Human Rights in Revised North Korean Constitution

Coinciding with the nomination of Robert King as U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, the Daily NK has obtained a copy of the new North Korean constitution which was revised by the Supreme People’s Assembly after elections to the body in April this year.

The most interesting aspect of the revised document is that it makes an explicit reference to human rights for the first time. In addition, it expressly connects the job of National Defense Commission (NDC) chairman with that of supreme leader of state; it enshrines the role and responsibilities of the NDC chairman; and it formalizes “songun,” or military-first, politics as a guiding principle of state.

That the revised constitution makes a clear reference to human rights for the first time will attract international interest. Article 8 of the revised constitution states; “The State respects and protects the human rights of the workers, peasants and working intellectuals who have been freed from exploitation and oppression and have become masters of the State and society,” whereas the previous version, adopted on Sept. 5, 1998 by the first session of the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly, vowed only to “defend and protect the interests” of the same groups.

Some experts interpret this as a pre-emptive move against growing international condemnation of Pyongyang’s human rights record, and some optimists even suggest it could portend a real attempt by the North Korean regime to improve its international standing on human rights. Others suggest North Korea knows that any bilateral talks with the U.S. will inevitably have a human rights component, and that the revised constitution is designed only to counter that.

Other changes are also interesting. Regarding the role of the NDC chairman, the revised Article 100 states; “The chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) is the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).” This article has no current relevance, since Kim Jong Il already is both NDC chair and supreme leader of state, but it will formalize the role of any successor in both roles.

In the 1998 constitution, the role of the NDC was limited to defense matters as a whole, but the revised version goes much further, stating that the NDC “oversees the entire national business, appoints and dismisses major figures in the military sector, and also ratifies or abolishes important treaties with foreign nations.”

Finally, Article 3 has been changed to reflect the role of “songun” in national decision making, stating that North Korea “is guided in its activities by the Songun and Juche ideologies, where Juche is a world outlook centered on people and a revolutionary ideology for achieving the independence of the masses.” where the 1998 constitution mentioned only Juche.