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Seoul unveils ambitious plan to raise awareness about North Korean human rights

Three-year road map calls for research center and sending info to DPRK citizens, but experts say some goals unrealistic

By Ifang Bremer and Joon Ha Park

December 26, 2023

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification unveiled a three-year road map to promote North Korean human rights on Tuesday, outlining plans to build a national human rights center and to disseminate information to DPRK citizens.

While experts welcomed the Yoon administration’s strategy to improve the rights of DPRK citizens, they raised concerns that domestic politics could hinder the government’s plans, while expressing skepticism about a planned push to persuade Pyongyang to change its laws.

According to Tuesday’s unification ministry press release, the new road map seeks to “increase the human rights awareness of North Korean residents and to promote human rights-friendly policies to North Korean authorities.”

Seoul has released a human rights road map every three years since the enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2016. The law also requires the government to create an annual execution plan and report it to the National Assembly.  

The ministry divided the latest plan into eight stages as follows:  

  1. Systemize and effectively investigate the actual conditions of North Korean human rights violations

  2. Strengthen North Koreans’ right to access information

  3. Resolve issues related to separated families, abductees and prisoners of war

  4. Promote domestic and international consensus on the reality of North Korean human rights 

  5. Enhance cooperation with the international community for the improvement of North Korean human rights

  6. Strengthen the foundation for implementing North Korean human rights policies

  7. Actively improve the humanitarian situation for North Korean residents

  8. Promote inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation on human rights

Each of the stages includes short, medium and long-term goals, which range from continuously publishing an annual report on North Korean human rights to “regularizing” the North Korean Human Rights Policy Council through collaboration with the National Assembly.

In the short term, the Yoon administration wants to support projects to develop content that will help “inform” North Koreans about “the reality of their human rights” — a section notably missing from the previous plan announced in 2020

The road map does not specify how the government will achieve this but appears to be referring to various strategies to distribute anti-regime propaganda into the DPRK.

Other short-term goals include “informing the international community of the reality of North Korean human rights and to indirectly convey them to North Koreans” and urging Pyongyang “to abolish laws and systems that block North Koreans from accessing external information, such as the Reactionary Culture Exclusion Act.”

Martyn Williams, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, told NK News that “informing the international community of the North Korean human rights situation is easily achievable, as is funding private groups to send human rights content into North Korea.”“But getting the state to abolish that law? Virtually impossible,” he said. 

“The problem with North Koreans getting free access to information is linked with regime survival. Giving citizens the ability to access the truth rather than a propaganda diet determined by the party could spell the end of the regime, so it’s totally against their interests,” he explained, adding that “it’s difficult to imagine what South Korea could propose in return.”

The DPRK has increasingly cracked down on the spread of outside information in the country in recent years, ratcheting up penalties on the consumption and distribution of foreign media and intensifying a campaign to combat “anti-socialist behavior” among youth. 


One notable goal under the fourth stage of Seoul’s plan is to establish a “National North Korean Human Rights Center” in the medium term to “foster both domestic and international understanding of actual human rights violations in North Korea.”

South Korean media and Ji Seong-ho, a defector lawmaker with the ruling People Power Party, have dubbed the planned center as akin to a “South Korean Holocaust museum.”

According to the road map, the center should be a “central hub” for research and efforts to educate the public about North Korean human rights violations. The budget to set up the center is set at 26 billion won ($20 million). 

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute, told NK News that the center could help establish a more systematic and centralized basis for research on DPRK human rights.

The absence of such an institute has resulted in a fragmented landscape of nongovernmental organizations and rights groups researching these issues, which leads to problems like “dependence on external funding and low salaries for researchers,” he said. 

“A central government-led organization will allow for the fostering of specialized researchers, cultivate expertise and enable stable research on North Korean human rights,” Cheong explained.

But the expert stressed that domestic politics could limit the center’s success since conservative and progressive governments have taken dramatically different approaches to human rights issues.

The Yoon administration has made raising awareness about the Kim regime’s rights violations the centerpiece of its inter-Korean policy, but the previous Moon administration downplayed human rights issues to facilitate diplomacy with Pyongyang, raising the possibility that a progressive government could walk back plans to build the center.

“There is a need to publish credible research results and operate the institution regardless of the political landscape,” Cheong emphasized.

Activists have largely welcomed the Yoon administration’s revival of North Korean human rights policies, but recently some have questioned the effectiveness of Seoul’s spending on the issue. 

Last week, several experts and North Korean escapees raised concerns about the optics of lavish, tax-funded conferences on human rights issues, lamenting the superficial involvement of North Korean defectors and questioning whether such events are capable of driving real change.

Under the new road map, the unification ministry plans to organize several more international conferences on DPRK human rights in 2024. This includes two editions of the International Dialogue on North Korean Human Rights, an international forum to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the U.N.’s Commision of Inquiry report and a dialogue with the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights.

Pyongyang sharply criticized Seoul’s first three-year road map on DPRK human rights, released in the early days of the Moon administration in April 2017. An article in the state-run Rodong Sinmun called the plan a “vicious challenge” to the DPRK, warning Seoul not to behave “recklessly.”

Edited by Bryan Betts



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