NKnet celebrates its 20th anniversary with NKHR seminar

Panelists agree that the new donju class in North Korea can only bring limited change to the country

SEOUL, South Korea — On December 10, the Seoul-based non-profit organization, the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet), held a seminar titled “Realizing the Dream of North Korean Democracy: The Past Twenty Years Together, Into the Future Together” to mark its twentieth anniversary.

The president of NKnet, Han Ki Hong, gave introductory remarks, noting the progress that has been made thus far and the progress that remains to be actualized. “We hope this seminar will provide an opportunity to take a closer look at developments in the North Korean human rights movement in South Korea that has taken place over the past twenty years,” said Han. “Hopefully, this seminar can be an occasion to reflect on whether the North Korean human rights movement has contributed to improving the lives and human rights of North Koreans.”

These introductory remarks were followed by a panel of experts that was titled “What Has Changed and What Has Not Changed under the Kim Jong Un Regime?” and featured Kim Young Hwan, a researcher at NKnet, Park Hyung Joong, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), Kim In Tae, the head researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), Ishimaru Jiro, the Osaka Office Representative at ASIAPRESS, Jan Yanofsky, section chief for Korean Peninsula Policy at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Kwon Eun Kyung, director of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK).

The panelists brought a wide variety of perspectives from their respective fields of expertise. The general sentiment was that despite changes in the North Korean economy under Kim Jong Un—such as the revitalization of North Korea’s marketplaces, the emergence of a moneylender (donju) class, and the growth of domestic manufacturers—political and structural changes have not been significant due to the small-scale and fragmented nature of the aforementioned changes. Thus, these economic developments do not reflect a substantive paradigm shift within North Korean society. For example, seminar panelists expressed the sentiment that there were limitations to the new donju class as an outlet for progress or change, as they do not harbor aspirations of using their economic privilege to interact with the international community and rather, use their capital to curry favor with the party.

nknet seminar
NKnet held a seminar on Dec. 10 to celebrate its 20th anniversary. / Image: Daily NK

During the seminar, Kim Young Hwan pointed to the focal reliance on nuclear weapons in North Korea’s foreign policy and opined that consequently the regime would never relinquish its nuclear weapons, while Kim In Tae noted that “The legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s hereditary power system has strengthened since he took power.” In addition to this consolidation of power through the Kim family’s cult of personality, he highlighted the decline of the anti-Japanese faction and the growing influence of the Foreign Ministry, the party, the military, and domestic manufacturers under Kim Jong Un. Taken holistically, these changes point to North Korean authorities placing great importance on denuclearization negotiations with the U.S., while still continuing research and development of nuclear weapons and missiles. Yanofsky commented, however, that the issue of denuclearization is not divorced from that of human rights, and that protecting the rights of the North Korean population should be play a role in the security agenda of the international community.

The panel was followed by an anniversary and year-end event featuring congratulatory remarks from various members of the North Korean human rights activist community affiliated with NKnet. Activists Professor Yoo Se Hee, Professor An Byung Jik, and President Shim Jung Soon, along with civic groups NK Watch, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), and Saram (Stiftung für Menschenrechte in Nordkorea), were recognized with plaques of appreciation for their respective contributions to furthering the North Korean human rights movement.

NKnet is one of the earliest and longest-running organizations that has been promoting the North Korean human rights agenda both domestically, in South Korea, and internationally. NKnet hosts seminars and conferences, publishes reports, disseminates external information within North Korea by various means, and promotes grassroots movements in efforts to ameliorate the current human rights situation within North Korea. In 2009, their work was recognized by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea with the annual National Human Rights Award.

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