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 »

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 »

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