pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP 13: Promoting the Well-Being of North Korea’s Residents and Refugees through US-ROK Cooperation

Under extreme poverty and political repression, many North Koreans endure systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations, along with a protracted, entrenched humanitarian crisis. Many are malnourished and lack clean water, proper sanitation and basic health care. Young children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly have become the most vulnerable to such privations. These deplorable conditions are exacerbated by continued denial of human rights, including torture and other inhumane treatment, political imprisonment, public executions and suppression of speech, information, religion and movement. A former United Nations high commissioner for human rights described North Korea’s human rights situation as “incomparable . . .  anywhere in the world, past or present.” And Thomas Buergenthal, a former International Criminal Court judge and survivor of Auschwitz, described the conditions in North Korean prison camps as “terrible, or even worse, than Nazi camps.”

The few North Koreans who manage to escape face additional horrors. Initially, escapees risk being shot and killed by North Korean soldiers as they approach the border. If they manage to cross the border safely, their status as illegal economic migrants, rather than political refugees, presents enormous danger. Women and children are subjected to work in invisible and highly dangerous industries, leaving them particularly vulnerable to sexual and labor exploitation. Approximately 80% of female defectors, studies have shown, have been sold through human trafficking into commercial sex exploitation, enslaved marriage and exploitative labor. All live under the constant fear of being repatriated to North Korea, where they face severe punishment and/or execution.

Both the United States and South Korea possess the legislative foundations to address such atrocities. Yet the administrations of Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in have chosen to ignore them, apparently out of concern that any such discussion would ruffle North Korean feathers at a time of attempted rapprochement. The rationale is that North Korea has become a threat to international peace and security by developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

This paper argues that those security concerns should not be considered in isolation. It proposes that the United States and South Korea adopt cooperative and coherent measures to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights record. The Helsinki Accords of 1975 provide the formula for this process. While bringing human rights to the negotiating table may anger the Pyongyang regime in the short term, in the long term it would be beneficial to all involved, particularly in the event of reunification. At the same time, the allies should offer humanitarian assistance to North Korea through internationally monitored and transparent channels. Specifically, South Korea should proceed with the delivery of $8 million in humanitarian aid to the World Food Programme and UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) that Moon pledged in May 2019. The United States should also free up its promised international aid and do more to help North Korean refugees.