Home > Articles by Board Members, Fellows and Staff
Articles by Board Members, Fellows and Staff

[RFA Exclusive Interview] Roberta Cohen “North Korea represses news of sanctions on Kim Jong-un to block criticism of his legiti

Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair Emeritus
Jul 25, 2016

Read Summary Download PDF

The US recently instituted the first sanctions against North Korea Worker’s Party Chairman Kim Jong-un for his human rights violations, but the party has yet to inform the citizens of this news, and is thoroughly restricting related information. Roberta Cohen, an American North Korea human rights activist, interprets these information restrictions as a desperate countermeasure by Kim to block any criticism that would undermine his legitimacy. At this time, we will listen to this expert’s views on this issue during our exclusive interview with Cohen, who is Co-Chair Emeritus of the US non-profit organization Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Byun Chang-seop reporting. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

North Korea: Why Human Rights Must Come First

Carl Gershman
Feb 19, 2016

Read Summary Download PDF

The second anniversary of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea occurred on February 17, soon after North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket in violation of international sanctions banning the use of ballistic missile technology. The launch, which followed North Korea’s fourth nuclear test the previous month, was immediately condemned by the U.N. Security Council and by Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who said the launch was “deeply deplorable.” The Secretary General also called on North Korea to “halt its provocative actions,” after which North Korea’s dictator defiantly pledged to launch additional rockets. 

The crisis has raised new questions about how to deal with the threat from North Korea. Until now, the conventional policy approach has separated security issues from human rights concerns.  Raising human rights problems in North Korea has been seen as provocative and a sure way to scuttle efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through negotiations. But there is now a growing skepticism about the possibility that negotiations with North Korea can produce meaningful results. 

The problem is not just that many people have given up on the idea of getting China to use the leverage it has with North Korea to bring it to the negotiating table. Like the earlier effort during the Bush Administration to denuclearize North Korea through the Six-Party talks, playing the China card has become the diplomatic equivalent of a wild-goose chase. The reason is that for the regime in Pyongyang, the nuclear issue is an existential matter. It sees having nuclear weapons as the key to its survival and believes that negotiating them away would be suicidal, no matter what economic and political benefits it might receive in return.

The basic issue, therefore, is not transactional but has to do with the nature of the North Korean regime. North Korea is the most oppressive example in the world today of what the former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, has called a “fear society,” meaning a country where the government maintains control by instilling fear in the hearts of everyone it rules over. What is different about North Korea is that it is the regime itself that is afraid—afraid of the modern world, afraid of the free Korean society across its border, afraid of its own people. The fact that such a paranoid regime uses the possession of nuclear weapons to try to guarantee its survival makes it, to say the least, exceedingly dangerous.

Reflecting the views of many people who follow the North Korea problem, the former US Ambassador to China Winston Lord said recently that “We need a radically different approach,” one that is based on the understanding that the North Korean system is a closed dynastic dictatorship, and that until it becomes a more open and normal country, it will represent a security threat to its neighbors and the world. 

The idea that international security and human rights are intimately linked is not new. It was the core belief of Dr. Andrei Sakharov, the physicist and Soviet dissident who said in his Nobel Lecture in 1975 that disarmament and international security “are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish and the right to travel” freely. In an essay he wrote in 1977 for the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he noted that the “human rights issue is not simply a moral one, but also a paramount, practical ingredient of international trust and security.”

There are two necessary components of a policy to deal with such a regime. The first is to contain North Korea by taking steps to deter its aggressive behavior, among them the imposition of comprehensive sanctions and the deployment in South Korea of an effective system of ballistic missile defense. The second is to change it by defending the human rights of the North Korean people. That means doing what we can to end their isolation from the outside world, to empower them, and to give them a voice in determining their country’s future. Only then might there emerge—from within the country’s elite class—people who realize that the current system is doomed and who want to seek a peaceful way to a better future. It’s time, therefore, for specialists in both the security and human rights areas of policy begin a common discussion of how to fashion a more integrated approach to dealing with North Korea.

Fifteen years ago, when the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea was launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the group’s founding chair Dr. Fred Ikle said that it would focus on internal liberalization in North Korea as a way to address the concern over state-sponsored terrorism.  Ikle, the author of How Nations Negotiate and other works on international policy, was America’s leading defense intellectual who understood the need for an approach that would link issues of international security to efforts that encourage greater openness and freedom in closed societies. “In the end,” he said, “democracy and the rule of law, desirable in and of themselves, are also a guarantee of peace and security.” That is the comprehensive vision that must now guide US policy on North Korea.


Carl Gershman is President of the National Endowment for Democracy.  This article is based on remarks he delivered at the conference “North Korea: The Human Condition and Security Nexus,” held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

Empty marching in Korea

Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu
Apr 26, 2015

Read Summary Download PDF

Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Greg Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

Our world is overflowing with mind-numbing acts of brutality that civilized people had come to assume had been consigned to the history of the Middle Ages. Women are too often the first to be brutalized. In Nigeria,Boko Haram extremists kidnapped hundreds of girls. In Iraq, hundreds and possibly thousands of Yazidi girls and women were abducted, enslaved, abused or slaughtered. Elsewhere, women of Christian, Muslim, atheist and other beliefs continue to be targets of unspeakable crimes and humiliations. Beyond an occasional hashtag campaign, the world has done precious little to come to their rescue.

Now comes word that a group of activists, led by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, will take action in an effort to change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Their purpose? To bring a formal end to the Korean War through the Women Cross DMZ peace march.

A noble goal. After all, no people has suffered greater human rights abuses in recent decades than the North Koreans. The activists have announced plans to march next month from Pyongyang through the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and on to Seoul.

Since the 1953 armistice, the DMZ has tragically divided an old and noble nation. Despite its name, the 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ is among the world’s most heavily militarized borders. Stone-faced soldiers face each other across fields saturated with landmines. On the north side of the tightly patrolled cement barricades, most of North Korea’s million-strong ground forces are forward-deployed, ready to attack. To the south, 620,000 South Korean and 28,500 U.S. troops stand ready to repel any invasion.


The activists’ crossing could only be undertaken with Pyongyang’s consent. But approval of a “peace march” is paradoxical for such a military-first regime. All that South Korea has seen coming across the land and maritime borders between the two in recent years has been bellicosity and bullets, including the March 2010 sinking of a navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors and the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four. If Pyongyang truly is interested in a peace gesture, it might start by releasing hundreds of South Korean POWs, now in their 80s and 90s, who were never allowed to return to their loved ones after the armistice.

Please click here to continue reading. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

Must UN Agencies Also Fail in North Korea?

Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair
Apr 21, 2015

Read Summary Download PDF

In 2011, a United Nations Panel of Experts found the UN system to have acquitted itself poorly in the face of widespread human rights violations in Sri Lanka. According to a 2012 Internal Review, some field staff “failed in their mandates to protect people,” some “under-reported Government violations,” and some in senior positions at headquarters “suppressed reporting efforts by their field staff.” Overall, these panels told the Secretary-General that the UN “did not adequately invoke principles of human rights”—the foundation of the organization—but instead, did “what was necessary to avoid confrontation with the government.”[1]...

To read more please follow the link to the 38North website. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

The Kim Regime's Atrocities, and the Road Ahead

Carl Gershman
Mar 05, 2015

Read Summary Download PDF

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the report of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea. UN reports often have very limited impact and resonance. But this report was different. Its impact has already been significant, which is testimony to the quality of the work done by the three commissioners—the Australian judge Michael Kirby, who chaired the body; the Indonesian lawyer and politician Marzuki Darusman, who is also the UN special rapporteur for North Korea; and the Serbian human rights defender Sonja Biserko.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

A Human Rights Dialogue with North Korea: Real or Illusory?

Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair
Oct 16, 2014

Read Summary Download PDF

North Korea has made a number of intriguing gestures recently on human rights. At the United Nations, its Foreign Minister announced his country’s readiness to hold a “human rights dialogue with countries not hostile to it.”[1] The North Korean Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) International Affairs Secretary, on a visit to Brussels, offered a human rights dialogue to the European Union (EU).[2] Even earlier, a North Korean official told a United Nations meeting that his government would accept some of the recommendations put forward by states in the Universal Periodic Review (a UN process that evaluates all countries’ human rights records).[3] And a Foreign Ministry official admitted to the press the existence of “reform through labor detention centers” in North Korea.[4]

Should these apparent openings be dismissed? Or should efforts be made to engage North Korea in human right talks?

To answer the question we must first examine the dialogues offered by DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong and WPK Secretary Kang Sok Ju in context. The initiatives come on the eve of the introduction by the European Union and Japan of a resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation into the General Assembly. To be voted upon in November, the resolution is expected to mirror one adopted in March by the 47-member Human Rights Council which acknowledged for the first time the conduct of “crimes against humanity” in North Korea and called for both a Security Council referral of the situation to an “international criminal justice mechanism” and the adoption of “targeted sanctions” against the ones “most responsible.”[5] Initially, North Korea denounced the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) upon which the resolution was based and made inflammatory personal attacks against its chair, Australian justice Michael Kirby. Now it offers dialogue, seemingly with the aim of weakening the text of the resolution and encouraging “no” votes or abstentions in the 193-member General Assembly.[6]

Although the DPRK is often said to be impervious to outside criticism, the resolution’s focus on accountability for “officials at the highest level of the state” seems to have caught the attention of the leadership. No North Korean Foreign Minister had been sent to the General Assembly for 15 years and presumably one of Ri’s purposes in September was to head off the resolution. Soon thereafter, the North’s UN Ambassador sent out a letter to all UN Missions proposing an alternative resolution that would exclude reference to an international criminal justice mechanism and promote instead “dialogue and negotiations.”[7]

This sudden interest rings hollow for many because for more than a decade, North Korea refused any dialogue and ignored annual UN resolutions requesting talks. The DPRK also broke off its human rights dialogue with the EU in 2003 after the Europeans, finding the dialogue unproductive, introduced a resolution on North Korea’s human rights at the UN.

North Korea also has other reasons for offering dialogue. Pyongyang could hardly have failed to notice that its human rights record has begun to have impact on an array of governments it might need politically or for foreign investment and aid. In 2013, Mongolia’s President made the news by stating during a visit to Pyongyang that “no tyranny lasts forever” and arguing for linking the nature of “tyrannous governance to prospects for economic development.”[8] Japan has been holding up further economic concessions to North Korea until information is forthcoming about the fate of abducted Japanese citizens.[9] At a meeting of Security Council members in 2014, the Ambassador of France declared that his government did not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and didn’t intend to given the COI report, while the southern African state of Botswana terminated its relations with North Korea over the COI’s findings.[10] The world’s leading industrialized nations in the Group of 8 (now 7) for the first time urged North Korea to address international concerns about its human rights violations,[11] while the United States has made clear that overall relations with North Korea will not fundamentally improve without some change in human rights practices, including closing the prison labor camps.[12] And President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has agreed that her country will host the UN office to be established in order to continue the monitoring done by the COI into human rights in North Korea with a view to promote accountability.[13]

Humanitarian aid has also been affected. The sharp decline in international contributions to the World Food Program for North Korea can be explained by many reasons, including the DPRK’s extravagant military and luxury expenditures, but also its widely publicized human rights record. The COI report documented how the DPRK distributes food primarily to persons crucial to the regime, favors certain parts of the country, ignores the needs of the most vulnerable and avoids agricultural reforms for political reasons.[14]These findings no doubt contributed in some measure to the loss of food aid and to North Korea’s promise at the Universal Periodic Review to improve food distribution. The COI report also may have prompted North Korea’s singling out women’s rights, children’s rights and disability rights as areas it is ready to work on. Its purported show of cooperation in May (in the past North Korea rejected all UPR recommendations) might also be linked to the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, 30 to 6, endorsing the COI report. The countries that voted for the report and an international criminal justice mechanism included 12 African and Asian states plus 6 Latin American states—not only the purportedly ‘hostile’ states from the West.

But whatever the reasons for the change in North Korea’s position, no opportunity to promote the human rights of the North Korea’s people should be neglected. Dialogue should be pursued, but some caveats are in order.

Holding a dialogue should not be a point of barter. Dialogue must be viewed as a legitimate part of diplomatic discourse and not a vehicle to trade away other human rights goals—such as the wording of the General Assembly resolution, the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea or the UN office to be set up in Seoul. In the past, Pyongyang hinted at an exchange: no more UN resolutions or reports on North Korea’s human rights situation to obtain a dialogue.[15] Governments should be expected to participate in discussions on human rights and not be rewarded for them. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid of Jordan, and his Office should be the focal point for dialogue with North Korea in line with UN resolutions calling for dialogue adopted by consensus in the General Assembly. A dialogue should seek to establish technical assistance programs to help North Korea bring its laws into line with international standards, set up a national human rights commission, and identify the steps needed to carry out the recommendations of the UPR, the UN treaty bodies and the COI report. The “human rights contact group,” recommended by the COI, should be formed to promote a regionally focused longer-term dialogue. The group is supposed to be composed of “States that have historically friendly ties with the DPRK, major donors and potential donors, as well as those States already engaged with the DPRK in the framework of the six party talks.”[16] It could become the basis for the creation of a multilateral framework for peace and security in Northeast Asia. Regional security and economic as well as human rights and humanitarian issues could be discussed under its auspices. A broader framework for negotiations might lead to more sustainable results in the long term.[17] The agenda of the dialogue should begin with concepts of sovereignty. North Korea’s assertions of near absolute sovereignty are at variance with today’s international understandings of sovereignty as a form of responsibility to one’s citizens and their security and wellbeing. This responsibility also extends to the international community through compliance with the provisions of international human rights agreements. The human rights issues on the agenda must include those North Korea has said it is ready to make progress on, but discussions of women’s and children’s rights, food distribution and disabled people will not be sufficient. North Korea’s acknowledgement of reform through labor centers incarcerating political and non-political detainees for short terms, should be used to open a door to access these centers, followed by discussion of the political prison labor camps where an estimated 120,000 brutally treated men, women and children are held. Although in the past, reference to these camps, which are considered state secrets, was often sidestepped as too sensitive, the camps are now so widely publicized that it would be derelict not to raise them and promote their closure. The songbun political classification system—at the root of so many human rights violations—should also be discussed. North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and while it often omits being bound by this treaty, should be held to its provisions. It is time for the recommendations of all the different UN bodies to be on the table.

In a letter in January to Kim Jong Un, Michael Kirby wrote that “if it would be helpful,” COI members would be ready to travel to Pyongyang to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations “in a frank exchange of views,” followed by efforts to identify the way forward toward respect for human rights. This engagement as well as talks with the High Commissioner and the EU could make North Korea’s recent offers of cooperation more than illusory.


[1] “U.N. secretary general receives letter from N.K. leader,” The Korea Herald, September 28, 2014.

[2] “N. Korea agrees to EU human rights talks,” NKNews.org, October 20, 2014; and “N. Korea asked EU to soften resolution on human rights,” The Korea Herald, October 12, 2014.

[3] UN Human Rights Council, Press Release, “Council adopts outcomes of Universal Periodic Review of Dominica, the DPRK and Brunei Darussalam,” September 19, 2014.

[4] Associated Press, October 7, 2014.

[5] UN Human Rights Council, “Resolution on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/L.17, 26 March 2014.

[6] “N. Korea asked EU to soften resolution on human rights,” The Korea Herald, October 12, 2014.

[7] DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN, Letter of Ambassador Ja Song Nam to All Permanent Representatives of the Member States and Permanent Observer Representatives to the UN, October 6, 2014.

[8] Office of the President of Mongolia, 2013 10 30,” in Chris Green, “Mongolian President’s Speech Raises Eyebrows,” Daily NK, November 25, 2013.

[9] “Japan rejects planned N. Korean probe report on abductions,” Global Post, September 20, 2014.

[10] Republic of Botswana, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “Botswana cut ties with North Korea,” February 20, 2014.

[11] G8 Final Communique, Lough Erne, 2013, para. 93.

[12] John Kerry, Remarks at Event on Human Rights in the D.P.R.K., Waldorf-Astoria, New York, September 23, 2014.

[13] The Republic of Korea, Permanent Mission to the UN, Address by President Park Geun-hye at the 69th Session of the General Assembly, September 24, 2014.

[14] UN General Assembly, “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014, paras. 46-55 [henceforth COI Report]; and “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/CRP.1, February 7, 2014.

[15] See Note Verbale dated February 1, 2012 from the Permanent Mission of the DPRK to the UN Office at Geneva addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/19/G/1, February 14, 2012.

[16] COI Report, para. 94 (h).

[17] See Carl Gershman, Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, “Resolving Crises in East Asia through a New System of Collective Security: The Helsinki Process as Model,” Washington DC, December 1, 2013.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).


Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair
Jul 02, 2014

Read Summary Download PDF

The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), set up in 2013 to investigate widespread, systematic, and grave human rights violations in North Korea, has strongly implicated China in North Korea’s commission of crimes against humanity because of its forced repatriation of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers who are severely punished once returned. China, however, insists that North Koreans exiting without permission are ‘economic migrants,’ not refugees, and that deportations are essential to maintaining its national security, social order, and border controls, as well as the stability of the Korean Peninsula. Although a preponderance of states at the United Nations have rejected China’s position, China has continued to subordinate UN human rights and refugee standards to its immediate political objectives and deny North Koreans their right to leave their country and seek asylum abroad. As greater international pressure focuses on China’s policies and practices, a vigorous international effort is needed to protect North Korean refugees and encourage China to see that its interests may be better served over the longer term by modifying its policies. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

Human Rights in North Korea: Addressing the Challenges

Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair
Dec 31, 2013

Read Summary Download PDF

An international response to North Korea’s egregious human rights record has begun to take shape. Building on the work of NGOs and UN human rights experts, the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2013 set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate whether North Korea’s systematic, widespread and grave violations constitute crimes against humanity for which DPRK officials could be held accountable. Although the COI was denied access to North Korea, this article argues that its findings and report are based on persuasive evidence and can have impact if a broad range of actors — governments, international organizations, NGOs and civil society — are mobilized. The author puts forward an array of strategies to more fully engage the world community and argues that the proactive carrying out of such initiatives may work to promote human rights in North Korea.

Key Words: North Korea, Human Rights, Humanitarian, United Nations, Commission of Inquiry

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

A Voice from the North Korean Gulag

Carl Gershman
Apr 01, 2013

Read Summary Download PDF

“The message of this searing camp memoir, and of everything else that we have come to know about the North Korean dictatorship, is that there is no greater evil in the world today,” writes NED President Carl Gershman in his review essay of Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

The article will appear in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny

Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair
Mar 21, 2013

Read Summary Download PDF

On March 21, 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body of 47 states, adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) into North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.”[1] The commission is to be composed of three experts who will intensively investigate for a period of one year the human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea’s government with a view to ensuring “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity” [emphasis added].

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
1 2 3
The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents
Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh
Nov 13, 2017

This paper draws on existing research and Robert Collins’ previous work to explain the ideological basis and institutional structure of the Kim regime’s rule of terror, with an emphasis on the political prison camps. It is intended to provide a brief overview of how North Korea’s party-state controls every individual’s life from the cradle to the grave through relentless indoctrinat

The Parallel Gulag: North Korea's
David Hawk with Amanda Mortwedt Oh
Oct 26, 2017

In this book, David Hawk provides never-before-seen imagery of labor re-education camps, both suspected and confirmed. He reveals a parallel network of prisons controlled by the DPRK’s Ministry of People’s Security (An-jeon-bu). These revelations suggest the imposition of degrees of suffering even more pervasive than the UN COI described in 2014. Although these labor camps might be described as “ordinary prisons”, there is nothing “ordinary” in the treatment of those i

North Korea Camp No. 25 Update 2
Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Andy Dinville, and Mike Eley
Nov 29, 2016

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 9.0px Helvetica; color: #3f5864} span.s1 {font: 5.0px Helvetica} As part of a joint undertaking with HRNK to use satellite imagery to shed light on human suffering in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea), AllSource Analysis has been monitoring activity at political prison facilities throughout North Korea. This report details activity observed during the past

North Korea: Flooding at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri
Greg Scarlatoiu and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
Sep 16, 2016

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a non-governmental organization based in Washington, DC and AllSource Analysis, a leading global provider of high-resolution earth imagery solutions, have conducted a satellite imagery-based rapid assessment of flood damage at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri in Hamgyŏng-bukto, North Korea. Thousands of political prisoners are held in this re-education prison labor camp together with common offenders.