What North Korea’s Push for Economic Development Means for Human Rights

What North Korea’s Push for Economic Development Means for Human Rights

Since his first-annual New Year’s speech in 2012 setting North Korea’s policy priorities, Kim Jong Un has emphasized his commitment to economic development, notably promising his people that they will never have to tighten their belts again. The Byunjin policy of equally prioritizing economic development and security through nuclear and missile programs reflects Kim’s desire to assure regime stability by delivering broad-based economic development while establishing a security environment that deters external threats and potential domestic unrest. While United States policy has used sanctions and other pressures to stymie Kim’s ambitions, the Kim regime has nonetheless modestly furthered economic development and significantly advanced security through its nuclear and missile testing programs.

North Korea’s 2018 diplomatic makeover reduced tensions, deepened inter-Korean reconciliation, and fostered a perception among analysts that China, Russia, and some other countries relaxed sanction enforcement. Now, if Kim can reach a denuclearization agreement with the U.S. that other countries support, such diplomatic progress could accelerate economic development through sanctions relief and expanded investment and trade. However, North Korea’s progress has also led the U.S. to constrain the country’s access to humanitarian aid and attempt to leverage North Korea’s human rights abuses in denuclearization negotiations. These developments have raised questions about how the U.S. and other countries should address human rights abuses to advance human rights in future negotiations on security, sanctions relief, and support for economic development. Until recently, most countries have handled North Korea’s human rights issues separately from political and security issues. However, North Korea’s prioritization of economic development and inter-Korean reconciliation present new opportunities for using political and economic negotiations to bolster human rights in the country.

Complex regime dynamics have caused many human rights concerns in North Korea. Mass incarceration by state security organs accompany longstanding policies of social classification, repression to cement state control over the population, and use of forced labor for economic purposes. State repression of individual freedoms – including restricting access to information from the outside world, individual expression, and mobility – is intended to reduce risks of social disorder. North Korea’s failure to meet its obligations to feed and protect its people have only intensified the use of such repressive practices. Nonetheless, popular reliance on capitalist markets, resistance to coercion, and regime corruption has only grown. This interplay of internal and external challenges frames the context for international engagement, aimed at seeking improvements and reinforcing the idea that Kim Jong Un should embrace strategic choices for change. These choices include Kim formally acknowledging that North Korean citizens can legitimately seek to improve their own welfare, not just contribute to the well-being of the state, and that opening up North Korea society to relationships with the outside world will strengthen, not weaken, its future success economically and socially. Kim’s recent diplomatic make-over and increased prioritization of economic development could usher in economic reform. International negotiations by the U.S., South Korea, and other countries actively engaged with North Korea must reinforce the need for economic development and for Kim to adopt these strategic economic choices

Social discrimination and economic mismanagement also influence human security concerns and income disparities among social classes and regions in North Korea, and international negotiations could weaken these hardline policies. The Kim regime could significantly alleviate these disparities if it more effectively distributes the benefits of economic growth instead of expanding military capabilities, enriching the elite, and repressing lower classes to maintain social control. Political and security negotiations should provide incentives for the regime to downsize military capabilities and redirect resources toward economic development. Negotiations that link economic rewards for denuclearization to incentives for social and economic liberalization could highlight the overlap between Kim Jong Un’s expressed goals and international human rights standards. This would build international support for the negotiation process and increase prospects for significant achievements. Growing marketization of the North Korean economy has already met most of the population’s basic demand for food and essential consumer goods, significantly improving human security. Negotiations should also encourage Kim to formally adopt a strategy to transition the country to a market economy. This would give households and enterprises more freedom and support to improve their own economic welfare. However, a breakdown in negotiations could build Kim’s resistance to such changes. To avoid such an outcome, all negotiating parties must take incremental steps to support trust-building activities that deepen the North Korean leadership’s commitment to making changes that the regime’s hardline or isolationist factions oppose.

Since the regime has long relied on mass labor mobilization to increase economic productivity in North Korea, political negotiations must also address future labor policy. Specifically, negotiations should introduce more flexible labor policies for state and private businesses and demobilize conventional military forces by reallocating military resources and employees into a civilian labor market. A growing market economy can generate better jobs, make more efficient use of labor, and pay workers higher wages than mass labor campaigns and a large standing army can, improving labor conditions. This will increase labor productivity, reduce perceived military threats to the international community, and address human rights concerns over labor conditions.

The dynamic North Korean economy, in which private entrepreneurs are accumulating greater economic power, threatens the regime. State enterprises increasingly engage in both the state-directed economy and the market economy, while households depend more on the market. These economic developments do not align with the traditional socialist ideology that still dominates state policy and rhetoric. The regime has tolerated these changes so far, but they exacerbate already rising social and political tensions between those directly benefiting from participation in the market economy and those still aligned with state-managed activities; the military; and Korean Workers Party elites. These tensions create important domestic challenges for state leadership. A negotiated reform program with broad domestic and international support would help mitigate these tensions. This program must deliver economic growth through a managed transition to a market economy that effectively incorporates the private sector.

Rampant corruption and increased potential for abuses by state security forces who are paid unlivable wages at state-controlled prices also threaten regime security and Kim Jong Un’s embrace of economic development. It is not clear how outsiders could influence the regime response to these domestic challenges or integrate them into negotiations focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and external economic relations. Any attempt risks overburdening those negotiations with what North Korea considers an extraneous and domestic matter. For those human rights concerns, countries and international institutions other than those directly involved in the nuclear negotiations—such as the European Union, Canada or ASEAN – should consider engaging the regime in advocacy, incentives, and practical assistance to make meaningful improvements. Creating an expectation that greater transparency and openness to cooperation with foreigners on social policies should accompany improving international relations and ongoing political security negotiations would further effective human rights reform in North Korea.

Inter-Korean reconciliation activities tied to social connectivity and economic development objectives could also significantly affect human rights in North Korea. South Korean non-governmental organizations and private companies should expand personal contacts and information flows with North Korea and create a model of transparent cooperation that focuses on shared interests and respect for South Korean human rights values. Along with effective multilateral negotiations, support for well-conceived inter-Korean engagement could be the most effective vehicle for human rights improvements in in North Korea.

 While state repression and lack of respect for human rights are deeply embedded in North Korean political history and institutions, there is now an opportunity for fundamental change through North Korea’s strategic choice to improve international relations and focus on economic development. The international community must focus more on advancing human rights through negotiations on economic reform. This will cement a transition process that leads North Korea toward a human rights policy more acceptable to the international community.


Bradley Babson is the former Chair of the DPRK Economic Forum at the U.S.-Korea Institute. He now serves on the Advisory Council of the Korea Economic Institute of America and on the Steering Committee of the National Committee for North Korea. He worked for the World Bank for 26 years, where he served as Chief of the Human Resources Operations Division, responsible for education and health for eight countries. Since 2000, he has consulted for the World Bank and the United Nations on North Korea and Myanmar. Babson is presently a Distinguished Lecturer in Government at Bowdoin College.