Innovating Our Approach to Human Rights in North Korea [Op-Ed]

As a complement to the event I organized on April 20 with a panel of 7 North Korean-escapees, Sylvia Kim and I co-authored this piece “Innovating our Approach to Human Rights in North Korea” through the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center on the importance to innovate our approach to human rights in North Korea and share four convergent opportunities for investment by civil society actors.

Share this with folks who have an interest in making a big impact in North Korean human rights — there are plenty of opportunities to make a substantive difference!

Innovating Our Approach to Human Rights in North Korea: Investing in the Freedom & Empowerment of the North Korean People

By: Jieun Baek and Sylvia Kim | May 05, 2021

Due to global awareness campaigns around the North Korean regime’s crimes against humanity, the world now knows how much the North Korean people suffer at the hands of their own government.  As the UN COI Report on human rights in North Korea stated, “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Albert Einstein allegedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For years, the international community has done the same thing over and over again by pressuring this totalitarian regime to improve its human rights practices with little success in achieving practical change. It is time to innovate our approach to this seemingly intractable crisis by redefining the problem, the experts, and the solutions and prepare for a North Korea where North Koreans can finally author their own future.   

Rather than frame the problem as how to convince the regime to do better, we redefine the problem by asking how we — as civil society — can improve the rights of North Korean people in both the short-term and long-term. In redefining the experts, we turn to an emerging generation of North Korean-escapees who have the lived experiences of human rights abuses and are now accomplished professionals in their home countries. In redefining the solutions, we outline 4 convergent opportunities for how each of us can invest in the collective vision of a free North Korea; each investment opportunity is jointly pivotal to ending one of the worst human rights crises in modern history. 

Whether we are advocates, philanthropists, investors, academics, technologists or concerned global citizens who believe in this vision of empowering the North Korean people, every prospect below is a strategic investment opportunity with an invaluable ROI — defined here as “return on impact” — of achieving a free North Korea. 

1. Invest in Freedom

It is well-documented how North Korean refugees risk their lives to flee the regime in order to seek freedom and how organizations like Liberty in North Korea help rescue North Korean refugees. When people think about North Korea, this is often the extent to which they consider their involvement — supporting organizations that carry out refugee rescue operations. Investing in freedom has the irreplaceable ROI of saving lives and is critical in achieving the ultimate vision of a free North Korea. However, as the North Korean defector community has grown worldwide to over 35,000 people, there are now additional opportunities to invest into a vision that allows North Koreans to author their own lives and positively impact the future of North Korea. 

2. Invest in Refugee Resettlement 

Although North Korean refugees have resettled in countries around the world, the majority (over 33,000) resettle in South Korea where they face inevitable struggles and are often treated as “second-class” citizens. To help refugees beyond their rescue, we must invest in their educational and sustainable growth as they resettle into their new countries and assimilate to a democratic way of life. We must ensure that their resilience in overcoming insurmountable challenges in order to attain their freedom does not merely lead to perpetual discrimination within their country of resettlement.   

Resettlement organizations like Woorion believe that the future of North Korea is ultimately up to North Koreans themselves. Woorion serves a 10,000+ network of North Korean defectors while activating their potential to strive for a free, democratic and unified Korean peninsula. By investing in the successful resettlement of refugees, the ROI is in amplifying North-Korean-led initiatives — such as Woorion, which was founded by a young North Korean defector — and in helping refugees reach their full potential and contribute meaningfully to their new countries. 

3. Invest in Cultivating Leaders 

There is an emerging generation of North Korean refugees across South Korea, Europe, and North America who are highly accomplished and motivated to help their home country. This promising generation consists of high-achieving refugees who are entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, economists, statisticians, authors — all pursuing their higher education degrees, running their own start-ups, working at top companies, or serving as consultants and bureaucrats for governments of their new countries. They are bi/tri-lingual, bi/tri-cultural, and have the lived experience of having been born and raised in North Korea yet have successfully assimilated into multiple countries after escaping North Korea.

This new generation of North Korean-escapees are positioned to play key leadership roles in the critical policy and social domains of human rights, transitional justice and accountability, peace and security, policy and politics, education, assimilation issues, and more. These new North Korean experts are equipped to be the best liaisons between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Cultivating these leaders has the vital ROI of growing a sustainable pipeline of accomplished North Korean-born professionals who (1) have the lived experience of being from North Korea; (2) are high-achieving professionals with experience and/or impressive academic credentials; (3) have powerful global networks; and (4) consistently demonstrate a serious interest in contributing to the future of a successful, peaceful, productive Korean peninsula.  Moreover, young people inside North Korea can see the success stories of such leaders and view them as role models, providing the basis of hope for their own futures.

4. Invest in Innovative Information Campaigns 

North Korean people live in the most repressive society in the world today. The North Korean regime’s monopolization of information is the primary method through which they exercise complete control over its population. Undermining this monopolization is the most powerful and cost-effective way to create lasting changes from within North Korea. As we have seen throughout history, empowering individuals with access to information is a sure way to transform society without resorting to drastic regime change.

Over the past two decades, foreign information has been trickling into North Korea sparking small social and economic changes throughout the country. There is a growing erosion of the regime’s political legitimacy, disbelief in the Kim dynasty, and the demand for foreign information; more and more North Koreans want to be equipped with 21st century information and tools.

There has never been a greater opportunity to marshal resources to make the world’s information available to all North Koreans.  Innovative NGOs like Lumen and NKHRW are at the forefront of providing North Koreans with access to information by creating content as well as by developing reliable distribution channels that deliver unfettered access to independent sources of information. The ROI of these strategic information campaigns is the requisite undercurrent that creates the sustainable conditions for a free North Korea. 

Such an epic transformation from totalitarianism to democracy, from disinformation to accurate information, from oppression to empowerment, requires significant capital. This is therefore the moment in history to go “all in” to invest in the prospects described throughout this article. 

It is only when we collectively invest in freedom, refugee resettlement, the cultivation of North Korean-escapee leaders, and innovative information campaigns, that we can achieve the ultimate ROI of successfully bringing change to one of the most oppressive totalitarian regimes in history. May we seize these strategic investment opportunities and empower the North Korean people to author their own futures for the first time in North Korea’s 70-year history.

[Watch the video “Innovating Our Approach to Human Rights in North Korea,” a Belfer Center – Carr Center co-sponsored event]

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.