By Kathryn Baer
International Affairs Forum: As a human rights expert based in Korea, you’ve highlighted a range of rights deprivations and abuses that North Korean women face; from cases of trafficking into forced marriage and prostitution in China to everyday needs, such as the ban on riding bicycles. You’ve also reported that women have become the main breadwinners of many households.
Given the current levels of poverty, reports about increased levels in defiance of authority, and advances in information sharing, are women impacting change in North Korea?
Ms. Kay Seok: If you mean political change, not at all. The North Korean economy has changed a lot since before the famine. It’s not so much that women have created the change, but they have been forced to [change]. Their husbands were stuck in state jobs - not showing up to a state job is a crime and you can be arrested for that. Women, have a choice of being housewives, [although] many are market traders; when you look at the North Korean market, 70-80% of the merchants are women. So, it’s not that they have led a change in North Korean society, but they are kind of the symbols/ personifications of the change, how the government control over the people has weakened.
IA-Forum: Are women activists making an impact on the lives of North Koreans?
Ms. Seok: There are no activists in North Korea [and] I wouldn’t say South Korean women’s rights groups have been able to influence the North Korean government’s decisions. But of all human rights issues, North Korea has been more receptive of women’s rights and children’s rights, especially children’s rights; so I think that the government has been more cooperative with UN agencies when it comes to women’s rights and children’s rights. But it’s really kind of writing reports, and sending delegations, whether that has translated into legal changes…I haven’t seen it yet.
IA-Forum: According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, defections from North Korea are on the rise and the vast majority of these defections (70%) are women, can you talk a bit about the increased numbers of defections and reasons for which the majority are women?
Ms. Seok: In the past couple of years, the number of North Koreans escaping the country has decreased, significantly. The reason why those arriving in South Korea increased is [because] those who’ve been living in China for years have decided to come to South Korea. There was a rumor that the Chinese government would crack down on North Korean refugees ahead of the Olympic Games. Many people were afraid of deportation, so they decided to take off. So what you are seeing, in terms of the number of people arriving in South Korea, is the end result of that push. The reason why the majority are women is for the same reason why the majority of North Korean merchants are women – it’s a lot harder for men to escape because they have to report to work every day. It is more difficult for [men] to keep a low profile or escape and not be noticed immediately. And also, in China, while North Korean women can live with Chinese men in de facto marriage relationships and have shelter, food and some kind of protection, North Korean men do not have that kind of opportunity, so they are a lot more exposed to crackdowns than women.
IA-Forum: North Korea has ratified five major international human rights treaties [ICCPR, ICESCR, CRC, CEDAW, and the Genocide Convention]; in 2009 the North Korea government added ‘human rights’ to its constitution and in 2010 North Korean delegates participated in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record.
In your opinion, which has been the most successful means for engagement with the North Korean government on human rights – i.e.: grassroots advocacy, pressure from the international community, relationship with the international aid community?
Ms. Seok: If you want to be brutally honest, I think we have to say we still do not see any visible signs that international advocacy on human rights is having any real impact in North Korea. Yes, they have added human rights into the constitution, but it is just words on paper. That’s not impact. Impact is when you are seeing real changes in people’s lives. The only sign [of changes are] the anecdotes we hear from North Korean refugees. I have heard from various different people that, for example, how, in some occasions, I don’t mean all, there have been fewer beatings in detention facilities, less abuse overall against detainees; and the people I interviewed cited international pressure for the reason behind it. But that’s really about it. North Korea is not the kind of country where you can assess the impact of the international community’s work – one way or another.
IA-Forum: Do you think there is any way right now that rights could be better enforced? Or is your feeling that the situation will remain status quo as long as the political situation remains the same?
Ms. Seok: The overall rights situation has been changing, not because the government has [implemented] any real change, or for that matter, because of the international community’s efforts, but really because of the economic changes in the country. Before the famine, the North Korean government had almost complete control over people’s lives and they had controlled the population with three main tools: one is the rations systems; people had access to food only as long as they reported to work or went to school, so it kept the population immobile. [Second], restriction in movement, you are not allowed to travel anywhere outside of your immediate residential area unless you have permission, and [third] restriction in the flow of information. But after the famine, all three of them broke down. So, when you look at the situation in North Korea right now, most people do not depend on the state, at all, for food. And many people travel freely more or less - although yes, in theory, they still need permission, but they can get the permission by bribing people, which was not possible twenty years ago. And when people travel, information travels. So what has happened as a result of these economic changes is that people are enjoying a lot more freedom than before. But this is the result of people’s struggle to survive, rather than the State’s policy changes.
IA-Forum: Frequently, international policy discussions about Korea focus on the influence of relatively few international actors: primarily the UN, China, the US and South Korea. In June, HRW and its partner organizations pressured EU governments to exert their influence via the UN. Are there other underutilized resources that could succeed in creating pressure on North Korea to hold up its international human rights obligations?
Ms. Seok: The member states of the EU have been engaging North Korea on human rights; when you look at the pattern of these dialogues, you see that North Korea actually offers human rights dialogue as a bargaining chip to governments that they want to talk to about something else, or the governments that they consider more friendly to them. So [for example] they needed to talk to the EU about human rights, but once the EU sponsored the North Korean Human Rights resolution at the UN, they called it off. They are talking to the French now, but probably because France is the only EU country that still has not established diplomatic relations with North Korea [and] that is something North Korea wants.
So, it’s really hard to say what kind of impact these dialogues are having. Beyond that, the North Korean counterparts of these discussions must hear [pressure about human rights] from the French, the EU, and from other countries and it must make them think. Who knows? Maybe it makes them think they should do something about [human rights]. But again, North Korea is the kind of country where we cannot really link one outside pressure to domestic policy change.
[Also] North Korea does not have a civil society, that is one of the biggest problems – if [it had] a civil society, even one activist, we would know a lot more about what is happening and why kind of outside pressure or action is working or not working, but we really have few ways to know, to learn the impact of any outside action. We all rely on the same thing, which is small number of interviews or information that informants looking for South Korea-based NGOs or news organizations bring out, but they are not trained journalists and I’m pretty sure the information they bring out is already affected by their own personal opinions about the way things are going. North Korea must become a more open society before we can start assessing the impact of the work we do outside the country.
IA-Forum: Do you feel that the impending succession of Kim Jung Un will have an impact on North Korean rights?
Ms. Seok: So far, I have no reason to believe that things should be better because Kim Jung Un seems intent on inheriting his father’s policies. So, if he does, there is little hope that he will introduce, for example, consideration of refugee issues, or political prison camps, or stop public executions, which are among the demands the international human rights community has been making. I don’t see any such signs.
IA-Forum: The South Korean government recently refused to grant visas to activists for 'World March for Women' planned during the recent G20 summit, and in May of this year, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue expressed concern that “the full respect for human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been diminishing”. Human rights advocates have specifically referred to the National Security Law (NSL), which is used to curtail freedom of expression and association by providing long prison sentences or the death penalty for ‘anti-state’ activities.
Can you comment on how these measures have affected the work of human rights advocates in South Korea?
Ms. Seok: The problem with the NSL is that it includes one article that is very vague, which says that ‘supporting or praising the enemy’ is a violation and you can be sent to prison for that. But it doesn’t clearly define what it means by ‘supporting and praising’. For example, if you posted online saying that ‘I admire General Kim Jung Il’, you could be arrested. Under South Korea’s own dictatorship the law was used widely and severely in cracking down on pro-democracy activists, people who sought engagement with North Korea, but in more recent years, they have not been harshly cracking down on activists based on this law, so even when people are arrested, in most cases, they are released after trial, but obviously the law is a very problematic one and the international human rights community has recommended that either South Korea repeal or revise the law; they have not done so yet. But again it is a law specific to activities related to North Korea, so human rights activists in South Korea who’ve been working on issues that have nothing to do with North Korea not been affected by that law.
Kay Seok, a Seoul-based researcher in Human Rights Watch's Asia division, has specialized expertise on North and South Korea. She covered the Philippines as well in 2008-2009. Seok has published articles and op-eds in newspapers around the world. She routinely briefs government officials, the United Nations, and the European Union; gives press interviews on North and South Korea's human rights conditions; and represents Human Rights Watch at international conferences and forums on North Korean human rights.
Before joining Human Rights Watch in the communications department in 2002, Seok worked for the International Rescue Committee and as a journalist covering North and South Korea. She has taught human rights as a guest lecturer, including at Ewha Women's University.
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