Recent efforts to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights conditions through the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), which among other things, could lead to a UN resolution or ICC referral, has seemingly hit a sensitive spot within North Korea. However, prior to this, little substantive progress was made, in part, due to North Korea’s hard-line stance to its human rights conditions.
Nearly a decade ago, U.S. legislation was enacted on October 18, 2004 known as the North Korean Human Rights Act. The passage of this Act marked a new and notable phase within the nuclear non-proliferation talks, whereby the issue of human rights was
directly linked to the issue of North Korean nuclear non-proliferation in a Helsinki-style approach.
The full text of the North Korean Human Rights Act can be viewed HERE.
In form, the Act seeks to provide increased aid, monitoring efforts, and
humanitarian relief to North Korea in the spirit of furthering human rights
development within the DPRK. In substance, the North Korean Human Rights
Act attempts to place greater diplomatic and legal pressure on the Kim Jong Un
regime to improve its human rights record. At the same time, the Act also represents
a possible negotiation strategy attempt to box in and make the DPRK regime more
transparent with stipulated requirements for verifiable behavior in compliance with
By placing human rights as one of the primary items on the negotiation agenda
in talks with North Korea, two main schools of thought exist: ‘‘universalism’’ and
‘‘cultural relativism,’’ in terms of the currently existing literature related to
international human rights issues. Universalists argue that certain rights are
‘‘universal’’ and thus should be globally uniform, such as equal protection, physical
security, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. Arguably, most of the language
embedded in the North Korean Human Rights Act is based upon the ‘‘universalist’’
rather than ‘‘cultural relativist’’ theory of human rights.
One of the express purposes of the North Korean Human Rights Act is arguably
to identify human rights as a major factor in future diplomacy between the United
States and the DPRK, and for the region as a whole. For example, Section 101 of the
Act notes, ‘‘It is the sense of Congress that the human rights of North Korea should
remain a key element in future negotiations between the United States, North Korea,
and other concerned parties in Northeast Asia.’’ It created the position of Special
Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea with the responsibility of coordinating and
promoting human rights efforts, and raising such issues with North Korean officials.
The Act also specifically links non-humanitarian assistance to substantial
progress in human rights in North Korea. For example, Section 202 identifies areas
for improvement (i.e., basic human rights and freedoms, family reunification,
information regarding abductees from Japan and South Korea, reform and
independent monitoring of prisons and labor camps). It earmarks additional
humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance based upon improvements in such
areas, but also threatens the withholding of such funds, present and future, in the
event that evidence of improvements fails to emerge in North Korea. When such
withholding of funds has occurred, at times, the DPRK, as a negotiation strategy,
has become purposely more provocative in its actions, albeit verbally or through
military exercises. In effect, this is a negotiation strategy of increasing (or as the case
may be, creating) one’s ‘‘bargaining chips’’ to be later traded at the negotiation table
for other items it may want or need.
Efforts to directly incorporate universal human rights values into North Korea*
with a government that typically sees human rights issues as varying, based on
culture, and therefore non-universal*have often resulted in a negotiation clash of
cultures by linking human rights with efforts related to North Korea, which have
thus led to a further gap in related negotiations, such as the Six-Party Talks.
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