For real reform, North Korea must address its human rights abuses, says Human Rights Watch rep

Border guards in North Pyongan Province along the Amnok River. Image: Daily NK (Taken in February 2019)

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019, an annual comprehensive review of human rights records in over 100 countries and territories around the world, there has been virtually no improvement in North Korea’s egregious human rights practices. Following the report’s release and a year of increased diplomatic engagement with North Korea, Daily NK spoke with Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, about the the reality of North Korea’s human rights environment on the ground and why it should be on the agenda for the upcoming U.S.-DPRK summit.

The following is a transcript from the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch. Image: Human Rights Watch

Daily NK: You noted in a recent interview with Voice of America that there have been “no signs of change on human rights in North Korea.” What is the fundamental reason behind North Korea’s failure to address and improve human rights for its people? 

Phil Robertson: Kim Jong Un’s continued political control over the country depends on making sure the North Korean people are deathly afraid of what will happen to them if they are categorized as anti-government. The fear of the kwanliso [political prison camp], where tens of thousands of people are still being tortured and worked to death in the mountains, is a formidable way to ensure compliance with what Kim and his family wants. Fear is the reason that North Koreans who have a chance try to flee the country rather than stay and change it.

The government’s total intolerance for basic civil and political freedoms like expression, association and peaceful public assembly is to make sure that no political movement can form to challenge the absolute control of Kim and the Workers’ Party of Korea. Because Kim Jong Un can totally suppress demands for distribution of food and other goods to meet people’s basic needs, he does not face a challenge for diverting huge amounts of resources to the nuclear program while people still don’t have enough to eat.

Daily NK: The North Korean authorities claim that there are no human rights problems in the country, indeed often referring to it as a “human rights paradise.” What specific evidence is there to refute this claim?

Phil Robertson: The fact that there are no independent newspapers, political parties, civil society groups, or any other form of organizations outside the government’s control is a very clear indicator of the total suppression of rights in the DPRK. It’s also easy to spot forced labor by people on projects all over the country and political prison camps in the mountains using satellite imagery. Disproving Pyongyang’s propaganda and lies on human rights is not hard.

Daily NK: Is there anything to suggest that the human rights situation in North Korea is better than it used to be?

Phil Robertson: The only thing that has improved is the creation of local markets which allow people with resources to buy and trade goods they need to survive. One of the reasons that Kim Jong Un is so desperate to get foreign investment from South Korea and elsewhere is he can use those resources to try and convince the people he’s committed to making their lives better. But his real intent can be seen in the way he suppresses any form of dissidence, and his diversion of resources away from people’s basic needs to projects like building nuclear weapons and missiles.

Daily NK: Some North Korea watchers point out that North Korea’s human rights abuses have been relegated to the backburner amid negotiations with the United States regarding its nuclear program. What are your thoughts on that?

Phil Robertson: President Moon Jae In and the South Korean government have apparently washed their hands of any concerns about human rights in North Korea. Their strategy is both short-sighted and unethical since it gives Kim Jong Un the belief that he can negotiate with the international community without facing any sort of accountability for his horrendous human rights record. It would be the height of folly for South Korea to put foreign direct investment into North Korea at this time when the DPRK has not even become a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and still has forced labor and child labor occurring all over the country.

Daily NK: Do you think North Korea’s human rights record should be on the agenda for the country’s summits with South Korea and the United States?

Phil Robertson: The fact that neither the U.S. nor South Korea is talking about human rights in the DPRK when they hold summits with Kim Jong Un is scandalous and unacceptable. Donald Trump and Moon Jae In are both pursuing unethical and frankly unsustainable strategies that human rights don’t matter and can be dealt with later. In fact, the willingness of the DPRK to tackle its human rights problems will be a key indicator of whether Pyongyang’s leaders are really committed to any sort of reform.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch. Image: Human Rights Watch

Daily NK: South Korea’s Moon administration has remained largely silent on matters pertaining to human rights in North Korea, drawing criticism from rights activists at home and abroad. What is Human Rights Watch’s assessment of the South Korean government’s approach and efforts on improving human rights above the 38th parallel?

Phil Robertson: South Korea’s failure to raise human rights in North Korea is short-sighted and will ultimately be counter-productive. By failing to discuss difficult topics like the North’s systematic use of forced labor in construction projects or the continued operation of political prisoner camps, President Moon Jae In is allowing North Korea to believe they can get away with their rights abuses and the international community will accept them as they are.

In fact, there need to be fundamental rights respecting reforms before North Korea can be permitted to end its pariah status and be considered a normal member of the global community of nations. Moon Jae In seems to conveniently forget that he is dealing with a government that many consider among the worst human rights violating regimes in the world.

Daily NK: 2019 report also condemned China’s role in continuing to forcibly repatriate North Koreans, who face torture, imprisonment, and sexual abuse upon their return. What are China’s obligations in this situation and what steps should they be taking to enforce them?

Phil Robertson: China has ratified the UN Refugee Convention and so under no circumstances should be returning North Koreans back to the DPRK. Human Rights Watch assesses that all North Koreans who flee the country should be considered refugees sur place because of the horrific treatment they face when they are sent back by China.

Beijing should allow North Koreans to either seek asylum in China or facilitate their journey to a third country which is prepared to protect them. Beijing should also end the denial of access to UNHCR to travel to areas of the North Korea/China border where North Koreans have fled to, and should permit UNHCR to have access to any North Koreans detained in China.

Daily NK: For the first time since 2014, the UN Security Council failed at the end of last year to hold a meeting on North Korea’s human rights record. Where is Human Rights Watch stance on that situation?

Phil Robertson: Human Rights Watch is working hard with the U.S. and other UN Security Council members to arrange for this meeting to happen as soon as possible. Of course, we need to get 9 “yes” votes to put North Korean human rights on the Council’s agenda, but we’re confident that we will be able to do so in the near future. North Korea should not think that they have escaped this scrutiny.

Daily NK: Lastly, what do you think is the most important factors to improving human rights in North Korea?

Phil Robertson: When it comes to the North Korean economy, one of the most important steps would be for the DPRK to join the ILO, and immediately take action to end use of forced labor in prisons and in government led infrastructure, agricultural, and political projects. Reforms need to be undertaken to eliminate child labor and get children into quality schools that teach them rather than treat them as a forced labor team. North Korea needs to end labor rights abuses across the board, including permitting the formation of independent trade union bodies, if it is really ready re-join the international economic community.

Politically, the North Korean government should admit the existence of detention camps and end all abuses there, and help detainees to return to their homes. This reform needs to be across the board and complemented by a renewed commitment to respect basic civil and political freedoms such as freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly. Only then will the people of North Korea feel brave enough to really demand the political reform must go hand and hand social and economic changes, and start demanding their rights.

Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to