Friday, April 11, 2014

North Korean Human Rights Concerns and Its Challenges

North Korea draws the world’s attention for its many idiosyncrasies: The Korean peninsula remains the last Cold War frontier with the Communist North and the capitalist South still at a war; the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea is one of the poorest nations, yet one of the proudest; it is one of the most sanctioned states, yet one of the most defiant; it is one of the weakest, yet one of the most resilient. This paradox sums up its presence in the world community.

As the globalization process unfolds, human rights concerns have emerged as a major variable in international interactions. The fashionable buzz words such as human security, humanitarian intervention, life security, and securitization of non-traditional security issues point to a gradual shift of focus from Hobbesian guns-and-bullets paradigm to Kantian moral-ethical interests. The general trend in Northeast Asia is, though, still preoccupied with national security priority over human rights protection. Here we have the North Korean problem confabulated with nuclear threats and human rights abuses.

The summary execution of Jang Sung-taek, the current North Korean leader Kim Jung-un’s relative and patron, on December 12, 2013 alerted to the systematic human rights violations which did not evade the highest echelon of Pyongyang’s ruling strata. It took only four days for the regime to execute Jang since his arrest on December 8 of that year. The expeditious execution implies the denial of defendant’s rights to attorney and total dismissal of legally stipulated procedures. This high profile case supports the existing testimonies of North Korean refugees on the arbitrary and summary executions in the totalitarian regime.

North Korea acknowledges universality of human rights, while advocating “socialist democracy” and “our theory of human rights.” The contradictions lie in the obvious gap between rhetorical claims as stated in the DPRK Constitution and empirical reality as testified by the refugees. One of the challenges in North Korean human rights lies with the fact that the Pyongyang regime is the violator as well as the potential protector of the rights. The concerned parties of international community, therefore, have to tread the precarious waters in inducing the North Korean government’s cooperation to abide by rule of law, while trying not further push it to a self-isolating, defensive corner.

Making it more challenging, North Korea sees human rights not as a norm to protect, but a politically motivated pressure tool. The regime calls for self-vigilance in facing the criticisms raised and voiced by the international community. The Pyongyang leadership dismisses the concerned voices of the “imperial powers” as unjustifiable interference into domestic affairs. North Korea’s self-perception as the weak surrounded by the hostile and powerful nations makes it ever more conscious of slight belittlement, imagined or real, of its sovereignty. The human rights violations add more complexity to the existing ‘North Korean problem’ where its primary concern lies with nuclear capability.

Pyongyang’s aversion to the human rights discourse originates from two primary reasons: overriding prerogatives to maintain a domestic ruling hierarchy and the suspicions towards Western-centric rights discourse. The world order perceived by North Korea derives from a struggle between the imperialists and the subjugated. The two exemplary imperialist countries in their perception are the U.S. and Japan, whilst member nations of the opposing camp which they identify with include Cuba, Egypt, and Indonesia. This simple dichotomy of ‘with us vs. against us’ are often demonstrated at the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions. On March 25, 2010, for example, North Korea refused to accept the Council’s final resolution by stating that it will either “take note of” or “reject” the 117 recommendations. 

The advancement of human rights is a noble enterprise. As democracy aims to amend the unequal distribution of power, universal rights is to respect the innate humanity of all regardless of external attributes. Human rights discourse in this regard can be both empowering and potentially subversive. The tension between heightened awareness and the tenacity of ancient regime explains one of the challenges of the 21st-century global society where North Korea raises concerns for its unique challenges.

Mikyoung Kim is Associate Professor at Hiroshima City University-Hiroshima. She was a Fulbright visiting professor at Portland State University, OR, and served with the U.S. State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea, as a public diplomacy specialist. She has published many articles on memory, human rights, and gender in Northeast Asia, and is the author of Securitization of Human Rights:North Korean Refugees in East Asia (Praeger Security International, 2012).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ukrainian Crisis & Its Implications

The crisis in Ukraine began with former President Yanukovych refusing to sign a trade agreement with the European Union (EU). This refusal was met with an outcry by the Ukrainian people. Signing this agreement would have helped progress Ukraine economically and politically, whereas refusing to sign it demonstrated Yanukovych’s alliance with Russia. More than 100,000 people poured into the streets of Kiev to protest Yanukovych. These protests were met with extreme violence leading in the deaths of more than 80 protestors over three months. In December, Russia and Ukraine reached a deal under Yanukovych in which Russia agreed to send $15 billion in aid to the country through significant discounts on oil that would help Ukraine with its debt crisis, saving it from defaulting. This only caused further unease with the Ukrainian people, who already view Russia as having too much influence over their country. On February 22, Yanukovych was voted out of his post as president of Ukraine and an interim government was put in place.

The divide between Russian-speaking eastern and Ukrainian-speaking western parts of Ukraine runs deep within the inhabitants of these regions who hold ties to different nations. As a former Soviet state, many ethnic Russians reside in Ukraine, specifically in the Crimea region whose population primarily consists of ethnic Russians.  Additionally, Russia’s largest naval base outside of its borders is located in Sevastopol, a port in Crimea. This past week Russia dispersed troops into Crimea, seizing control of the region in a move that Ukrainian nationalists and members of the international community are terming as an invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory, and therefore a potential violation of international law. At present, the United States and the EU are urging Putin to withdraw his troops to their former posts within the territory, a move that Putin is refusing. The United States and members of the EU are threatening economic sanctions against Russia if it does not comply with this request.

The implications of this conflict reach far and wide. Where the United States and Russia certainly do not need more tension between one another, the United States is facing another struggle: its demonstration of power in the international community. There is a question regarding whether the United States flexing its muscles in the face of Russia is enough to cause Putin to back down. His moves currently suggest the United States does not have the necessary political leverage over Russia.

Continuing on the path that Putin has begun could create problems for Russia. In addition to the sanctions proposed by the United States and the EU, the stock market took a hard hit this week, dropping the value of Russian and Ukrainian currencies. Putin has stated that his primary emphasis is to keep ethnic Russians within Ukraine protected, but Ukrainians and others in the international community question this motive. While this might be his public reasoning for taking control of Crimea, many believe that his interests lie more in an attempt to make a power play over a former Soviet state.

Talks that have taken place this week in Paris regarding the crisis made it clear that Putin does not view the interim government as having legitimacy. In response to the pro-West groups that took over Kiev, Pro-Russian groups took power over the legislature of Crimea and have declared that there will be a vote on March 16 to decide whether Crimea will remain a part of Ukraine, or return to its pre-1954 status of Russian territory. The United States and the EU reacted negatively to this move, rejecting its legitimacy. If this moves forward there is a threat within Ukraine of civil war, pitting the EU and United States against Russia in a fundamental way. The EU and the United States have made clear their intentions of posing sanctions on Russia, but a full-fledged civil war within Ukraine could force the world’s superpowers to pick sides, ultimately placing the EU and the United States against Russia in a war that the world and its people cannot afford.

Houman A. Sadri, PhD, is associate professor of political science and coordinator of the UCF Model United Nations Program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL. He is the author of Global SecurityWatch — The Caucasus States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2010).

Leah Delaney is a graduate of Ohio State University's International Studies program and is currently pursuing Master's degrees from University of Central Florida in Political Science and Nova Southeastern University in Mental Health Counseling.