Time to Address North Korea’s Prison Labor Camps, by Roberta Cohen

[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. She is a specialist in human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues and a leading expert on the subject of internally displaced persons. CanKor reproduces here a statement made by Ms Cohen at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies‘ Washington Forum 2013 and subsequently published by them as Issue Brief #60. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. –CanKor]

Roberta Cohen with Shin Dong Hyuk

Roberta Cohen with Shin Dong Hyuk

It is time for the international community to address itself directly to the most serious of North Korea’s human rights violations – the prison labor camps. Situated in the mountains of North Korea, the camps are estimated to hold some 100,000 to 200,000 prisoners, including whole families, many of whom are not expected to survive.

The issue has come to the fore through the combined efforts of human rights NGOs and former North Korean prisoners who have escaped the country. For several decades, NGOs, academics and journalists from the United States, Western Europe and the Republic of Korea have conducted painstaking research to unearth verifiable information about the camps and North Korea’s overall human rights situation. They have come up with persuasive evidence despite the regime’s efforts to conceal its conduct through denial of access. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, by Roberta Cohen

[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen published an extensive analysis of the latest decision by the UN Human Rights Council regarding the DPRK in our partner-website 38North. For the benefit of CanKor readers we reprint the first part of this article here. For the rest of the paper, including footnotes, please access the 38North website here. –CanKor]

Roberta CohenOn March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].

The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes. Most prison camps are in remote mountain areas, access to the country is barred to human rights groups, and rigid internal controls make it impossible for anyone who does manage to visit to talk with North Koreans about human rights. Indeed, the lack of access and the UN’s inability to form an “independent diagnosis” of the situation has long contributed to the reluctance of its senior officials to speak out strongly about North Korea. Even the US State Department’s human rights report for 2011, published in 2012, contained the caveat that no one can “assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea. Read the rest of this entry »

Combining UN pressure on human rights, nukes & missiles, by Roberta Cohen

[CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta Cohen, non-resident senior fellow at Brookings and co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, conveys to Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report her personal views regarding both optimism and pessimism surrounding Monday’s statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in the DPRK. –CanKor]

Roberta CohenRoberta Cohen: It was the first stand alone statement – and a strong one at that – by a High Commissioner on human rights conditions in the DPRK. The statement has a few interesting features:

First, High Commissioner Navi Pillay acknowledged that “the deplorable human rights situation in DPRK…has no parallel anywhere else in the world” and called for greater international attention to the abuses reported by former prisoners with whom she met for the first time in December 2012. This sharply contrasts with the past when High Commissioners failed to meet with defectors and generally qualified their remarks about North Korea in part because the UN could not directly access the prisons or give an independent diagnosis of the situation.

Pillay in fact repeats, “We know so little about these camps and what we do know comes largely from the relatively few refugees who have managed to escape from the country.” Yet, far more than a “few” have escaped and given credible testimony. [CanKor Brain Trust member] David Hawk‘s 200-page report Hidden Gulag, published in 2012 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, contains the testimony of 60 former prisoners and guards. A lot of the accumulated testimony corroborates other testimony, making it factual and hard to ignore. Moreover, hundreds of the 25,000 North Koreans now in the South were former prisoners. Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: Human Rights Progress In North Korea: Is It Possible? by Roberta Cohen

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by CanKor Brain Trust member Roberta CohenRoberta Cohen is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in human rights and humanitarian issues; a Senior Associate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University; and Co-Chair of the the Board of Directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). The opinions expressed by the author are solely her own. Find more articles by Roberta Cohen. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

Despite hopes, even predictions that Kim Jong Il’s death might usher in progress on human rights in North Korea, no change is yet discernible. North Korean defectors have long speculated that Kim Jong Un would not enjoy the same lockstep support commanded by his father and grandfather and might have to respond in some measure to popular needs and aspirations.[1] The North Korean economy, moreover, might not survive without reform. Even though the government periodically clamps down on private market activity, the people, including some in the government, are increasingly showing themselves to be of a “market mentality.”[2] Since they will not easily relinquish this reliance, it could pave the way toward greater economic freedom and ultimately political reform. New information technology is further eroding the isolation imposed by the regime.

Is this wishful thinking? Even assuming Kim Jong Un were inclined to promote change (a very big unknown), could he do it? He is surrounded by his father’s advisers and hard line repression continues while he consolidates his authority. As one expert put it, Kim Jong Un will not be able “to depart from his father’s legacy until he has fully established himself as the new ruler.” But “the longer he spends strengthening his position based on the same system of brutal repression, the less of a chance he will have to break away.”[3] Arrests and purges have accompanied his ascension to power,[4] reinforced by the support of those in the military, party and elite who stand to benefit from the regime’s continuation.

Tacit support has been given to Kim Jong Un by the international community. Wary of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and aggressive stance toward the South, and fearful of possible refugee flows and instability, China, the United States and other countries have made ‘stability’ their principal objective. However, in the process of doing so, they have largely sidelined the equally compelling need for justice and human rights.

Of course, unexpected changes can take place in countries deemed unlikely for human rights reform.[5] They may arise less from external pressure than from the ripening of conditions inside the country toward openness and change. Or they may arise from governmental steps to institute reforms to ensure the regime’s survival and secure international aid. In the latter case, North Korea’s surprise announcement of a satellite launch in April appears for the moment to be scuttling prospects for international assistance from the US and other countries and ushering in a period in which prospects for human rights reform look dim. Nonetheless, it is important to identify the signs to look for when trying to gauge whether Pyongyang’s new leaders are ready to head in new directions. Read the rest of this entry »

North Korean Gulag Conference to be held in Washington DC

The US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has announced that a one-day conference will be held in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, 10 April 2012, entitled “Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Political Prisoner Camp System & Calling for Its Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement”. The conference is organized together with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, and will be hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics at the C. Fred Bergsten Conference Center (1750 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036).

Two CanKor Brain Trust members have prominent parts in the proceedings. As Chair of HRNK, Roberta Cohen (Non-resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution) will make opening remarks. David Hawk, author of “Hidden Gulag” (First & Second Edition), will be the first presenter in the first panel of the conference.  Read the rest of this entry »

38 North: Admitting North Korean Refugees to the United States by Roberta Cohen

[From time to time CanKor will alert our readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by Roberta Cohen, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in human rights and humanitarian issues; a Senior Associate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University; and Co-Chair of the the Board of Directors of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).. Please follow our links to this article on the 38North site. –CanKor.]

Admitting North Korean Refugees to the United States: Obstacles and Opportunities By Roberta Cohen

“The numbers are too small,” a Korean American told me, referring to the fact that the United States has admitted only 122 North Korean refugees to this country since the adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) in 2004, and that only an estimated 25 have received political asylum.[i] His remark reflected the view of Korean Americans who would like to see more North Koreans find refuge in the United States after the brutality, oppression, and economic hardship to which they have been subjected.

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world where permission to leave is highly restricted, making it incredibly risky for its citizens to seek refuge abroad. Despite this, tens of thousands have managed to cross into China where they are in hiding, more than 22,000 have made their way to South Korea, and at least 2,000 have reached countries in Europe and Asia.[ii] Why haven’t more gained entry to the United States?

In adopting the NKHRA, members of Congress recognized that despite the difficulty of affecting change inside North Korea, something should be done to help those who manage to escape. The act sought to facilitate the entry of “acutely vulnerable” North Koreans to the United States, calling for “a credible number” to come in as refugees, while recognizing South Korea’s “principal responsibility” for their resettlement.[iii]

Nonetheless, major obstacles continue to block their admission to the United States. To be sure, there has been progress since the adoption of the NKHRA—more than 20 North Koreans began to be admitted as refugees each year. Yet it is also true that the U.S. has the largest refugee resettlement program in the world and that of 73,293 refugees brought into the country in 2010, only 25 came from North Korea, whereas 18,016 came from Iraq, 16,693 from Burma, 12,363 from Bhutan, followed by Somalia (4,884), Cuba (4,818), Iran (3,543), Democratic Republic of Congo (3,174), Eritrea (2,570), Vietnam (873) and Ethiopia (668).[iv] …Read More

Other articles by Roberta Cohen:

38 North: The Food Debate — Hungry for Action

[Following up on our food aid and food security theme, we would like to alert our readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. Two articles in particular have drawn our attention. The first is a further analysis of the recent decision by the European Union to send food aid to the DPRK. It is written by Glyn Ford, a man who knows the EU intimately, having been a Member of the European Parliament for over 25 years, until the June 2009 elections. The second article is by Roberta Cohen, whom CanKor readers have met before. She is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in human rights and humanitarian issues, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Cohen argues in her article that the time has come for the Obama administration to stop dawdling and come to a positive decision regarding food aid. Please follow our links to the articles on the 38North site. –CanKor.]

Feeding the Famine: The European Union’s Response to North Korea by Glyn Ford 

The European Union (EU) announced on July 4, 2011 that it would provide €10 million ($14.3 M) of emergency food aid to North Korea to be distributed through the World Food Programme (WFP) over the next three months–until the end of September, just prior to the arrival of this year’s harvest. This aid represents a much delayed response to an initial request for humanitarian assistance sent by Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun on January 24… Over the last decade, the EU has provided roughly €500 M ($715 M) in aid, including humanitarian assistance, and nutritional, sanitation, and development projects, plus an earlier contribution to the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO)… Read more…

Hunger in North Korea: Time for a Decision by Roberta Cohen

…But taking no decision is really a decision, which gives the impression that there may be no urgent or extensive food crisis in North Korea requiring immediate action. It set aside the findings of thirteen reputable relief groups and did not dispatch its own mission until the end of May. The mission visited only two provinces (the United Nations visited nine) and has been studying its findings for more than a month. Washington also has been developing stringent monitoring standards should it resume aid, given North Korea’s known diversions to the army and elite. But these may possibly be so restrictive as to preempt agreement… Read more…

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