International efforts to raise awareness on North Korean human rights have mostly succeeded despite the strong opposition to openly raising the North Korean human rights issue.
A few months ago, North Korea and Britain agreed to discuss human rights. The UK had been consistent in that it refused all previous invitations for talks from North Korea until North Korea agreed to address human rights in the talks whereas North Korea has repeatedly refused that human rights violations are taking place. However, North Korea has agreed to discuss human rights with Britain and Britain’s foreign office minister, Bill Rammell visited North Korea as the first British minister ever to visit North Korea.
The Japanese government’s top agenda for the summit with North Korea was Japanese abductees to North Korea until recently. Kim Jong Il regime denied any abduction took place in Japan but later admitted it and officially apologized. Needless to say, there were times that Japan-North Korea relations seemed to deteriorate, but North Korea maintained its relations with Japan as has been the pattern.
We can discover similar reactions of Pyongyang in regards to the North Korean defector problem. In mid-1990s, the government of North Korea strictly punished all the North Korean defectors who had been repatriated. There were some cases where defectors were sent to concentration camps or were exectued. However, as domestic and foreign human rights organizations consistently raised the problem of North Korean defectors and as the human rights of North Korean defectors became more of an international issue, it is known to us that the level of punishment has been alleviated.
We have seen that North Korean government is unable to ignore domestic and foreign human rights organizations’ efforts in increasing awareness on North Korea’s public executions and gulags. In the years 1997-1998 when public execution took place in North Korea most frequently, it is known to us that the methods of execution included hanging, shooting, and being burnt at the stake. However, as international human rights organizations continued to voice the seriousness of North Korea’s public executions and after the United Nations
Commission on Human Rights strongly demanded North Korea to give a human rights report, the number of public executions decreased to close to none. Furthermore, there is a case when Amnesty International asked North Korea to open its concentration camps to the public in the early 1990s, North Korea removed all its prisoners to other prisons and opened identified concentration camps to the international community.
The argument that raising North Korean human rights issue on the table will lead North Korean government to withdraw from the talks with the international community is unfounded. All the negotiations with North Korea, may it be economic or nuclear, must include North Korean human rights at the top of the agenda.