Human Rights Policies of China and Japan towards North Korea: Domestic Agendas and International Norms

By Kim, Mikyoung | North Korean Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Policies of China and Japan towards North Korea: Domestic Agendas and International Norms


Kim, Mikyoung, North Korean Review


Introduction: The "North Korean Problems"

The "North Korean problems" constitute two primary concerns: nuclear threats and human rights abuses.1 The complex "problems" defy a one-dimensional approach. Nuclear threats constitute conventional security concern, whereas human rights abuse entails nontraditional remedies. Pyongyang's response to the "problems" has been the adamant insistence on its sovereign rights. Nuclear development is for self-defense, and human rights are reserved for the deserving proletariat class. Pyongyang's "my way or the highway" is for regime survival, not necessarily seeking international approval.

The "problems" are undergoing some positive changes.2 During Hu Jintao's visit in October 2009, Kim Jong-il reinstated North Korea's non-nuclear commitment. He also affirmed the willingness to return to the stalled Six-Party Talks.3 Pyongyang also released in August two detained American journalists who had been convicted of illegal border crossing in June4 and sentenced to 12 years of forced labor. Furthermore, Clause 9 of the amended Constitution in 2009 specifies that the government is to "respect and protect the interests and rights of working citizens including laborers, farmers, soldiers, and working intelligentsias."5 The "North Korea problems" are shifting to a different direction.

This paper focuses on the human rights policies of regional governments, particularly those of Beijing and Tokyo. While nuclear North Korea has been the center of much attention, the topics of human security have been at the margin. This research weighs domestic priorities and international norms of China and Japan. How important are the international norms in East Asian regional politics6? Are the universality assumptions valid? How salient are the identity politics among the nations often assumed to share racial, cultural and linguistic affinity? My analysis will demonstrate that domestic agendas supersede international norms in the cases of China and Japan. China, a nation of proletariat socialism, and Japan, a capitalist democracy, do not show much difference in their handling of North Korean refugees. Their motivations vary per domestic context. My research supports relevance of liberalist and realist traditions with a mediating mechanism of constructivist framework.

North Korean Problems and International Relations Theories

A grand theory is helpful in shaping perspectives: it is a model for reality. We often rely on theoretical insights in perceiving a reality. At the same time, however, it limits us from exploring reality as it is. With the help of a theory, we induct from what we see, often being dismissive of counterintuitive empirical evidence. The deductive reasoning, on the other hand, permits the emergence of multiple theories given empirical multiplicity. A resultant micro theory is, therefore, the model of a reality. Any number of observations can lead to an equal number of micro theories. The grand theories of international relations (IR)-realism, constructivism and liberalism7-can be empowering as well as limiting. Each theory enjoys comparative strengths over the others by having different core concepts and assumptions.

Realism assumes the rationality of a nation aiming to maximize its power. The sources of power are heavily centered on military capability and competitive advantage in international trade, not necessarily on the soft power of cultural origins. Drawing on the Hobbesian worldview, every nation is at imagined or real war against one another.8 Realism is an easy explanation for the numerous quests for territory and resources in human history. Constructivism sees international society as an amalgam of constructed identities. Interactions are shaped by perceptions, norms and identities.9 A nation is an ideational manifestation encompassing historical legacies, ideological norms and cultural traditions. Humanitarian intervention, for example, is best explained by constructivism:10 nations go to war, not just to expand power base, but also out of moral commitments. …

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