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What type of power is most effective when dealing with human rights issues?

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Global Politics
Political Engagement Activity

With this political engagement I intend on finding out whether hard, smart or soft power would be most effective when dealing with human rights issues, in particular the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. I chose this topic because my father is South Korean, so I have always had an in the country and the history, which includes the splitting of Korea into the North and South. The North Korean missile crisis is also a contemporary issue, so it’s been in the news a lot, which made me think it would be very topical to have an engagement about. There are many aspects to look at the North Korea situation as a whole, but after my research and interviews I chose to focus on the human rights issues, and in particular the role states and NGO’s play in the protection of these rights. This relates to the concepts of power, legitimacy and enforced human rights. 

Explanation of engagement

To start off, I did complementary research on what had caused the split of Korea and how this eventually led to human rights issues, in order to understand the historical context and possible problems with engagement. I then had an interview with Tim Brouwers — my uncle — and Sang-Ah Yoo, who are both South Korean and live in the Netherlands. This was to give me an insight into how what South Koreans think of the situation, as well as clearing up questions I had left from the complementary research. After that, I attended a lecture at Haagsch College by Remco Breuker, which explained the political situation and directly discussed possible solutions for the issues in North Korea in depth. Lastly, I emailed some questions to Liberty in North Korea, a non-profit organization that helps North Korean refugees and their families, as well as spreading awareness of the situation. 


The North Korean dictatorship and human rights issues started with the separation of Korea. Until WWII it had been a colony of Japan, but when Japan surrendered the North was occupied by Soviet troops and the South by the United States. In the North the leader of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Il-Sung came to power. Korea became divided along the 38th parallel, a split that was meant to be temporary, but at the end of the Korean war in 1953 the countries had changed too much and their relations had weakened, which would only worsen during the cold war. North Korea became a planned economy and a cloistered totalitarian dictatorship, while in the free South the economy blossomed. Because of its communist ideology, North Korea does not regard human rights as universal, but as conditional.  (Kallie Szczepanski, 2016; Arendo Joustra, 2013)

Though they claim North Korean citizens enjoy human rights, the regime puts political prisoners in concentration camps and carries out public executions, it didn’t do anything to prevent the famine between 1994 and 1998, that took the lives of between 240,000 and 3,500,000 of its citizens, and it suppresses freedom of press, movement and expression. The people face the most oppressive regime in the world, though not right now no countries are taking action to change that. Instead, the focus is on the missile crisis, and Trump’s ongoing Twitter war with Kim Jong-Un. “When the public is only fed the same cycle of news on high politics, nuclear missiles and Kim family tabloids, it takes away the focus on the actual people of North Korea”. (Sokeel Park, 2016)

So what could be the solution? It can’t be an attack, as that will likely lead to war. Mutually assured destruction will keep other countries from trying anything to change North Korea. And though diplomacy might sound like a good and peaceful option, it isn’t likely to be effective. Engaging with an oppressive regime doesn’t mean it will change the lives of the people it oppresses, but rather that that regime gets more legitimacy and external sovereignty. 
This is what I have found in my research to be the most likely to have an effect on the situation; using economic power to weaken the regime and give opportunities for the North Korean citizens so they can change their own country. This avoids the problem that we often have with enforced human rights. Enforced human rights is when a state interferes with another state on the basis of that state failing to protect or violating the human rights of its citizens. A problem with this is that it is often not seen as legitimate, as cultural relativists would argue that they could be enforcing human rights for the people that don’t even want them because of other cultural values, and countries that interfere often do this to benefit themselves. This is what has also caused the whole split of Korea; the U.S. and the Soviet Union drew a divide, supposedly because the Koreans couldn’t rule themselves, which in the end had a lot of adverse effects. 
By supporting the North Koreans themselves we make sure other states don’t get too involved and don’t do what is only beneficial for themselves, and the citizens can form the country into one they want and not what other states want to make it into. 

To support them, other states or organizations like LiNK can weaken the regime or directly support defectors and their families financially. The regime can be weakened if it loses its money, which can be achieved by other states and organizations stopping trade with them, or by luring away the people in North Korea with a lot of power, the elite. Obama’s “strategic patience” has often been criticized for failing to bring about new developments in the situation, but it seems he was onto something. Especially for states that aren’t really involved in the situation, like the U.S., not doing anything might be a better option than trying to help and risking making it worse. 

NGOs like LiNK, in this case, have a lot of influence over the situation. By supporting defectors, they indirectly support their families. North Korean refugees send an estimated $10-15 million back home every year. (Liberty in North Korea, year unknown) Besides this, they also work to spread awareness of the situation in North Korea, through documentaries, interviews and the blog posts on their site by North Koreans sharing their experience. 

Though it is impossible for us to notice from here, things are already changing among the North Koreans. Through illegal markets they have found access to foreign media, with as a result more awareness of the world around them and new ideas. The Kim-worshipping North Korea that we know is slowly becoming more aware of their reality. The development is slow, but these so-called grassroots could bring about change. 

So, what kind of power would be the most effective when dealing with human rights issues? In the case of North Korea, smart power. A combination of hard economic power and soft power that creates grassroots and awareness. 

Before going into the engagement, I had expected soft power to be the best solution for the human rights. I probably thought this because I assumed that hard power would mean (nuclear) war and loss of life. / It is through the engagement that I learned that soft power doesn’t always work. Engaging with an oppressive regime is unlikely to directly affect the lives of the people it oppresses, but actually going to North Korea and taking control is also not an option, because foreign influences will only have negative effects.

Interview Tim Brouwers:

Do you think it is important for South and North Korea to engage, and why?
Yes, I believe that it is inevitable. One way or another it will have to happen, so the sooner the better.
How long do you think this will take?
I expect it to take no more than 10 years from now on, maybe it will even already happen under the new president. This is the first time ever that North Korea has said to be willing to talk, so a solution will probably come up quickly.
Is there anything else you’d like me to know about the topic?
I know a lot of South Koreans, and they tell me that when they’re in South Korea the issue isn’t really talked about. Families have been torn apart because of the war, so it is a sensitive subject. Even though it may be hard, with the North Korean missile tests it is important and inevitable to discuss it. 

Interview Sang-Ah Yoo:

Why were North and South Korea not immediately reunited after the Soviet and U.S. troops left the area?
There was still a lot of chaos, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union tried to put things in order, but because of that they started controlling everything and tried to shape Korea to be more like their own countries. In the Koreas themselves, there was also unrest over who was to be in the government. It has been tried to reunite Korea, but after North Korea started the Korean this failed. 

Do you think it is important for North and South Korea to engage?
Yes. Especially for the North Korean citizens. The North is really poor, so a reunion would give the people a better life. A lot of families have been separated, so they would be reunited as well. Korea could become a strong country. 

Why are there people that oppose Korean relations?
Though a lot younger people are for it, the older generation is cautious. They grew up during the cold war and Korean war, so they are afraid of communism. Some younger people are also afraid that North Koreans will take their jobs. 

With the new president (Moon Jae-In) it seems like change might come sooner than expected, what do you think of this?
So far he hasn’t done a lot. During the elections, he said he didn’t want to work as much with the US as before and do what is good for Korea, but now that he is elected he is still listening to the US a lot. 

Is there anything else you’d like me to know?
I want to emphasize for people traveling to North Korea to think about where their money is going, most of the time it isn’t towards the people, but the regime. Trade with North Korea is almost always an indirect support of this. 


Arendo Joustra (2013). Elsevier Speciale Editie – Ons Korea. Reed business Media, Amsterdam. 

Sokeel Park (2016). Social Change in North Korea. Liberty in North Korea, Long Beach. 

Kallie Szczepanski (2017). North Korea | Facts and History. Retrieved DATE from https://www.thoughtco.com/north-korea-facts-and-history-195638

U.S. Department of State (2016). U.S. Relations with North Korea. Retrieved DATE from  https://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2792.htm

Mel Gurtov (2014). Why the U.S. Should Engage North Korea Right Now. Retrieved DATE from http://fpif.org/u-s-engage-north-korea-right-now/

Liberty in North Korea (Year unknown). North Korea FAQ. Retrieved (DATE) from https://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/learn-faqs/ 

Liberty in North Korea (Year unknown). History of North Korea. Retrieved (DATE) from https://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/learn-north-korea-history/

Joshua Keating (2017). The Trump Administration Slams Obama’s “Strategic Patience” Towards North Korea, Has No idea What It Was. Retrieved 13-01-2018 from http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/08/09/the_trump_administration_ssams_obama_s_strategic_patience_toward_north_korea.html


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