Tyler Meyer is a 2L at the McGill Faculty of Law. He is a Research Fellow with the One Justice Project, an associate editor for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy, and is the Newsletter Director for Environmental Law at McGill.
In March, China vehemently rejected a UN report that documented grave human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The report, drafted at the request of the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea, produced unsurprising conclusions: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials, are committing “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” many of which “constitute crimes against humanity.” Despite the criticism by one of the world’s most powerful economies, the veracity of the report’s conclusions is otherwise uncontested. What are contested are the policy initiatives that will end the regime’s human rights violations, as very little has been successful at altering the authoritarian regime’s domestic policies that institutionalize human rights abuses.
Condemnation by the International Community
For years, the international community has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s systematic and widespread human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. However, the North Korean government has “consistently and categorically rejected the resolutions adopted by the former Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the situation of human rights,” demonstrating that international political pressure alone is unlikely to yield significant changes to North Korea’s domestic politics.
Economic sanctions have also had little impact on North Korea’s domestic policies. For example, the increased sanctions imposed in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2009 simply pushed the country away from the global community and its pressure for enhanced human rights, and into closer economic relations with China and other trading partners that are unwilling to pressure North Korea. This is problematic because North Korea’s reorganized external economic relations allow it to insulate itself from economic sanctions from the West, especially since North Korea’s policies have had little impact on trade relations with its two closest partners, China and South Korea.
Many argue that politics should be separated from humanitarian aid such that aid should not be contingent upon policy reform. However, this may be an untenable position. North Korea is unable to feed its population and relies heavily on commercially imported food. Despite famines and continued food shortages, the government has used humanitarian aid to substitute, rather than supplement, commercially imported food. The resulting savings are then reallocated to its military and other government priorities. Therefore, although some humanitarian aid may reach the intended targets, knowing that some aid is indirectly used to support the North Korean regime and its military goals makes it difficult for donor states and organizations’ aid to be completely divorced from political pressure and negotiations for reform.
Without the global community creating a united front that includes China and South Korea, it is unlikely that the world will be capable of ending North Korea’s human rights abuses and security threats in the near future. However, there are many mechanisms that the global community can pursue that may produce long-term change. First, the global community must continue to push China to implement economic sanctions on North Korea. Given that China represents over one-third of North Korea’s trade and is the country’s most generous aid donor, significant sanctions by China “would bring the country to its knees.” This path will become more viable as North Korea’s policies exert greater destabilizing effects on the region and the net benefits of China-North Korea trade relations decrease for China.
Second, instead of simply imposing trade sanctions on North Korea, the global community can implement economic sanctions against North Korea’s international financial intermediaries, which has had some success in the past. This will become increasingly difficult if this simply pushes North Korea into closer relations with China and other states unwilling to pressure it to reform its domestic policies.
Third, the global community should seek to enhance its relations with North Korea, given that as the country’s international ties increase, so does its need to respond to international pressure to end human rights abuses. Foreign trade, investment, and aid should be increased, as this will not only lead to North Korea’s deeper engagement with the world community, but it will also enhance the likelihood of long-term changes to domestic policies. Making aid strictly contingent upon reforms has led to drastic repercussions for North Koreans, as it has led to catastrophic declines in food aid. Donor states and organizations should continue and even enhance aid, but seek to negotiate when supplying North Korea with aid. Donor organizations that have remained in the country claim that they have done so because their presence and continued negotiations have produced visible, lasting changes.
International relations with North Korea remain a sensitive and hotly debated topic. Moving forward, the international community will have to work together to compel the North Korean regime to alter its domestic policies. It will have to continue to walk the fine line between the possibility of pushing the North Korean regime farther away from global humanitarian norms, and the need for careful pressure to produce meaningful change and the possibility of a more prosperous future for millions of North Koreans.