Reconciling the Human Factor, by Erich Weingartner

[This article, first published on our partner-website 38North on Tuesday, 28 May 2013, is based on presentations given at Glendon College, York University in Toronto in April, and at UCLA, Los Angeles in May. It represents CanKor’s attempt to provide a framework for rational discussion among conflicting policy alternatives aimed at relieving the suffering of North Korean people. CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner has been involved with Korea since 1978, spending half his career working on human rights and the other half dealing with humanitarian assistance. –CanKor]

Understanding the North Korean Human Rights/Humanitarian Divide

Author Erich Weingartner at the UCLA conference on Ending the Korean War (Photo by Kil Sang Yoon)

Author Erich Weingartner at UCLA conference on Ending the Korean War (Photo by Kil Sang Yoon)

With political leaders and the media perpetually focused on the behavior of a young hereditary leader and his nuclear-armed military, does anybody really care what happens to ordinary people in North Korea? There are two major constituencies internationally that do care: the humanitarian community and the human rights community.

When widespread starvation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became evident in the mid to late 1990s, humanitarian agencies launched a massive and largely successful rescue effort to stem the famine. Human rights organizations have meanwhile played a pivotal role in exposing North Korea’s dismal record of abuses, culminating in the recent appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI).

Since both claim that their objective is to ease the plight of suffering North Koreans, you might think these communities would be natural allies. But sadly, those working on North Korean human rights do not seem to get along very well with those providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK. Not only do their goals and methods often contradict each other, their practitioners sometimes engage in verbal battles and mutual recrimination. This conflict is likely to intensify now that the three-member CoI has begun its one-year assignment. Read the rest of this entry »

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