Academic journal article North Korean Review

Alleviating Misery: The Politics of North Korean Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Alleviating Misery: The Politics of North Korean Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt


North Koreans suffer from human rights abuses at the hands of the Kim regime. Despite consensus regarding the serious nature of abuses, addressing (much less resolving) these issues has proven to be difficult. Complicating matters further, the problem of North Korean human rights is embedded in the context of perpetual nuclear and humanitarian crises. This has stimulated ethical debates and much soul-searching among policymakers, aid workers, and activists torn between choices of principle and pragmatism. It has also inevitability led to the politicization of North Korean human rights.

The politicization of North Korean human rights in U.S. foreign policy raises an interesting puzzle: why do human rights and humanitarian aid groups with noble intentions of alleviating human suffering at times distrust one another? In an ideal world, human rights, and its close cousin, humanitarian aid, knows no politics. But among narrow policy and activist circles within the human rights and humanitarian aid communities, politics has inevitably crept into the picture as different tactics, goals, and worldviews collide.

This article explores different responses to human suffering in North Korea and the evolution of the contrasting yet symbiotic relationship between engagement and advocacy approaches to human rights since the mid-1990s in the United States. More concretely, I examine how short and long term strategic goals interacted with different moral and principled beliefs. This interaction produced two different networks working to alleviate the plight of North Koreans. One response to North Korean suffering stressed continued engagement with North Korea at the strategic, but more importantly humanitarian level. As evidence of gross human rights violations mounted in the late 1990s, a second network emerged shifting their focus toward advocacy and awareness, demanding greater political rights and freedoms for North Koreans.

Understanding the Political Context

To clarify the difference between these two ideal-type camps,1 an engagement-oriented approach seeks to meet the basic needs of North Koreans and improve living conditions through humanitarian initiatives, social entrepreneurship, educational training, and market-oriented business development.2 Engagement does not necessarily mean holding negotiations with the regime. Rather, it implies various levels of interaction with North Koreans at the state or local level with the goal of building working relationships.3 At the heart of an engagement approach is the idea of building relations and partnerships at the people-to-people level.

On the other end of the spectrum are the human rights universalists who advocate greater freedom, liberty, and political rights for North Koreans.4 Naming and shaming the regime by documenting violations and reporting on topics such as the location of gulags, sex trafficking, the refugee crisis, or religious persecution remain their staple. Some have engaged in activities which at times encroach on North Korean sovereignty. This includes establishing an underground system helping North Koreans escape to the safety of other countries, often in Southeast Asia or Mongolia, in hopes of seeking asylum in South Korea, or sending information about the outside world into North Korea through radio broadcasts, USB drives, DVDs, and balloons.

Drawing on evidence from primary and secondary accounts, interviews with human rights activists, and participant-observation at North Korean human rights events from 2009 to 2011 (see Appendix A), I build an analytical framework which helps shed light on the politicization of North Korean human rights. I argue that variations in the interaction between short- and long-term strategic and principled beliefs resulted in a division between a humanitarian engagement and a human rights advocacy/naming-and-shaming approach to North Korean suffering. Strategic beliefs here refer to ideas held by individuals which inform decision-making on national security issues. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.