Are North Koreans Becoming Aware of the Concept of Human Rights?

A man on his bicycle passes by a street slogan that reads ‘Long Live General Kim Jong Un, the Sun of Joseon [Korea]’ in Rajin, North Korea. Screenshot of a video clandestinely obtained via HRF’s partner.

Growing up in North Korea, I was not familiar with “human rights.” It wasn’t that I was just unaware of what it meant. I didn’t even know the concept existed. I hadn’t heard the phrase. This was not just ignorance on my part or among my friends and family members. I’ve found since escaping North Korea that, with the exception of a few elite defectors, none of us knew. We all lived without knowing what human rights were.

I now see that a society where the phrase “human rights” does not exist either has such a highly developed awareness and guarantee of rights that there is no need to discuss them, or it is so restricted that even mention of them is forbidden. North Korea, it goes without saying, is an example of the latter.

The abysmal situation there, where even the right to life is not secured, has been apparent for decades. But it first came to wide international attention thanks to defectors who fled the country during the famine of the 1990s. 

In 1996, the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights became the first international civic group devoted to the issue. Its advocacy with the United Nations resulted in 2004 in the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK. It was also instrumental in the unanimous passing by the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 of a 47-nation resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea. The COI’s findings in the following year documented how the North Korean regime had systematically committed widespread and serious inhumane crimes.

The UN Security Council in 2015 held an official briefing for the first time on North Korea’s human rights situation rather than on its nuclear and missile programs. The UN Human Rights Office opened a Seoul office to monitor human rights in North Korea and to collect and document information to ensure accountability.

Despite these developments and despite the persistent efforts of the international community and various North Korean human rights organizations, the situation for North Koreans has not improved.

For example, according to the South Korean government’s 2023 Report on North Korea Human Rights, authorities still require citizens to attend public executions. Among victims cited in testimonies were teenagers whose crime was to have watched South Korean videos, and a woman who was six months pregnant and who had committed the offense of pointing a finger at a portrait of Kim Il Sung. Undercover footage obtained by the Seoul-based SAND (South and North) Research Institute and reported by KBS-TV shows the trial of teenagers sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for watching and distributing South Korean videos.

Not only is the punishment in these examples more harsh than in the past, but the targeting of minors and pregnant women demonstrates the worsening of human rights abuses.

There is, however, one bright light in this otherwise gloomy picture. That is a change of perception, not in the regime itself, but among North Koreans.

Another North Korean propaganda video obtained by SAND Research and broadcast on South Korea’s TV Chosun on January 26 suggests that a citizen may have tried to form a political party in support of liberal democracy. According to the report, the teacher took this action after being exposed to South Korean broadcasts. The narration in the video that “they were strictly judged” suggests several people must have been involved and the punishment was execution. The fact the authorities decided to publicize the case suggests they may be afraid that such dissent is spreading. By making it known and intensifying the fear of punishment, they may be trying to nip growing dissent in the bud.

The fact that there is more awareness of “human rights” among North Koreans adds to the argument that resistance is building.

According to many North Koreans who have defected in the last five years, there is now more understanding of individual rights among citizens than in the past. For example, a North Korean woman in her 20s who defected in 2020, told a seminar on “Human Rights Violations in the Life Cycle of North Korean Women,” organized by the Eum Research Institute in Seoul, that her father was beaten for no reason by a security official while he was under investigation and that her mother had used the phrase “human rights violation” in a letter protesting about it to the Party.

She also said that there are people around her who say, “This is a violation of human rights,” when they encounter unfair treatment from Social Security officers or State Security officers. Another North Korean woman in her 40s (who defected in 2018) said that she was stopped on the street and asked to check her phone, and was able to get away with it by saying, “If you check it and nothing comes up, I will hold you accountable”. North Koreans, who had to do as they were told in any unreasonable situation in the past, or take a beating if they were beaten, are now taking a resistant stance to protect their rights as their human rights awareness grows.

To becoming a society with promised human rights

North Korea is no longer a society where the word “human rights” does not exist. This change is due to the efforts of North Korean human rights organizations to inform the people, continued international pressure to improve human rights, and the courage of North Koreans to risk their lives rather than be discouraged by fear.

This is a tangible change after 30 years of human rights activism for North Korea, but just like the Korean saying (in both North and South), “Well begun is half done,” I hope this is a very important and meaningful first step in North Korea’s path to becoming a liberal democratic society where human rights are secured.

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