"Nobody Likes It": The Price of Researching North Korean Human Rights

"Nobody Likes It": The Price of Researching North Korean Human Rights

Remco Breuker
Remco Breuker

This is probably not the best moment to talk about North Korean human rights, now that even Trump-related news has been getting competition: South Koreans have emphatically confirmed their own fundamental human rights by protesting en masse against President Park Geun-hye for five consecutive weeks.

But then again, it never is a good moment to talk about human rights in North Korea. Especially not if you are an academic working in the field of Korean Studies. Or North Korean Studies, although I am still not convinced that such a field really exists except perhaps in the rolodexes – sorry millennials, an ancient pop culture reference – of journalists.

But let’s not gripe too much about North Korean Studies, probably the only field which, if it indeed does turn out to exist, specializes in a particular region without its practitioners being expected to know the particular language that is used in that particular region. (Yes, I know, I’m exaggerating. My guesstimate tells me that at least 5-10% of NKS scholars outside South Korea, China and Japan seriously work with sources in Korean. But then, I’m an optimist.) Let’s leave the debate on the ontological status of North Korean Studies for what it is and focus on human rights in North Korea.

I did and do. Not just me, I do this as a member of a research team that looks into the realities of DPRK forced labour in the EU (and now also outside of the EU). This is not a particularly popular topic, unless you happen to be a member of the South Korean government (and that is not as enviable a position these days as it once was).

It is the kind of topic that stops academic conversation on Korea dead in its tracks – it’s not academic, I’ve been told, it is activism. I’m not too sure about that (that is, of course I am: research may lead to social activism and the act of research itself may be a form of activism, but for all intents and purposes there is still a very concrete line dividing the two).

It is also a magnificent way of eliciting condescending looks from colleagues. My own original specialization – as in, I wrote my PhD about it – in medieval Korean history is not exactly a conversation starter for most of my colleagues, but mention North Korean human rights and before you know it, we’re talking 12th-century Koryŏ dynasty identity politics all day long.

The human rights situation in North Korea. It is not good. We all know that. (The most horrible thing is that we’ve known about it for some time too – say, at least a decade or four.) There is even a voluminous report on it written by the United Nations. (Link here; and yes, I actually read it. Ten times & all 300-and-some pages filled with unimaginable horror.) It’s not possible to deny that there is something wrong in the state of North Korea. Something seriously wrong.

And even noting (as so many of us keep doing, as if that mere and by now trite observation frees one from the obligation of further consideration) that human rights discourse is prone to weaponization by first and foremost the South Korean government (which is true) does nothing at all to lessen the daily unending horrors undergone by inmates of the DPRK’s concentration camps. In fact, it may exacerbate it as it is an efficient weapon (wielded by moral cowardliness dressed up as academic objectivity – hello 1950s! – but no less efficient for that) to combat unwelcome attention to North Korean human rights issues.

So there you are. What do you do? We made a decision and wrote a report on one of the issues involved: forced labour. In the EU, because that’s where we’re based, and because EU regulations may offer a concrete way of ameliorating the human rights of at least some DPRK workers, and because there is so much publicly available information in the EU.

Why forced labour? And why focus on North Korea? South Korea did the same, I can hear you shout, how about all those miners and nurses in Germany in the 60s? Let me point out just one difference and then you do the math – I’m in the humanities after all and we don’t count (pun intended): you can actually go and talk to the miners and nurses, now retired, either in South Korea or still in Germany. There is a fundamental difference there.

Also: even if another party also exploited, abused and killed workers abroad, it does not, in any way, excuse anyone else from doing the same. It is after all not as if all serial killers have been getting a free pass after Ted Bundy.

As for the research, we found things. Boy, did we find things. Not just the empirically proven presence of forced labour (and perhaps even contemporary slavery) on EU soil, but an entire system in place to make this practice as legally embedded as possible. Oh, and we found that the EU actually funded a number of the companies involved in this nasty business. That was – still is – quite painful for an ardent EU-advocate such as myself. (No EU will probably lead to war; no EU + Trump will definitely lead to war and destruction.) But what do you do once you find something? You can’t really unfind it.

The report on DPRK forced labor in the EU by the Slaves to the System research team has been receiving much attention. The media lap up everything on North Korea, although human rights is not among the top ten preferred topics. (Apparently, the handbag collection of Ri Sol-ju, Kim Jong-un’s wife, is though). As the formal leader of the project, I have been misquoted depressingly many times (most gregariously by the British Sun, where – a couple of days before the Brexit vote to boot, sigh – under a headline screaming that North Korea had funneled hundreds of millions of EU funds paid for by British taxpayers Euro’s through Poland to Pyongyang, I found an interview with myself. Which I had never given. I never talked to the Sun. It’s not just the ontological status of North Korean Studies that is in doubt; apparently so is mine).

But that’s part of the game, I guess. At least it wasn’t unexpected.

But what really surprised me was that even after questions had been asked in European Parliament quoting our report, the EU never managed to contact us. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised because the EU remains wedded to the legacy of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. Which I like in concept, but in the context of North Korean practice, it has nothing been but a rekindling of Neville Chamberlain’s spirit. The EU is after all an international body with a proclaimed interest in human rights, democracy and freedom, although the EU constitution is hurled out of the window each time DPRK diplomats find their way to Brussels.

There’s politics for you. If it had stopped there, it would have been understandable. But of course it didn’t. The DPRK government, no doubt out of sheer and sincere embarrassment that it had been caught red-handed exploiting its own citizens abroad, decided to accuse me personally of three capital crimes, of which the defamation of the supreme dignity of the supreme leader – I’m supremely done with capitalizing these titles btw – that must be my anarchist strike – is my personal favorite.

And I had never realized that weaponization of human rights could be taken so literal: our research was deemed an ‘act of hostility’ by the powers that be in Pyongyang. (I incidentally don’t have any doubt about their ontological status – and neither did the Dutch security services.) But now that I know that it can: cool beans! Fortunately, I can hide behind a steely spined Dutch government and its intrepid diplomats. No, I don’t do irony by the way, I’m a historian.

It is ironic to note that only a few years ago I was accused of being a spy for Pyongyang and now I read on Facebook that I’m a tool for the South Korean National Intelligence Service. I have to admit that I don’t take that particular FB page of that particular colleague – no, no names, who do you think I am? Ply me with soju and hoe though and we might talk – too seriously, but still. Come on, people, I like my conspiracy theories as much as the next person, but there isn’t always a three-letter agency behind everything you don’t like. Besides, had all the rumors about my affiliations with spy agencies been true, I would have had a holiday villa in the south of France by now. (No, not a hint, but feel free to take it as one).

So there’s human rights research on North Korea for you. Nobody likes it. The North Koreans are angry with me, the Dutch authorities sigh whenever they see me – I take real good care of my passport these days – my reputation suffered, the field of Korean Studies does not seem to be too happy, some of the fringe elements in the field of North Korean Studies, which does not exist in any meaningful way – I know, a logical contradiction, but humor me – seem really upset with me.

It’s actually not true that nobody likes it. The South Korean government does like our research. Which puts me in an even more difficult position: I don’t want to accept funding from the South Korean government for this kind of research – I think there is too much South Korean government funding in Korean Studies anyway, but that’s another story for another day – because it is so closely connected to South Korean security concerns. So, again, soju and hoe are always welcome, joint seminars a particular joy, but research funding? Too complicated. And one needs to keep up appearances of course, so our research has been self-funded. But the appearance of ROK approval of our research has done wonders for my reputation.

And there is another important party that has things to say about our research. Things that I actually take seriously. I tend to smile, nod my head, and zone out when confronted with the reaction of a state, but I listen when these people speak. North Koreans. Not North Koreans in North Korea, but those that left the country. Somehow, we tend to ignore them in our research (except as data ATMs), we don’t invite them to our seminars, forget them when there is an open position. We shouldn’t. In a very real way, North Korean human rights research is about them.

So if you want to go from suspected DPRK loving Pyongyang spy to alleged CIA and NIS tool, research on human rights in North Korea is the ticket. You know what the funny thing is? I’d even recommend this to you. It needs to be done and you might just contribute to something good. It is also great exercise for your spine. Just encrypt your mails, buy a big bottle of snark, a dark trench coat to fit in with your new friends, practice saying no to funding that may compromise you and your research, and learn how not to care about your reputation, but focus on the research. I almost forgot to give you the good news. We just received funding from an impeccably transparent and independent source – the coffers of the CIA NIS  LeidenAsiaCentre – to continue for another year.


The full final report on North Korean forced labor in the EU, compiled by the author and the Slaves to the System research team at Leiden University, can be found here.

Cover Image: Arirang Mass Games, Pyongyang, North Korea

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