In 2014, the UN produced a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights inside North Korea. The result of a year-long investigation by a three-person Commission of Inquiry (COI), the report drew on 240 interviews and the public testimony of 80 people. It is a damning picture of human rights abuses inside a country where few human rights defenders have had a chance to visit.
Sandra Fahy’s book Dying for Rights thus faces an initial challenge: What more can be said about North Korean human rights so soon after the publication of the COI report?
Although there is some understandable overlap between the report and the book, Fahy helpfully focuses on what the UN study didn’t cover. For instance, she looks at how Pyongyang has exported its human rights abuses. She also examines how North Korea has responded to the COI report. And she devotes a chapter to the regime’s video refutations of defector accounts. Sprinkled throughout are the more theoretical observations that an anthropologist like Fahy can provide.
The overall conclusions Fahy reaches do not diverge from the COI. North Korea has engaged in systematic human rights abuses that have deprived its citizens of basic freedoms (speech, assembly, movement) as well as access to food and medical treatment, the author states. It has engaged in widespread discrimination. It has abducted people from other countries. In the case of the labor camps, the abuses are truly horrific, involving torture, forced labor, infanticide, and death. Fahy relies on her own interviews with defectors —- discussed at greater length in her previous book Marching Through Suffering —- as well as evidence collected by the COI and other reputable sources.
Where Fahy covers new ground, her book is particularly valuable. In going over familiar territory, however, Dying for Rights sometimes comes up wanting.
In her discussion of the food crisis, for instance, Fahy neglects to mention the impact of North Korea’s energy crisis in the 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed and China switched to hard currency trade, North Korea was deprived of its sources of cheap energy. That was particularly devastating for agriculture, which was highly mechanized in North Korea. No account of the famine years —- and the deaths that ensued —- is possible without understanding the role of energy.
Moreover, Fahy writes: “Domestic nutrition deficits are a consequence of government policy, inaction, and criminalization of coping strategies.” Those factors are certainly true. But the North Korean government did take the unprecedented step of soliciting outside food aid, which belied its claim of self-sufficiency. It also didn’t criminalize all coping strategies, for there was greater leniency with regard to those crossing over to China to work. Meanwhile, the government allowed farmers markets to expand during the famine years, which laid the ground for greater marketization of the country’s economy.
Fahy also faults the international humanitarian aid effort for its failure to ensure universal distribution throughout the country or to monitor the shipments more thoroughly. There was definitely “leakage,” as the aid community calls the redirection of aid to unintended recipients or to the market, but it was not necessarily higher than elsewhere in the world.
In her final chapter, Fahy describes a defector-led effort to help ordinary North Koreans by sending them bottles filled with rice, medicine, dollars, and flash drives of information. “The rice could be sold, the U.S. money used on the black market, the pill sold or taken, the USB a portal into another world,” she writes. “Would those who capture the bottles be civilians or soldiers? Would they be deserving? It is not the people who are the enemy; the state makes the gray zone.” Strangely, she doesn’t subject this scattershot approach to the same skepticism she deployed toward official aid efforts.
There are some other curious omissions. She notes that 78 percent of remittances sent by defectors back to North Korea have gone to helping their families leave the country. But she neglects to mention that some of the remaining remittances have gone to the establishment of businesses in the North. This would have been an opportunity to explore the impact of the market on the livelihoods and prospects of ordinary North Koreans.
She correctly describes the overall anti-religious ideology of North Korea. But she doesn’t mention the accommodations that Pyongyang has made with the Unification Church, to establish a car company, or with the group of Christian evangelicals who run the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
The book, however, is valuable for its coverage of material left out of the COI report. For instance, the chapter on how North Korea exports human rights violations provides some additional detail on overseas laborers, 50,000 of whom are still working in Russia and 19,000 in China. She discusses some little-known developments like a prison that the DPRK allegedly runs in Equatorial Guinea and a network of medical clinics dispensing questionable medicines elsewhere in Africa.
She also carefully reviews how Pyongyang has responded to the COI report. It has argued that the investigators never visited the country to interview people (North Korea denied their requests). It attempted, in some very unsavory ways, to undermine the credibility of the COI members. And it challenged the assertions of the defectors themselves.
These challenges are perhaps best seen in the videos released by the North Korean government that call into question the veracity of defector accounts. It’s true that some defectors subsequently corrected their stories when challenged on certain details. But it’s particularly despicable when a government attempts to destroy the reputation of people that it initially tried to destroy physically. Fahy’s deconstruction of these videos is perhaps the most valuable part of the book.
In the end, I would have hoped for greater anthropological nuance, not just in understanding defector narratives but also in digging a little deeper beneath North Korea’s official positions.
For instance, Fahey doesn’t distinguish between the government’s obviously ridiculous claims and ones that might have some merit, such as its charge that some states and non-state actors have weaponized the human rights discourse to promote regime change in Pyongyang. She dismisses all “civil society” inside North Korea as “ersatz,” which is generally true. However, an expanded definition of civil society would include market activity largely outside government control and some examples of community self-organization to create income-generation activities.
And she quotes without comment a former North Korean propaganda writer who argues that there’s no point talking to the DPRK because such diplomatic outreach won’t persuade Pyongyang to turn any corners. But this flies in the face of the occasional diplomatic successes that have resulted in recent missile and nuclear test moratoria or the earlier Agreed Framework in 1994.
North Korean human rights violations are indisputably real and horrific. But the question remains: How best to address those violations. The regime has stubbornly refused to collapse. The “name and shame” approach has had limited success since it’s so difficult to shame the North Korean government.
The visit to North Korea in 2017 by Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN special rapporteur on disability rights, offers another option. The trip was, as Fahy points out, not without problems. Devandas Aguilar didn’t have unrestricted access. She didn’t meet with people with mental illness or severe disabilities. Yet, here on this one issue of human rights, there was engagement and the prospect of future improvement. A more comprehensive anthropological take on this kind of engagement, both its virtues and its flaws, would make for a useful third volume in Fahy’s study of human rights in North Korea.
Korean Quarterly, Winter 2020