Starting Where North Korea Is

(Photo: Flickr/honokana.balansu)

Social workers are fond of saying that they must start where their clients are. This basic principle of social work is not theoretical. It comes from decades of practice. Simply telling people what they should do rarely translates into their actually doing “the right thing.” So instead, social workers have turned the tables by beginning not with the desired endpoint, as determined by the social work profession, but with the client’s articulated fears and concerns.

The international community has generally treated North Korea as though it suffers from various pathologies and is in desperate need of social work intervention. The messages coming from Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and even Beijing have been consistent and insistent: Pyongyang should give up its nuclear weapons and embark on serious economic reform. According to the addendum, which Beijing doesn’t support, Pyongyang must stop its large-scale abuse of human rights. From our perspective of greater wisdom, we are telling an obviously troubled country to clean up its act.

And the response from Pyongyang has generally been: mind your own business. The North Korean government asserts its sovereign right to control affairs within its borders.

North Korean leaders would no doubt object to their country being compared to a client in a social work relationship. North Korea, they believe, is a wolf to be feared, not a dog to be leashed and house-broken. There are also some obvious differences between an individual struggling to resolve personal problems and a country struggling to deal with collective problems.

Conceptual limitations notwithstanding, the social work analogy offers a valuable shift in emphasis that could advance human rights issues in a country where more traditional approaches have had limited effect. The necessary component in the North Korean case is buy-in, and that’s precisely what the social work model is designed to elicit. “The worker’s ability to understand a client’s version of reality,” writes social work theorist Howard Goldstein, “offers the means by which the client is enabled to take responsibility for life changes.” North Korea must ultimately take responsibility for transforming society, something it has done only to a limited extent. Other countries can encourage this process by establishing relationships with North Korea that are principled and, to a degree, empathetic. 

In the 1990s, the U.S. government attempted a comparable shift in perspective at the level of overall North Korea policy. The one-line summation of the process that former U.S. secretary of defense William Perry initiated in the late 1990s was to “deal with the North Korean government not as the U.S. would wish it to be.” This insight led to a near-breakthrough in relations at the end of the Clinton administration. A comparable shift from a human rights approach to a human security approach could lead to a similar breakthrough in the Obama era.

From Rights to Security

Those who have followed the conventional human rights approach to North Korea—name and shame—have done a great job of naming the problem. But this work has had little effect in shaming the North Korean government into changing its behavior.

The virtues of the name-and-shame approach are many. It appeals to a set of universal standards against which North Korean policies can be measured. It acts on behalf of thousands of victims of human rights abuses inside North Korea and at risk of deportation in China and other countries. And it challenges North Korea in public fora to justify its generally abysmal record.

The name-and-shame approach starts not where North Korea is but where it should be. Since North Korea doesn’t share the same perspective about where it should be in the future, little has been accomplished in terms of productive discussion or movement forward. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the DPRK Vitit Munthaborn never set foot inside North Korea. Pyongyang hasn’t permitted any human rights organizations to visit since an Amnesty International delegation in 1996. No North Korean has been released from custody or from internal detention and no labor camp dismantled as a result of international pressure. No state policy has been altered because of condemnatory human rights reports. Again, this is not to say that the name-and-shame approach doesn’t have merits. But, to date, it hasn’t helped improve the human rights of North Koreans inside the country on a day-to-day basis.

A human security approach starts by attempting to satisfy the survival requirements of average North Koreans. It looks at the security of individuals and groups and how to strengthen their security against both chronic threats and unexpected disruptions. This is not pure humanitarianism—the provision of food and medical assistance. Rather, the human security approach connects survival issues to the human rights framework—in the same way that the social worker connects satisfaction of human needs (health, employment) to larger changes in behavior.

Adopting a human security approach helps us answer the question: if we start where North Korea is, which North Korea are we talking about? The answer has two parts. In order to work inside North Korea, an organization must start where the government is—that is, must supply what the government wants at some level. This does not mean anything the government wants. Rather, such organizations engage in a process of negotiation that addresses those North Korean objectives that intersect with their own. For example, North Korean officials might argue that an outside organization should help build a paper factory as a way of meeting an overall goal of restoring manufacturing capacity. The outside organization agrees with the overall goal but disagrees that paper production is a critical need from the point of view of human security. After protracted negotiations, the two sides agree that a noodle factory would be a better investment. The organization thus begins where North Korea is–the need to rebuild manufacturing capacity–but applies the human security framework as a way of establishing funding priorities.

The second part of the answer involves where the North Korean population is. The aim of groups operating in and with North Korea should be to improve the human security of the greatest number of people who lie between the elite (who don’t need help) and the inmates of the labor camps (to whom we have no access). As Barbara Demick’s recent book Nothing to Envy suggests, the primary concern of this group is survival: food, shelter, medical care. These are the basic elements of human security. There are, no doubt, North Koreans who want to exercise fundamental political rights—freedom of speech, assembly, and so on. But to date, there has not even been a whiff of the kind of civil society that existed in the Soviet bloc in the Cold War period or that could support such demands. Without substantive “voice,” North Koreans have only three options, to offer a variation on developmental economist Albert O. Hirschman’s famous insight into the choices available to individuals in society: loyalty, silence, and exit. But by engaging North Koreans in a process of economic betterment, by increasing their agency, the human security framework provides at least the basis on which such “voice” can eventually develop.

Connecting the Issues

The human security approach situates itself between human rights and humanitarianism. North Korea has repeatedly rejected both of these latter approaches, viewing the first as a violation of its sovereignty and the second as a form of dependency that doesn’t befit a self-reliant nation that was, one generation ago, roughly equal in economic rank to its southern neighbor. Instead, North Korea has demanded development assistance—the capital and expertise that it can use to leapfrog over its current predicament and regain a measure of its previous developmental status.

The following are two examples of how the human security approach can begin where North Korea is while simultaneously meeting the needs of average North Koreans and integrating a rights perspective.

Economic Development: North Korea has pursued various methods of securing outside capital—free trade zones, joint ventures, even an industrial zone constructed with South Korea at Kaesong. North Korea has also signed the UN Declaration on Social and Economic Rights, and has taken the view popular in the former communist bloc that housing, food, and other essentials are human rights. In other words, Pyongyang has made it clear that economic development is “where it is.” The challenge is to work with North Korea to ensure that economic development is not concentrated in the showcase capital so that the larger majority of non-elite North Koreans can benefit from an upgrade in the country’s manufacturing, services, and infrastructure. The Chinese have had some success in directing economic development to the northern part of North Korea (where the investment can at least partially benefit China through, for example, access to the Rajin port). The return of the UN Development Program to North Korea after several years’ absence is a promising sign that more such efforts can be pursued.

Educational Exchanges: The North Korean population is generally well-educated, with high rates of literacy and competencies in engineering and hard sciences. Pyongyang has made several overtures to other countries for training in language, computer science, and economics. So eager has the regime been to secure training in these skills it has worked with unexpected partners—“enemy”  governments, evangelicals, foundations with offices in South Korea—to construct new schools, attract language teachers, and send students abroad for short periods. Such programs, when limited in number, favor the elite. But if greater resources from outside are channeled into such programs, they can have a much wider impact. Also, by providing North Koreans with viable jobs, such programs can provide many of the elements of human security (employment, housing, access to medical care, etc.).

In both cases, the focus is on strengthening economic and social rights rather than political and civil rights. But the two are intimately connected. Rising economic security provides the basis on which political rights are asserted; greater access to English and computers and market economics can translate into more liberal perspectives (and demands). But, as in the social work relationship, the client should determine the character and pace of such transformations.

Why Now?

The situation in North Korea has become increasingly perilous. There has been an increase in tensions with the South, a return of food scarcity, the breakdown of the Six Party Talks, an uptick in illiberal government positions on the market economy. All of these suggest the ascendancy of hard-line perspectives in Pyongyang. Reports of growing discontent from below accompany rumors of a succession struggle at the top.

If the North Korean regime is on the verge of collapse—because of economic troubles or political upheaval—why pursue a human security approach that would, in effect, strengthen the institutions that serve to sustain the North Korean system? Why not simply ramp up the name-and-shame approach as one more tool from the outside to accelerate change on the inside? I can also anticipate the objection that the social work model is not an appropriate analogy for the outside world’s approach to North Korea. It might be argued that North Korea has committed human rights abuses that amount to crimes, and so a criminal justice approach, with its emphasis on punishment, is more appropriate.

There are two reasons why a punitive, hasten-the-collapse approach is flawed. The first is moral. In the absence of a representative movement in North Korea demanding a boycott or widespread sanctions—as the National League for Democracy has done in Burma—the imperative remains to help people in North Korea who are facing dire survival issues. A punitive approach risks hurting the very people we most want to help. If we are concerned with improving the lives of North Koreans, we should help as many as we can in the here and now rather than wait for an unspecified time in the future to help hypothetical North Koreans living in a hypothetically different society.

The U.S.-DPRK Village Wind Power Project at Nautilus Institute took a U.S. delegation to Unhari Village in North Korea in September/October 2000. Chris Greacen and Engineer Kim Song Bung wave from the top of the tower. (Photo: Nautilus Institute)

The second reason is tactical. North Korea has appeared on the verge of collapse for 20 years (Nicholas Eberstadt published his book The End of North Korea in 1999, and it was neither the first nor the last book to make such a prediction). The government might collapse. It might collapse and be replaced by a military regime that adopts an equally hard-line approach. Or it might muddle through, as it has through famine, leadership change, and external sanctions. Do we essentially sacrifice a generation of North Koreans as we wait for a time and a place of our own choosing to build up the human security of that benighted population?

Social workers often have to work with clients they don’t particularly like—or, at the very least, clients who exhibit behaviors they don’t particularly like. Their job is to establish a relationship to improve the lives of their clients—on terms that the client can accept. Those terms might evolve as a result of the relationship with the social worker, but the client must still feel that he or she is responsible for the change.

The human security approach is also about building relationships. The Nautilus Institute’s windmill project, the Global Resource Services goat farm in Jangpoong, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology: these projects all began by identifying what North Korea wanted (energy, food, job training) and worked to improve the human security of those involved in the process. Like the relationships in social work, there were plenty of arguments, misunderstandings, and disruptions between the partners. And happy endings are not guaranteed (the windmill project, for instance, has not proven sustainable). But relationships built on empathy and mutuality have a good chance of succeeding and bringing about real improvements in the daily life of North Koreans.

Recommended citation: Feffer, John, “Starting Where North Korea Is, 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, May 1, 2010. Online at:

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