Reconciling the Human Factor: Understanding the North Korean Human Rights/Humanitarian Divide

With political leaders and the media perpetually focused on the behavior of a young hereditary leader and his nuclear-armed military, does anybody really care what happens to ordinary people in North Korea? There are two major constituencies internationally that do care: the humanitarian community and the human rights community.

When widespread starvation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became evident in the mid to late 1990s, humanitarian agencies launched a massive and largely successful rescue effort to stem the famine. Human rights organizations have meanwhile played a pivotal role in exposing North Korea’s dismal record of abuses, culminating in the recent appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI).

Since both claim that their objective is to ease the plight of suffering North Koreans, you might think these communities would be natural allies. But sadly, those working on North Korean human rights do not seem to get along very well with those providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK. Not only do their goals and methods often contradict each other, their practitioners sometimes engage in verbal battles and mutual recrimination. This conflict is likely to intensify now that the three-member CoI has begun its one-year assignment.

Why is this the case? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the focus of the two is quite different.

Humanitarian agencies aim to ease human suffering. Human rights organizations aim to outlaw human suffering.
Humanitarians work within whatever is the prevailing system, in order to deliver commodities, tools and skills to those in need. Human rights activists work to change systems that they believe are the cause of assaults on human dignity.
Humanitarians aim to raise the living standards of those without power. Human rights aim to enforce standards of behavior on those in power.

Some scientists posit that there is a genetic origin to altruistic behavior. Assisting others in one’s family or tribal group at the cost of one’s own resources adds survival value to the group as a whole. Yet there are clear differences in the historical origins of the humanitarian and human rights impulse.

The Humanitarian Impulse

Major religions have put value on compassion, though this was usually limited to one’s own nation or class. In the colonial era, Christian missionaries internationalized this altruistic notion. Part and parcel of converting the heathens was providing an education, feeding the hungry and healing the sick.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned “charity” was too often tinged with racist attitudes, and usually came under the protection of colonial military forces that inflicted pain and suffering on the same people that missionaries tried to “save.”

And though humanitarian response to poverty, mis-development and natural disasters has long since become secularized, suspicion of complicity with power continues to linger.

The Human Rights Impulse

In contrast to humanitarianism, human rights do not depend or rely on any altruistic or charitable impulse. Whether one dates human rights as far back as the slave uprising of Spartacus in imperial Rome, or the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, the origin of the concept of human rights corresponds to the struggle of people against those who oppress them.

Human rights struggles may welcome, but do not depend on external altruism. Human rights history is the narrative of incremental achievement of participation by ordinary people in decisions that affect their own lives. What this means is that human rights is essentially a political impulse. Another name for this process is democratization.

Problematic Relationship to Power

So already from their origins, both human rights and humanitarianism have a problematic relationship with power. Both have been accused of complicity, and even accuse each other of pandering to political or ideological interests. Both are well aware of this and have done what they could to mitigate the negative effects of this relationship.

Humanitarians, for example, formulated a Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief.[1] Among the principles included in this Code are:

  • The humanitarian imperative comes first.
  • Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone.
  • Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.
  • Aid must not act as instruments of government foreign policy.

Similar codes of conduct and “best practices” have been applied to development assistance.[2] Separation of politics from humanitarian aid has become a generally accepted policy not only of United Nations agencies, but also of donor governments in their development aid and disaster relief operations—at least on paper.[3]

President Ronald Reagan’s statement that “a hungry child knows no politics” has become a mantra for this intention… to which I usually add, “every hungry child is a victim of politics.”

Human rights organizations often respond to critics who accuse them of political interference by emphasizing the universality of human rights. Human rights are meant to be codified into laws that protect all individuals from injustice and discrimination, regardless of political system or ideological orientation. The standard is what has been called the International Bill of Human Rights,[4] to which most UN member states—including the DPRK—have subscribed.

Typically, however, human rights organizations concentrate almost exclusively on civil and political rights. This is because unlike economic, social and cultural rights, violators of civil and political rights are easier to identify, and implementation requires only a negative obligation, i.e. states need to stop violating their citizens’ rights.[5]

The most widely used tactic in the toolkit of human rights activists is exposing the misdeeds of violators and putting international pressure on them to alter their behavior. In other words, “blame and shame.” Naturally, the most eager allies in such campaigns are countries that are enemies of the country whose behavior you want to change. And this leaves a fertile soil for political manipulation.

Human Rights vs. Humanitarianism in North Korea

How does this relate to humanitarians and human rights activists in the case of North Korea?

Personally, I do not see a necessary contradiction between human rights and humanitarian concerns. When I was first interviewed by the World Food Program (WFP) for the position in Pyongyang back in 1996, there was concern that my human rights background might interfere with my humanitarian duties.

“If you get this job,” I was asked, “are you going to pursue your human rights activities in North Korea?”

I answered, “Access to food is one of the most basic human rights. Working with WFP to provide food to starving North Koreans will be my most important human rights objective.”

Unfortunately for me, I seem to represent a minority position in both the humanitarian and human rights camps. Although both sides agree that the DPRK violates human rights and maintains a political system that squanders resources on the military and the elite while keeping the majority malnourished and terrified of external threats, and although both sides claim to have the interests of ordinary North Koreans foremost in mind, they differ in their assessment of what is the best strategy to apply towards a solution to these problems.

Human Rights Perspective on North Korea

For human rights activists, the main problem in North Korea lies with a dictatorial government ruled by the Kim family dynasty, which has imposed its iron will on a disenfranchised population. A “military first” policy and a disastrously inefficient socialist economy has led to a reign of terror and a high rate of malnutrition that at times tips over into starvation, as was the case in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Any sign of dissent is immediately crushed. Entire families to the third generation are condemned to horrific prison camps. Ordinary people are indoctrinated and isolated from information about the outside world other than to regard all foreigners as enemies bent on their destruction.

Humanitarian assistance is regarded as a sham since conditions imposed on humanitarian agencies do not allow for objective assessments of need nor can commodities be adequately monitored to make sure they are not diverted to the military or the elite. Humanitarian aid helps to strengthen the regime in power by compensating it for neglect in meeting the needs of ordinary people. This is made even easier by the silence of humanitarian agencies about deplorable human rights conditions.

The human rights deficit is considered to be so extreme in North Korea that the only solution is regime change. This is unlikely to evolve through internal reform. Therefore every conceivable pressure should be put on the DPRK, including—if necessary—military means. North Korean human rights conditions should be condemned at all levels in all countries, in the media, and of course at the United Nations. Human rights concerns should be part of every negotiation involving North Korea, including the stalled Six Party Talks that deal with the nuclear issue.

Humanitarian Perspective on North Korea

Humanitarians do not dispute these human rights concerns. True to their Code of Conduct, however, they believe that the humanitarian imperative comes first. Where there are people in need they seek to be of help regardless of political conditions. They realize that wherever there is dire need, local governments share the blame. But they avoid imposing political standards, or even worse, knowingly allow themselves to be used as instruments of any country’s foreign policies.

Humanitarians are aware that access to people in need always requires the cooperation of local authorities. A humanitarian presence is a response to the invitation of local governments. That is true in every country, and North Korea is no exception.

Since local access is all-important for humanitarian aid, relief workers do not wish to alienate local authorities by openly accusing them of misconduct—except when there is clear and undeniable evidence of misappropriation of humanitarian resources. Humanitarians aim to solve such problems locally, not by appeal to foreign media or foreign governments.

It should be noted that not all humanitarian organizations agree with this position. In the late 1990s several NGOs that had operated in the DPRK left the country because they considered humanitarian conditions insufficient for meaningful assistance.

The NGOs that remained the longest claim to have gained a much more nuanced appreciation of what makes North Korea tick. Their work with North Korean farm managers, civil engineers, medical professionals, and caregivers at nurseries, kindergartens and orphanages has led to an appreciation of local skills and attitudes. Although complete random access has remained a dream, the concerns, fears and aspirations of ordinary North Koreans are no longer a mystery to them. Friendships have been forged along with mutual respect.

Although humanitarian agencies shy away from voicing political opinions in public, my private conversations with relief workers in the DPRK reveal that many consider the actions taken by the powers surrounding North Korea singularly ill-advised. Threatening violence against North Korea by military means merely intensifies the atmosphere of crisis and fear that is already experienced by its population, and thereby provides the rationale that feeds the regime’s repressive apparatus. Humanitarians generally agree that neither war nor the threat of war advance the cause of human rights.

Instead, all efforts should go to opening windows and doors into and out of the country, to demonstrate by means of cultural, professional and academic exchanges what life is like in the rest of the world, to create both an aspiration and a hope for change. This requires a reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula. It requires human-to-human contact, wherever that is possible.


There is no necessary contradiction between activities that favor human rights and activities that respond to humanitarian needs. Both intend to save lives and improve the well-being of people in need. Both humanitarian and human rights activities begin at the local level, where the direct effects of violations and deficiencies are felt by ordinary and extraordinary people. In fact, there is a great variety of ways to deliver humanitarian assistance and there is no monolithic solution to the elimination of human rights violations. In a perfect world, each of the two communities would welcome the role of the other in achieving their own goals.

Unfortunately, political motivations—whether explicit or implicit—have entrenched the divide between these two communities. Regime change activists tend to gravitate toward North Korean human rights organizations, while those who believe in incremental change tend to support humanitarian and development assistance.

Developing a common approach to North Korea may be impossible at this juncture. The two sides nevertheless have much to learn from each other, and should at least begin to dismantle the metaphorical DMZ that lies between them. Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  1. Seek mutual understanding: Representatives of humanitarian organizations could be invited to make presentations of their work at human rights conferences, and vice-versa. Humanitarians could explain how their projects contribute to the implementation of human rights, for example by fostering the learning of problem-solving skills at the local level, without unnecessary recourse to central authorities. Human rights workers could explain how to nurture the idea that local officials should be accountable to the community and responsive to its needs.
  2. Share resources: There are rare cases where the two communities have shared financial resources. However, there is little to prevent them from sharing their information resources. Humanitarians could learn much from those who have managed to escape North Korea as refugees, and human rights workers could learn much from the experience of aid workers while delivering assistance. Both have value and both teach lessons that can guide further work. Naturally, such sharing can only proceed when there is mutual confidence that information will not be used to the detriment of each other’s works.
  3. Debate outcomes: If the task at hand is to respond to needs, what are the most desirable goals for the Korean peninsula, and how can these be furthered by the two communities? This will involve contentious issues such as war, sanctions and regime change vs. peace, confidence building and development. But it will also expose the boundaries between human security and geopolitical agendas of which both communities need to be aware.
  4. Engage in sober discussions: Platforms need to be created for ongoing communication about issues that affect both communities. What are the overlapping concerns? What policies or activities can both sides accept as important contributions to their efforts? What areas do both sides find problematic? How do media and publicity affect their work? What is the role of fundraising in shaping the political orientation of their projects? What role does education/capacity building play?

The current divide between humanitarians and human rights activists will not be easily bridged. The best that can be hoped for is enlightened self-reflection, where each community may explore the implications of its own activities on the raison d’être of the other. There can be little disagreement that all Koreans deserve adequate food, shelter and health care, the ability to realize their full potential, and to live a life that corresponds to their aspirations and beliefs, free from coercion or manipulation.

[1] In 1994, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as a number of NGOs, including religious ones like Catholic Relief Services and the World Council of Churches, formulated a Code of Conduct in Disaster Relief. See:

[2] For the sake of this article I am including development aid under the term “humanitarian.”

[3] The reality is often quite different. In my country, for example, the Government of Canada has just decided to merge the Canadian International Development Agency with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

[4] The International Bill of Human Rights includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (and its Optional Protocol), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[5] Social and economic rights are more difficult to enforce. For instance, securing every citizen’s right to education or employment means building schools and maintaining a healthy economy.

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