North Korea leader Kim Jong-un smiles as he visits Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Photo: KCNA via Reuters

When the United Nations Commission on Human Rights began formulating an encompassing definition of human rights in 1946, the American Anthropological Association submitted a statement addressing the inapplicability of the declaration in different cultures. The critique acknowledges the importance of culture in advancing human rights, and that all rights and values are defined and limited by cultural perceptions.

So whenever the international community rebukes the state of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, the despotic state adheres to cultural relativism. North Korea claims the Universal Declaration reflects predominantly Western culture and values, which cannot be superimposed onto Asian traditions. In response to heavy international criticism, Pyongyang claims human rights to be fully guaranteed under “our way” (woorisik) based on the socialist and political contexts.

North Korea has called for the international community to respect its national sovereignty and not to interfere in domestic affairs, highlighting that the issue of human rights is within its domestic jurisdiction. The sociopolitical culture of North Korea does reflect the Asian concept of human rights. Economic development comes before any flowering of political and civil rights, and greater value is placed on maintaining the harmony of community than on individual freedoms.

North Korea’s political culture was formed within the concept of Juche, or self-reliance, as an ideological tool to justify the Kim family’s monolithic dictatorship and hereditary grasp of the country. Under Juche, North Korea’s political system centers on the Supreme Leader, where Kim’s words and ideas become legal grounds of the country’s political infrastructure. The guiding principle of Juche prevents any forms of dissent through political indoctrination. Citizens are expected to respect and follow his teachings with a blind obligation to the state.

To maintain the legitimacy of the Kim regime, the state institutionalizes Kim’s teachings and emphasizes collective responsibility toward the regime. In short, a concept that a human being is entitled to salient and natural rights does not exist. Human rights are understood not to protect individuals’ rights but to restore social order and punish those that may threaten its socialist systems.

Socialism could be structurally better adapted to realize fundamental human rights and to foster economic development, especially where resource constraints exist. However, there exists a blatant discrepancy between the stated “Asian values” and a potential for improvement of human rights in North Korea. The state’s collectivist culture with a focus on national sovereignty and self-determination deprives citizens in all aspects of social, economic, cultural, and political rights.

The “Asian” value of human rights is a diverging representation of values advanced by different political regimes and philosophies. A state does not need to deprive citizens of political rights to provide health or education benefits. North Korea has simply failed to provide an adequate standard of living to the people.

One approach the international community has yet to take is to initiate a dialogue with the state that recognizes the legitimacy of its ideological foundations. This could begin by recognizing the importance for Pyongyang to interpret international standards on human rights in accordance with the nation’s history, culture and political systems. Also, beginning the dialogue with issues that envelop human rights, such as economic or cultural frameworks, may be more effective.

North Korea’s current political system, with its centralized authority, tends toward intransigence. However, a more nuanced discussion on the divergent interpretation of human rights could encourage the isolated state to take measurable steps to create internal judicial systems or provide an adequate standard of living for its people.

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Grace Kim

Grace Kim has published research on human rights, cultural anthropology, and innovative philanthropy. With experience at the Korea Desk and Policy Planning Staff at the Secretary's Office of the U.S. Department of State, she has provided support to strategic guidance to U.S. foreign-policy priorities.

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