US congressional legislation links the human rights issue with security. Consequently, it is likely to interfere in the normalization of relations between the US and North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereinafter the “DPRK”), as well as hinder the acceptance and implementation of a non-aggression pact or treaty signed prior to an agreement on denuclearization and verification, an agreement on denuclearization and verification, and a US-DPRK peace treaty. There are differences within the US government on the human rights issue in the DPRK however, with some arguing it needs to be a central issue and others ranking it as a low priority issue.1 Others have argued that it should be reserved for dialogue on full normalization, thereby delinking human rights and denuclearization but not per se delinking human rights and security.
This “linking and delinking” debate presents itself as a perceptual problem for non-specialists and for many states like the DPRK which feel that their ideological and psychological security are threatened by the US and the international community as a result of their linking the two broader issues of human rights and security and the justifications provided for past international military interventions. It is a perceptual problem because the way most understand security is through its traditional conceptualization rather than its more contemporary understanding, which includes non-traditional security threats. Non-traditional security threats fall into eight different categories including terrorism, extremism, separatism, transnational organized crime, environmental security, illegal migration, energy security, and human security.2 Those deemed most critical for the DPRK, at least in the short term, include economic security, food security, environmental security, and energy security,3 all of which encompass many of the sub-issues within the human rights issue, which this article highlights.
Subject matter specialists and other non-state actors who focus on the DPRK from the US and international policymaking and human rights communities are well versed in the human rights issue and its sub-issues, but the broader members of those respective communities as well as the global public are not because of the discussion being narrow and very much politicized. This article, which is a part of a larger study on the topic, seeks to explore the framing of human rights discourse on North Korea by the Washington Post and the New York Times, two traditional news outlets which are still the most widely read by the US public and US policymakers, between January 20, 2001 and January 20, 2017. A total of 394 articles were selected for analysis and of that, 57 percent covered the Bush administration and 43 percent covered the Obama administration.4 My purpose here is to facilitate discussion on how human rights in the DPRK are framed by reframing the issue and its sub-issues within the context of non-traditional security threats, which are of concern for China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members’ security dialogue as well as the strategic security dialogue between China and the US.
By reframing the issue and sub-issues as such, I hope to reduce the perceived threat to the DPRK’s ideological and psychological security, which is heightened, arguably, because of the way human rights discourse has been traditionally framed, and to find a common discursive ground for the global community to engage the DPRK without there being a breakdown in dialogue on denuclearization, peace and the normalization of relations. Non-traditional security issues, according to Jae-Jung Suh (2013), have a more immediate impact on the DPRK and impinge on the state’s security policies, thereby making it and the region more insecure. Human insecurity, he posits, exacerbates national insecurity, and the way in which to reduce that legitimacy threat is to help the DPRK by focusing on the non-traditional security issues.
Human Rights Discourse on North Korea in the US Media
Human rights in North Korea are an issue, which no one disputes, not even the DPRK,5 but what is disputed is how to engage the issue and its sub-issues and the discourse used for engagement. An understanding of how they are framed and reframing them in the non-traditional security discourse can help to find a way to have a discussion on how to prevent a breakdown in dialogue on denuclearization, peace between the Koreas, and the normalization of relations between the US and the DPRK. Examined here are the target audience of the articles selected, the sub-issues which were salient within the context of the human rights issue in the period covered, the ideological, psychological, political, cultural and military dimensions which the issues transcend, the policy preferences which are more feasible within the context of the sub-issues, and the lessons learned from the patterns which emerged. The only theoretical assumptions underlying this study are: 1) The framing of discourse matters for understanding the perceptual boundaries within which policymakers can operate in a given policy environment and on specific policy issue areas; and, 2) There are variations as a result of the impact of the perceptual boundaries, how they cross-cut or transcend specific policy issue areas in a specific policy environment and correspond to policy-cycles. No theoretical assumptions are made, nor is a position adopted on the issue of human rights in North Korea.6
Framing and the Target Audience
A majority of the coverage between January 20, 2001 and January 20, 2017 targeted the domestic audience rather than the international audience, although there were variations among the administrations.7 The variation in target audience corresponds to differences in the foreign policy approaches adopted toward the DPRK and the nature of the debates within the US policymaking community on whether human rights should be an agenda item in US policy toward engagement; the nature of engagement between the US and the DPRK on denuclearization, with there being less mentioning of — or debate on — whether to make human rights a foreign policy agenda item during US-DPRK engagement on denuclearization; and, a strategic shift in focus from calling on the US and South Korea, formally known as the Republic of Korea (hereinafter the “ROK”), to make human rights an issue to generating global awareness on the human rights abuses as experienced through defector narratives by the human rights community, which targeted primarily activists and the UN and played on the emotive sensibilities of the global public. The domestic coverage primarily focused on US foreign policy community rather than the US human rights community, while the international coverage focused primarily on bringing attention to the human rights issue and its corresponding sub-issues.8
A majority of the human rights discourse in the media coverage was primarily driven by subject matter specialists and non-state actors from the human rights community, while US policy debates are driven by subject matter specialists and other non-state actors in the domestic and international policymaking community. This finding helps to explain why the US Congress is the primary policymaking actor on the human rights issue within the context of the DPRK rather than the White House. It also, in part, allows the White House to make the human rights issue a non-issue in its policy of engagement without expending too much political capital at the domestic level, particularly given that when it is raised there is either a halting of engagement on denuclearization or some sort of provocative action by the DPRK which closes the White House’s window of opportunity for engagement. The US does not expend any political capital at the international level by making human rights a non-issue within this context because of the international community preferring peace over the tension which the human rights issue elicits when it is raised by the US with the DPRK rather than when it is raised by the international community.9
Finally, a minority of the framing was driven by state actors in the domestic and international policymaking communities and that which does, targets international policy rather than US policy toward the DPRK on the human rights issue. This implies that the international community is the most appropriate actor for engagement with the DPRK on the human rights issue and its sub-issues.
Framing the Human Rights Issue and Sub-Issues within the Context of the Dimensions
In terms of the human rights issue and its sub-issues, 43.1 percent of the coverage pertained to security deprivation, 37.3 percent to economic deprivation, 10.3 percent to political deprivation, four percent to cultural deprivation, three percent to human deprivation, and 2.3 percent to social deprivation. On security deprivation, 34 percent pertained to the DPRK’s camps, detention centers, and totally controlled zones and their conditions; 33 percent focused on the criminal justice system and its lack of transparency, the criminal code including arrests, charges, interrogation tactics and investigative procedures; 22 percent on the treatment of inmates including lack of rights, maltreatment by guards, the nature of punishment for misconduct, and inadequate access to medical services; eight percent on the abduction of foreign nationals; and four percent on corruption among the guards and local government officials.
On economic deprivation, 43 percent focused on food security in the DPRK, 37 percent on migration, 14 percent on economic mismanagement, five percent on labor conditions and policy, and one percent on corruption. On migration, 80 percent focused on defector, refugee and asylee narratives and experiences, 11 percent on human trafficking, smuggling, sexual exploitation and forced marriages, and nine percent on China’s migration policy and its impact on the DPRK’s defectors.
The DPRK will remain inherently unstable unless it focuses on the non-traditional security issues which are an immediate national security concern.
On political deprivation, the coverage focused on the nature of governance in the DPRK including access to the political system, rights such as freedom of expression, speech and due process, corruption, lack of transparency, and the politicization of human rights. On cultural deprivation, the coverage focused on freedom of religion including practice, discrimination and persecution (within society and the prison/detention camps) and religious-based crimes, while a minority of the coverage focused on the culture of mistrust which pervades society. The latter is largely a product of the penal and surveillance systems and perpetual fear of external intervention. On human deprivation, the coverage focused on health, education and welfare (well-being and poverty). On social deprivation, the coverage primarily focused on freedom of movement while a minority focused on the inequality which exists as a result of the existing socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and familial-based cleavages.
The human rights issue crosscuts several dimensions thereby making the cultural and military dimensions moot, while the ideological, political and psychological dimensions overlap as a result of the sub-issues. Overlapping issues shed light on policy preferences for which policymakers are more likely to find agreement on for policymaking. The political dimension comprised 54 percent of the coverage and of that, 50 percent referred to the DPRK’s governance system, 33 percent to the leadership or government, and 17 percent to political culture. Most references were critical of the governance system, political culture and leadership. The ideological dimension comprised 26 percent of the coverage and of that, 47 percent referred to “Stalinism”, 39 percent to “Communism”, 7 percent to “Kimism”, and 7 percent to “political liberalism,” which highlights the significance of ideological security to the DPRK.
The psychological dimension comprised 14 percent of the coverage and of that, 44.5 percent compared the DPRK state to the Nazi state, 37 percent questioned the legitimacy of the state, 11 percent referred to it as genocidal and inhumane, and 7.5 percent referred to the state as evil. Also highlighted here by the way in which the sub-issues overlap the ideological, political and psychological dimensions is the problem of perception, which means there will be perceptual limitations to the strategy which can be pursued to engage the DPRK on the human rights issue. The findings also suggest that psychological security is also as important as ideological security. The cultural (4 percent) and military (2 percent) dimensions played a role during the Bush years but were mooted during the Obama years, thereby solidifying the inferences that the ideological, political and psychological dimensions overlap; and, as a result, the DPRK should not react in a threatening manner nor respond to utterances when those sub-issues are raised in the media. Similarly, the international community should avoid the sub-issues which evoke the DPRK’s ideological and psychological fears until mutual trust can be attained.
Policy Preferences and Lessons Learned based on the Patterns
Five policy preferences would find support based on how the human rights issue and its sub-issues were framed between 2001 and 2017. First, a multilateral approach toward human rights that promotes transparency and greater awareness and information on human rights in the DPRK is most suitable. The human rights discourse on North Korea will continue to be dominated by defectors’ experiences and narratives until the DPRK engages the international community, promotes transparency and awareness, and provides more information on human rights in the country.
Second, targeted sanctions against the individuals responsible and for which verifiable evidence can be presented. It should be noted here that sanctions are supported by a majority within the US policymaking community. Third, the international community including state and non-state actors need to promote dialogue, diplomacy, rapprochement and the normalization of relations with the DPRK. The DPRK will not attain ideological and psychological security without that, and both ideological and psychological security are necessary in order for there to be greater progress on human rights in the country. An overwhelming majority of US policymakers support some type of dialogue, diplomacy, engagement and better relations with the DPRK.
Fourth, for the DPRK, transparency of the governance and criminal justice systems, greater access to information to promote awareness and compliance with the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, reform of the penal system, and development of an amnesty program for prisons are not per se unreasonable measures and, arguably, will help facilitate trust within the country and among the diaspora and international community. Finally, economic and development assistance programs and reform of the domestic economy to stabilize the imbalances which will occur from the DPRK’s gradual opening to the regional and global economies. Economic and development assistance programs are key to addressing the underlying factors which contribute to the human rights issue and its sub-issues. Again, this is why a reframing of the human rights issue in the non-traditional security discourse is important.
Lessons Learned from the Framing of the Human Rights Issue and its Sub-Issues
Eight lessons can be learned from the framing of the human rights issue and its sub-issues between 2001 and 2017. First, the human rights issue and its sub-issues matter for any type of agreement between the US and the DPRK, particularly because of the role human rights play in US congressional policy. The US Congress will have to ratify any treaty, pact or agreement between the two countries. Second, the US is not the most appropriate actor to engage the DPRK on human rights and its sub-issues. The international community is the most appropriate actors, and the global anarchist, communist and socialist non-state actors are far more appropriate actors to engage the DPRK on some of the more sensitive sub-issues.
Third, the approach adopted by the international community should not target the issues which heighten the DPRK’s perceived threat to its ideological and psychological security. Fourth, understanding how the human rights issue and sub-issues transcend and cross-cut the ideological, psychological, political, cultural, and military dimensions and when those dimensions are at play will help to design a multilateral, multi-pronged strategy for engagement with the DPRK which facilitates peace, security and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Fifth, the effectiveness of any strategy will depend on identifying the actors who are strategically significant to the human rights issue and its sub-issues.
Sixth, tensions between the US and the ROK impact US-DPRK relations, and US engagement with the latter and support for the ROK’s policy of engagement are impacted by US domestic politics. Seventh, US policy on human rights and the ability of the US to make human rights central to its foreign policy remain limited by the perceived and actual US human rights abuses which occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Finally, for the DPRK, there needs to a separation of the traditional and non-traditional security issues, as the latter underly the human rights’ sub-issues, and greater emphasis needs to be paid to them by China and the SCO due higher levels of trust as well as within the context of Sino-American strategic security dialogue.
To conclude, the DPRK will remain inherently unstable unless it focuses on the non-traditional security issues which are an immediate national security concern, and it will remain a threat to the region regardless of denuclearization if the strategically significant actors do not work hand-in-hand with the DPRK on the issue areas of mutual concern, whereby mutual trust can be built to deal with the more contentious issue areas like human rights. The sub-issues which were salient in the human rights discourse on the DPRK provide a foundation for which the global community and strategically significant actors can begin to think about how to facilitate dialogue with the DPRK on human rights and on terms which the DPRK’s policymakers find acceptable.
Dialogue cannot be forced on anyone and, as history demonstrates, state and non-state actors in the international community have long since politicized human rights discourse and used it to promote their own agendas and policy preferences. As policymakers will attest to and as policy scholars have long taught, policy which can be implemented is primarily a product of compromise. An agreement between the US and the DPRK is theoretically possible, but its implementation will remain impossible if there is no dialogue on issues which are relevant to actors who are strategically significant. The US Congress is a strategically significant actor when contemplating implementation, and the human rights issue is central to congressional legislation on the DPRK.
Through education, to draw on a lesson which Nelson Mandela taught, we have the power to transform the world — and therefore the policy environment — so that peace is not simply a document signed but a reality that is implemented by two actors, the US and the DPRK, who believe that something new and different is warranted in US-DPRK relations.
1. Kang, David C. Chapter 4: Securitizing Transnational Organized Crime and North Korea’s Non-Traditional Security, 75-99, in Park, Kyung-Ae. (2013). Non-Traditional Security Issues in North Korea. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press and the Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii.
2. Rudolph, Rachael M. (2018, June 10). SCO and China’s peaceful development. China Plus. .
3. Park, Kyung-Ae. (2013). Non-Traditional Security Issues in North Korea. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press and the Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii.
4. The articles were demarcated by the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, and analyzed to assess the target audience (domestic or international), the specific human rights issues-at-play according to the type of deprivation (political, economic, social, cultural, security and other) and existing debates (universal versus cultural relativist, humanitarianism versus human rights activism, and cultural and political rights versus economic, social and cultural rights), the dimensions-at-play (ideological, psychological, political, military or religious/cultural), the response or solution to the problem (dialogue, sanctions, behavioral change, regime change, or regime transformation), and the patterned variations of the framing within the policy environment. The following questions were used for frequency and content analyses: 1) Who was primarily targeted in the framing of human rights discourse on North Korea and was the framing politized or neutral? 2) How were references to North Korea’s human rights violations characterized? Did they correspond to the debates in the existing literature? Which dimensions were at play? 3) What were the responses or solutions suggested for resolving the problem of human rights? 4) Were there temporal variations or patterns to the characterizations, and did they correspond to the shifts which occurred at the global, regional and domestic levels as found in the literature? The questions were based on the existing literature cited in this article.
5. Song, J. (2011). Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-Colonial, Marxist and Confucian Perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.
6. This article happens to be part of several short articles which I have written and several more are planned for the coming year that focus specifically on framing and the role of perceptual boundaries in different issue areas. They are part of an idea I am playing with for a book project on perception and the foreign policy decision-making process.
7. 60 percent of the coverage across the administrations targeted the US domestic audience, while 40 percent of the coverage targeted the international community; and, when looking by the administrations, there was more engagement of the domestic audience during the Bush administration (69 percent) than the Obama administration (31 percent) and more engagement of the international community during the Obama administration (55 percent) than the Bush administration (45 percent).
8. A focus on the latter corresponds to global activist campaigns during the Obama period which centered on the issue of justice and its sub-issues within the context of Palestinian and US prisoners and Guantanamo detainees.
9. There is a difference in the DPRK’s reaction when it is raised by the US versus the international community.