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Pyongyang, North Korea in April 2012 © Astrelok / Shutterstock

Could Change Come to North Korea?

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Andrew Yeo, associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America.

There are few reports with encouraging overtones emerging from North Korea. The country is mostly known for its contentious nuclear program and pervasive state violations of human rights. Yet despite suffering from international sanctions for so long, North Korean leaders describe it as a self-reliant socialist state.

The cult of personality existing around the ruling Kim family can be found in various manifestations of North Korean popular culture. Kim Jong-un’s speeches often carry epic themes eulogizing the majestic nation and its steadfastness in the face of economic sanctions and external pressure.

Human Rights Watch describes North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong-un as one of the most repressive countries in the world. International news organizations refer to Kim as a dictator without hesitation. It is believed that there are some 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Contact with the outside world is highly restricted and the regime cracks down on all forms of political activism and social freedoms. The state’s monopoly over the media means the public has limited choices when it comes to finding reliable sources of information about what’s goes on beyond national boundaries.

In June 2018, US President Donald Trump held a widely-publicized summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un  to open a new chapter in the history of US-North Korea relations. While critics say the meeting failed to produce sufficient progress, Trump was satisfied with the outcome. The litmus test will be the fulfillment of denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. Both leaders are now scheduled to meet in Vietnam in late February for further talks.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Andrew Yeo, associate professor of politics and director of Asian studies at The Catholic University of America, about the situation of human rights and social reforms in North Korea.

The transcript has been edited for clarity. The interview took place at the end of 2018.

Kourosh Ziabari: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive states. With restrictions on political activism and the punishments that await citizens who make contact with the outside world, North Korean society is more closed and isolated than one can imagine. Will the situation ever change for the better?

Andrew Yeo: The hope is for change in North Korea, which is why countless activists, including North Korean defector-activists, continue to pursue human rights advocacy. Activism is of course virtually nonexistent in North Korea, but information from the outside world does penetrate into North Korea.

One of the goals of activists is to flood North Korea with information about the outside world through shortwave radio broadcasts, through South Korean dramas, movies and music downloaded on USB drives, and through balloon launches with the hope that North Koreans themselves might push for change. North Korean society is also slightly changing with the rise of market activity.

Ziabari: Human Rights Watch recently published a perturbing account of the situation of human rights in North Korea in 2018. It notes that the government refuses to cooperate with international bodies, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN special rapporteur. Do you think there’s any mechanism by which North Korea will be compelled to work with international observers and human rights organizations?

Yeo: Yes and no. North Koreans often seem to be immune to international criticism and economic punishment. However, they have responded at times to international pressure, most notably when the release of the UNCOI [UN Commission of Inquiry] report in 2014 made reference to Kim Jong-un’s referral to the ICC. The North Koreans actually offered to invite the UN special rapporteur to visit North Korea if the ICC referral was removed.

The North Koreans also stated they would look into at more than half of the over 100 findings and recommendations addressed by the UN Human Rights Council on North Korea. Also, on human rights issues deemed less politically sensitive, such as the treatment of people with disabilities, North Korea has worked with international observers. In short, coercion and persuasion do work, but that’s more the exception than the rule.

Ziabari: Why does the government bar North Koreans from traveling abroad and penalize those who make contact with the outside world? Why is the regime so afraid of its people interacting with others?

Yeo: The legitimacy of the Kim family relies on controlling information internally and externally. If the North Korean people knew the extent to which the regime perpetuated lies, there might be greater instability. Kim’s grip on power relies on perpetuating myths and lies about his power, authority and claims of benevolence.

Ziabari: Do you think the 2018 summit in Singapore was a productive meeting and as successful as President Donald Trump claimed? Will the North Korean leader agree to abandon his nuclear arsenal and cooperate with the US?

Yeo: It was useful in that it helped dial back both sides from the brink of war. However, the summit was less than productive and a bit underwhelming in providing concrete steps that might lead to improved relations, including steps toward denuclearization. No one truly knows if North Korea will denuclearize, including Kim himself. Kim may very well move toward the path of denuclearization, but it will be a lengthy process, and there’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t reverse course if he feels threatened again, both from within and from outside.

Ziabari: North Korea is believed to have over 120,000 political prisoners. There are reports that torture, abuse and sexual violence are rife in detention facilities. Is there any indication that the government is willing to change its policy and practices under international pressure and sanctions?

Yeo: The regime might take steps to change human rights practices if it doesn’t significantly destabilize the regime. But, at the moment, fear and repression are still important tools for authoritarian control.

Ziabari: Do you think regime change is a possibility in North Korea? While the government continues to violate the rights of its citizens and crack down on any sort of dissent, do you think the society is prone to radical change, manifested in the overthrow of the Kim regime?

Yeo: In the short term, a revolution from below is unlikely unless there are also simultaneous cracks within the leadership or division among elites. I haven’t seen any recent evidence that would indicate real dissent or a challenge against Kim’s rule. I think Kim Jong-un’s rule is relatively stable at the moment, but stability does not necessarily mean the absence of change. In the mid to longer term, the rise of markets might alter relationships between state and society, which in turn raise the prospects for regime change.

Ziabari: You have written a book about the situation of human rights in North Korea. How difficult is it to write about North Korea while the government doesn’t cooperate with international organizations in providing them with data, information and evidence on its human rights policy?

Yeo: To be accurate, my book with Danielle Chubb is about North Korean human rights activism and not North Korean human rights per se. It is difficult to obtain information from inside North Korea. Thus, the vast majority of reports published by NGOs, which are then cited by government reports and vice-versa, are based on data and information shared by defectors. There is, of course, the potential for systematic bias if relying on defector testimony. However, there are over 30,000 defectors to date, and many of their testimonies do corroborate. Moreover, technology such as satellite imagery which reveal the location of prison camps also help verify evidence of ongoing human rights violations.

Ziabari: North Korea is a secular state and freedom of religious belief is protected under the constitution. However, reports from international organizations show that North Korea is a leader among countries that persecute Christians. Why is that so?

Yeo: On paper — that is legally — the North Korean state does permit religious worship, including Christian worship. In practice, however, true worship and religious freedom cannot exist because it poses a threat to the cult personality of the Kim family. In a country that deifies its leader, true Christian — or name any other religion — worship would weaken loyalty to the regime.

Ziabari: How do you see the future of relations between the two Koreas? Do the preliminary steps taken under South Korean President Moon Jae-in toward reconciliation herald the settlement of conflicts and reconstruction of bonds between the two neighbors?

Yeo: Inter-Korea relations have significantly improved the past year and certainly President Moon is moving forward with the belief that his actions will ultimately lead to true reconciliation. However, this is still only the beginning. The Korean Peninsula is heavily militarized, and we have yet to see further steps on denuclearization from North Korea, or a commitment from the US to move away from its maximum pressure strategy. The settlement of conflicts and reconstruction of bonds between the two Koreas won’t happen until we see greater progress toward denuclearization, and a true peace regime will be hard to achieve without seeing an improvement in human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.