Why human rights slogans fail in Pyongyang?

North Korean traffic police women stand on a street in Pyongyang on Saturday, April 12, 2014 near the 105-story (Photo : AP/NEWSis)

Earlier this year, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea(North Korea) published its report on the human rights situation in North Korea. The report catalogued a long list of human rights abuses that have been ommitted by the North Korean state in the past, and in many cases continue to be committed.

The publication of the report understandably attracted much attention and led to a new wave of international activism and interest in the issue. Many people worldwide signed petitions, took part in demonstrations, sent letters, went to conferences and did other activities associated political activism. Unfortunately, these efforts, however noble they are in their intention, will not produce any noticeable impact on the human rights situation in North Korea.

The situation on the ground in the North is, by all accounts, tragic. It is difficult to make qualitative comparisons on issues like this, but we can be pretty sure that there is no place in the world quite so repressive as North Korea. Even if we accept the lowest estimates of the number of political prisoners incarcerated in the country – 80,000 – we are still talking about a regime that imprisons 1 in 300 of its people for political crimes. As a matter of fact, this is only slightly below the ratio of political prisoners in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1953, and much higher than any other part of the world.

To make matters worse, the all seeing eye of the secret police is never far away, and North Koreans are perfectly aware of this. Torture is used widely, and prison conditions are horrendous. Domestic travel is heavily restricted, while foreign travel is allowed only for a privileged few, the internet basically does not exist, tunable radios have been illegal for decades and an unauthorized chat with a foreigner will likely lead to an investigation or worse.

What on earth can the world do about North Korea’s human rights violations?

The list of horrors created and perpetuated by the regime is endless and can be continued for housands of pages. But there is one question I wish to ask: what can the world realistically do about this situation? The campaign-based approach used by the human rights community is simply not going to work with North Korea. It might attract more attention to the issue, and this is good, but no amount of petition signing will persuade North Korean leaders to change their ways.

Such an approach works with countries that care about their international image, and equally significantly, are dependent on international trade flows and cooperation. If some dictatorship is facing persistent foreign pressure, in due time it might consider becoming less repressive – just in order to improve its vital relations with the outside world.

As many readers will have guessed, this logic does not apply to North Korea. Its government does not really care about its international image, and it is also remarkably independent from the reciprocal world of international trade and economic cooperation.

On top of this, North Korea’s internal structure is largely impervious to such campaign pressure. North Korea faces an existential threat in the form of the wealthy and free South Korea. Both in terms of economic prosperity and political freedoms, the gap between two Korean states is huge and growing. In spite of all Pyongyang efforts to the contrary, information about the life in the South is gradually spreading throughout its country, thus slowly undermining the legitimacy of the Kim dynasty.

Reasons why N Korea has incentive to perpetrate human rights

Such conditions mean that Pyongyang has an incentive to keep perpetrating horrendous human rights abuses. The North Korean hereditary elite believe that they have to keep their populace docile and terrified, and the best way to achieve this goal is a generous application of police terror. They also assume that concessions will be seen as a sign of weakness.

Unfortunately for the North Korean people, such fears appear to be well founded. It is not impossible that a mildly less repressive North Korea can still survive – in fact, it can be argued that a mildly less repressive North Korea has survived for the last 20 years, since the political regime in the 1990s became somewhat less brutal. However, the dramatic breakthrough that human rights organizations hope for would seem to spell suicide for the regime in Pyongyang – and the North Korean leaders understand this perfectly well. This is the reason why all slogans of the human right campaigners are likely to fell on the deaf ears in Pyongyang.

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