Post-2000s Trends in South Korean Research of North Korean Human Rights


Written by Song, Kyungho for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR Intern Samuel Dodge. Original Korean article can be found at https://www.yinks.or.kr/.


'Human rights' along with 'nuclear' can be said to be a core keyword of post-Cold War North Korean research. Both issues kicked off in 1993 with North Korea's March withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the subsequent prolonged famine that arose from a poor harvest later that year. Unlike the nuclear issue, which saw an immediate response, it was not until the late 90s that North Korean human rights started to garner global attention. This, of course, was not unrelated to the 330,000 deaths due to starvation during the 'Arduous March' period, from 1996 to 2000, following the collapse of the public distribution system in 1995.[i]


On 15 August 1997, the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights requested the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's compliance with and submission of a report pursuant to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In this vein, on 21 August 1997, the resolution Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (1997/3; E/CN.4/1998/2) was introduced and passed with thirteen votes in favor, nine opposed, and three abstentions. Around this time, North Korean human rights issues began to be discussed in the West in earnest, appearing as a significant political topic in Europe and the US as early as 1998 and 1999, respectively.


South Korean Research on North Korean Human Rights


The situation is essentially the same in South Korea. According to a search for 'North Korean Human Rights (북한 인권)' from 1990 forward on the Korean news aggregate site BIGKinds (www.bigkinds.or.kr), there was a yearly average of 12.8 articles in the 90s, 55.5 articles in the 2000s, and 218.1 articles in the 2010s.[ii] From the 2000s, the North Korean human rights issue began to be dealt with in earnest by the media. This can further be confirmed by comparing the decade-high marks of the 90s, 1994 (28 articles) and 1995 (25 articles), with those of the 2000s, 2005 and 2008 (113 articles each). In the 2010s, more than 100 articles were published annually, with 554 published in 2014 following the release of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the DPRK (A/HRC/25/63). This trend continued through 2015 (305 articles) and 2016 (309 articles) but has since fallen to 100 articles since the start of the Moon Jae-in administration in 2017.


Meanwhile, as of October 2020, there are around 670 (South Korean) domestic research papers titled 'North Korean Human Rights (북한 인권)' found in the Korea Education & Research Information Service's database RISS (riss.kr). The 1979 articles by Gu Byeongsak and Yang Gunheup were the first such examples,[iii] followed by one result each for 1980, 1986, and 1987, and two results each for 1989 and 1992. This trend scarcely changes in the 90s from five results in 1992, three in 1993, five in 1994, and nine in 1995 rising slightly to twelve in 1996, fourteen in 1997, and eleven in 1998. However, the majority of these had the nature of columns or opinion pieces carried in the Institute for North Korean Studies' North Korea (北韓) or the Institute for Peace Affairs' Unified Korea (통일한국). Throughout the 90s, there were only eleven articles published in journals registered with or a candidate for registry with the Korea Citation Index (KCI).


Starting off with 23 research articles in 1999, the outset of earnest research into the North Korean human rights problem set in the 2000s saw a yearly average of 26.6 articles. High marks were seen in 2005 (58 articles), 2006 (44 articles), and 2008 (36 articles), following a similar trend to the aforementioned news articles. The 2010s were similar to the 2000s, with a yearly average of 26.8 research articles. After 51 articles in 2012 and 43 in 2014, the annual average fell to around 20 articles between 2015 and 2017, and from 2018 onwards, a trend further falling to half that value was observed. Excluding serialized columns and opinion pieces, the yearly average publication rate of scholarly articles was only 12.9 in the 2000s and 16.5 in the 2010s.


Taking into account only research papers carried in publications with KCI listing, candidacy for listing, or inclusion in academic collections, there were a total of 92 articles published in the 2000s and 131 in the 2010s. Including four papers published as of October in 2020, there have been a total of 227 scholarly articles published since 2000. This number accounts for about 1/3 of the total 670 search results for 'North Korean Human Rights.' Looking at the research articles published since 2000 by author, there were 12 by Lee Won-Woong (이원웅), ten by Jung Kyung-Hwan (정경환), eight by Jhe Seong Ho (제성호), seven by Kim Soo-Am (김수암), six by Suh Bo-Hyeok (서보혁), and six by Heo Man-ho (허만호). However, it is noteworthy that 118 authors, accounting for half of the total research articles, only produced one piece of research titled 'North Korean human rights.'


Looking at the leading academic journals that carried these research papers, there were twenty articles published in the Korea Association of Unification Strategy's Unification Strategy (통일전략); fourteen in the Korean Association of North Korean Studies' North Korean Studies Review (北韓硏究學會報/북한연구학회보); ten each in the New Asia Research Institute's New Asia (신아세아) and the Institute for Peace Affairs' Korean Journal of Unification Affairs' (統一問題硏究/통일문제연구); six each in the Korean Political Science Society's Korean Journal of Political Science (大韓政治學會報/대한정치학회보), Dongguk University Institute for North Korean Studies' North Korean Studies (북한연구), and the University of North Korean Studies' Review of North Korean Studies (현대북한연구); and 5 each in the Korean Association of International Relations' Korean Journal of International Relations (國際政治論叢/국제정치논총), the Democratic Legal Studies Association's Democratic Legal Studies (민주법학), and the Korean Ministry of Justice Unification Legal Affairs Division's Unification & Law (統一과 法律/통일과 법률).


Furthermore, according to RISS search results for 'North Korean Human Rights (북한 인권),' there were 102 graduate dissertations, among which 21 were doctoral theses, and 81 were master's theses. After Kim Young-Sam's 1978 master's thesis from the Yonsei University Graduate School of Law,[iv] there was a period of inactivity in dissertations until one each year appeared from 1996 to 1998. After four dissertations in 1999, there was an average of 4.7 dissertations per year in the 2000s and 4.9 in the 2010s, with nine in 2006, 8 in 2005 and 2012, and 7 in 2009 and 2015 marking particular highpoints.[v] However, it should not be overlooked that in contrast to the six dissertations published from 2016 to 2017, there was only one in 2018.


Looking Ahead: Encouraging Additional Research


As has been explored thus far, research into North Korean human rights hit its stride in the wake of heightened international attention in the 2000s. In keeping with this trend, research into North Korean human rights has expanded quantitatively, but there is room for reflection on how continuous and in-depth that research has been. Apart from short columns and opinion pieces on the reality of North Korean human rights, there were only about ten full-fledged research articles per year, and save for a small subset of authors, the majority of those were one-off pieces of research. In addition, considering that the journals that published these articles were primarily political science and legal journals, it can be seen that in researching North Korean human rights, the 'North Korea' aspect has focused comparatively more heavily than that of 'human rights.'


A further cause for concern is that news articles, research papers, and dissertations have all shown a declining trend since around 2017, after hitting their peaks in 2014. This could be attributed to less overall focus on North Korean human rights issues. However, it may also be due to the current administration's political stance towards North Korea and the mood of inter-Korean reconciliation.[vi] However, it is clear that the cause of this downward trend is not a significant improvement in the status of human rights in North Korea or research into North Korean human rights having already been sufficiently completed. Given that the current COVID-19 pandemic has an exceedingly tragic impact on vulnerable populations, there is a distinct possibility that the North Korean human rights issue will be further aggravated. Moving forward, it is essential that sufficient attention and in-depth research are devoted to this topic.


Song, Kyungho is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


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[i] This was estimated by the Korean National Statistics Office on 22 November 2010, according to the ‘Cohort Component Method’; Thomas Spoorenberg & Daniel Schwekendiek, 2012, “Demographic Changes in North Korea: 1993-2008,” Population and Development Review, 38(1): 133-158. [ii] It is clear that not all studies titled ‘North Korean human rights’ can rightfully be categorized as North Korean human rights research, and vice versa a study not being titled ‘North Korean human rights’ does not exclude it from being North Korean human rights research. However, it is not assessed that this distinction will impede analysis of quantitative trends in North Korean human rights research. [iii] Yang Gunheup, 1979, “North Korean Regime and Fundamental Human Rights,” Collected Dissertations, 11: 675-694 (楊健洽, 1979, “北韓體制와 基本人權에 관한 硏究,” 『論文集』 11: 675-694.) Gu Byeongsak, 1979, “A Study on Fundamental Human Rights in the Constitutions of North Korea and Communist China,” Law and Public Administration in North Korea, 3: 1-52 (구병삭, 1979, “북 한, 중공 헌법상의 기본적 인권,” 『북한법률행정논총』 3: 1-52.) [iv] Kim Yeong-Sam, 1978, “Fundamental Human Rights in the North Korean Constitution: A Study of the Regulation of Fundamental Rights Arising from Constitutional Norms and Realities in the North Korean System,” Yonsei University Graduate School of Law Master’s Thesis (김영삼, 1978, “北韓 憲法上 基本的 人權: 北韓體制에 있어서 憲法規範과 憲法現實에 나타난 基本權規制를 中心으로,” 연세대학교 대학원 법학과 석사학위논문.) [v] Geographically, Seoul based universities accounted for half of this total with sixty-one articles. Thirteen of which were from Yonsei University, nine from Korea University, seven from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and five each from Sogang University and Ewha Women’s University. [vi] As evidenced by China, it is difficult to say that inter-Korean reconciliation and North Korean reformation will naturally lead to an improvement of human rights in North Korea. Human rights and human rights affairs are not topics to be avoided, but rather should be held up as mutually championed values in the process of reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas.


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