can in some instances make a modest and long-term contribution to advancing human rights. Even more importantly, in an era of dramatic rise in China power, China is not just a frequent protector of North Korea, partially insulating it from international criticism and pressure, but China is constructing rules, norms, and practices that diverge substantially from the human right rights regimes that the report treats as universal. There is much about North Korea that Chinese leaders dislike, but these same Chinese leaders are unlikely to push an agenda of legal much less political reform in North Korea before economic reform and opening begins to take root. As noted in the case of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Chinese (and several of their neighbours) are marching with considerable confidence and success to their own drummer on these matters. Chinese power is rising in the immediate neighborhood and in global institutions.

Finally, the prospects for even limited improvement on human rights issues in North Korea are dim. The report does not do justice to the arguments that come from South Korea and elsewhere that the preconditions for a genuine commitment to human rights measured in either Western or even Chinese terms are almost entirely absent. The character of the regime, the closed nature of the society, and the absence of a significant professional much less middle class, make for a rock that is about as barren as any on earth.

The wonderful quote from President Obama underlines the need for painstaking diplomacy to accompany exhortation and sanctions. The other ingredients are patience and persistence. For the moment, there is no sensible alternative to prioritizing the nuclear issue as the initial objective of the 6PTs and using international institutions, bilateral governmental channels, and civil society instruments as the means for exerting pressure for change. The results they will produce, at least in the short term, are extremely modest.

The great brick wall that separates North Korea from a dynamic region and the broader world will not come down easily. If we reject, as the report does, using military force to knock the wall down, the only realistic option is encouraging new streams of market-based development that will erode its base and encouraging governments and non-governmental actors to use their finger nails to scratch at the bricks and create the dust in which the spores of a civil society can germinate.

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One Response to “Dissenting view of David Hawk’s “Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights””

  1. Jack Kim Says:

    July 27, 2010:
    There are two principal issues with the North Korean human rights issue.

    First, the North Korean regime refuses to even bring up human rights in diplomatic exchange – for instance, in the rare case where human rights violations are brought up, the North Korean pre-fabricated answer is “there are no human rights abuses in North Korea.” Thus bringing up human rights dialogue for the sake of engagement is symbolic, at best. Instead, from a Track I perspective, human rights dialogue would be best served with another dish.

    For instance, the age old “economic development” for human rights reform is a carrot (and eventually, stick) approach rarely used with the North Koreans. However, coming from a distinctly NGO perspective, I feel that true human rights reform in North Korea will not arise until North Korean societal attitudes change as well.

    It is not to say that the North Korean people do not want human rights – but if such a human rights regime were to be imposed from above, my sense is that it will not be readily accepted. Rather, on the Track II level, the “idea” of human rights should be encouraged among the North Korean public, to the point that they organically demand from their own government what is rightfully theirs.

    On this front, comes the second issue. It seems that the North Korean regime also recognizes that further market development (or any reforms at all) will indeed reduce their grip on their people. Despite multiple efforts to repress the “ajummas in the market,” including the disastrous currency reform which has led to a reported purge in Pyongyang, it seems that markets, which first emerged shortly after the famine, are here to stay.

    Yet what bothers me is that despite the existence of these markets, and the crackdowns that have happened, the large-scale dissent one expects from such a revolutionary change within a society like North Korea, has more or less, not happened. The stream of refugees coming out of North Korea has decreased. People are still hungry, but for the first time in ages the food situation seems to be close to stable. Anti-regime banners can be found in places like Hoeryong, but these reports are sporadic, at best.

    This leads me to believe that further pro-active measures above time-consuming market-based development are required to spur this on. How this can be achieved is of course, up for debate. But in the end, with one of the longest running human rights violations happening as we speak, urgency is perhaps in order. After all, there are concentration camps to close.


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