North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country in the world except perhaps Eritrea and Syria. There is, however, a curious exception to this record: disability rights. This case offers a powerful counter-example of successful engagement in an arena where the country normally experiences nothing but universal condemnation.
For nearly two decades, outside NGOs have been working with Pyongyang to improve conditions for the nearly two million people with disabilities in the country. Over the course of this engagement, North Korea has altered its conduct in three important ways. It has cooperated with the United Nations to bring its disability policies more in line with international standards. It has permitted the growth of the very first shoots of civil society focused on the rights of the disabled. And it has allowed more contact between its citizens with disabilities and the outside world.
At a time when tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased dramatically and the United States in particular has pushed to isolate the regime even further, can this kind of engagement become the new normal?
Dealing with the U.N. system
It’s not easy to visit North Korea if you work on human rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly rejected the requests of U.N. human rights officials to tour the country. Even the three people who have served as the special rapporteur for human rights in the DRPK over the last 13 years have had to write their reports without ever setting foot in the country.
But this past May, Catalina Devandas Aguilar became the first independent expert designated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to visit North Korea. Devandas Aguilar is the U.N.’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Not only did she meet with a wide range of North Koreans during her trip, but she received virtual celebrity coverage in the country’s media.
“Just the fact that a woman with a disability from Costa Rica is seen on national television in the DPRK running around on a scooter and being very modern and talking brings a different perspective and even hope to persons with disabilities in a country that has been in such isolation,” Devandas Aguilar says.
The United States has generally viewed the U.N. human rights system as another stick with which to beat North Korea. The Obama administration, for instance, supported the U.N.-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the conclusion, in its 2014 report, that the leadership of the country committed crimes against humanity (among other transgressions). In the wake of the report, the Obama administration also imposed its first human-rights-related sanctions against the DPRK.
But North Korea has signed the U.N. convention on the rights of the disabled. The otherwise scathing COI report barely mentions disability rights, other than to urge ratification of the convention, which North Korea did this last December. It also notes that “there are signs that the State may have begun to address this particular issue” of discrimination against the disabled – one of the few signs of progress in the report.
By signing the convention on the rights of the disabled – as well as those on women and on children – the DPRK has committed to submitting regular reports and interacting with various U.N. human rights personnel. In this way, it learns both the language and the substance of human rights practice. Whether it translates that knowledge into practice is another matter.
“While we welcome the engagement, writing reports is not progress on the ground and we haven’t seen any real improvement in women or children rights yet from this renewed willingness to deal with the U.N. treaty bodies,” cautions Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert who was one of the three experts on the commission, believes that the DPRK’s divergent approaches to the U.N. human rights system are actually related. “The release of the COI report had an enormous impact worldwide, and the DPRK was aware of that,” she says. “For the first time the human rights situation was revealed to the world in a very comprehensive way, and it was shocking. Because of that, they invested effort in improving their image by signing the convention on disabilities.”
But even before the COI report, North Korea was moving in the direction of engagement on disability rights and, arguably, showing “progress on the ground.”
Signs of a civil society?
North Korea is one of the few countries in the world without any significant civil society. It lacks public dissidents, opposition parties, even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When President Obama made a commitment to meet with civil society representatives around the world, even in places like Cuba, North Korea was not on the list. There was no one in North Korea with whom he could meet.
Engagement on disability rights, however, has produced some perhaps unexpected results. Foreign organizations working on disability issues inside the DPRK cooperate with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), an organization that bills itself as an NGO though it functions more like a government agency. However, the Federation, which started up in the late 1990s, has encouraged the creation of groups run by the disabled to advocate for themselves.
The Federation, Devandas-Aguilar points out, “promotes the creation of groups of women with disabilities, also deaf people and blind people, which they call associations. Those associations seem to be more independent from the Federation and from the government. These groups deal with income-generation activities. They are dealing with sports, with arts.”
The U.S. government, through its funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, has devoted considerable resources to supporting operations that beam information into North Korea via radio broadcasts and other means – to expose North Koreans to news of the outside world.
Yet, without any U.S. government assistance, organizing around disability rights has brought quite a few North Koreans in contact with foreigners. Handicapped International has been working in the country since 2001, collaborating with the KFPD in the field of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation. The World Federation of the Deaf maintains an office in Pyongyang staffed by a fourth-generation deaf German, Robert Grund, who has helped popularize sign language services and greater educational opportunities for the deaf.
Kathi Zellweger has been traveling back and forth to North Korea since 1995, first with the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and now with her own NGO based in Hong Kong. In December 2016, her organization brought four North Korean women to Hong Kong for 10 days “to expose them to a wide variety of services for intellectually challenged children.” The key task was to provide training in assessment. “Once you have assessed children properly,” she continues, “then you can design for each child the needs for health, education, and how you work with parents and caregivers.”
Over her more than 20 years of work in the DPRK, Zellweger has witnessed a change in attitudes inside the country. “Up to a few years ago, you would see very few people with disabilities in the streets,” she observes. “Now that has changed. You see more people in wheelchairs, on crutches, parents with special needs children.” She credits the KFPD with helping to transform public attitudes, but it’s also a function of relationships established with outsiders.
“Every year, the country celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a lot of local officials attending,” Zellweger notes. “It’s a big thing. We suggested that they should include special needs children. When I was there the next year, they had a small group of special needs children performing. Sometimes you just need to give them some ideas of what to do.”
That some of the people affiliated with the nascent civil society around disability rights have travelled outside North Korea is unusual for a country that rarely grants permission to travel abroad for anyone other than a government official, an athlete, or a guest worker. More unusual still, some North Korean teenagers with disabilities have even made the trip. In 2015, a youth ensemble of two blind musicians, two amputee vocalists, and eight dancers with hearing impairment traveled to the United Kingdom and France at the invitation of the U.K.-based organization DULA International. This Para-Ensemble returned for another tour this year.
It wasn’t easy to make the visit happen. “With disability welfare and awareness still in its developmental stages, many North Koreans at first felt that this young, disabled group of performers were not the country’s best representatives,” explains DULA International’s director, Lee Seok-Hee. But after considerable persuading, the DPRK government agreed and cooperated.
The exchange, in turn, had a transformative impact. “Whereas the DPRK public – and even the Para-Ensemble performers – largely misunderstood issues of disability before the tour, awareness of disability grew following it,” Lee continues. “Performances of the first tour, and the reception of international audience, were aired on national TV in the DPRK. This led an increasing number of people contacting the KFPD and inquiring about how they could get involved.”
Although North Korea has had laws on the books related to people with disabilities going back to the 1990s, it has stepped up its activities in the last few years. The first North Korean Paralympic athlete, for instance, participated in the 2012 games in London. The KFPD has been releasing periodic disability surveys. And the government has allowed disability organizations from around the world to partner with the KFPD.
Given the opacity of the North Korean government, it’s not easy to figure out definitively why it treats disability rights differently than it does many other human rights issues. But observers can make some educated guesses.
“First of all, progress on the disability issue is not a threat to the regime,” points out Robert King, former U.S. special envoy for the issue of North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017. “It’s not like freedom of speech or access to television from South Korea. It’s not going to undermine the claims of legitimacy of the government.”
King also suspects that people high up in the regime have children or siblings with disabilities. In China, for instance, the disability issue acquired a much higher profile when Deng Pufang, the son of former premier Deng Xiaoping, actively promoted it. A paraplegic thanks to an assault by militant Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled in 1984 and won a U.N. human rights award for his work in 2003. “A few people like that could make an appeal to the leadership and have some effect in getting some programs to benefit the disabled,” King says.
The overall human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire. Some North Korean defectors dispute that the government has changed its policies at all, and rumors abound of horrific treatment. Some experts on human rights in North Korea also argue that advocacy of disability rights is largely cosmetic.
“I’ve spoken with many U.N. officials, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion of a dramatic sea change in North Korean human rights,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country has ignored other issues, he points out, such as “the terrible things done to political prisoners in the camps, the utter lack of freedom of expression, freedom of association, any conceivable human right. But in this case, they selected [disability rights] as a point of contact where they can make some cosmetic changes and get away with it – or who knows, perhaps go a little deeper and make some serious changes and see where it takes them.”
However, organizing international support for human rights in North Korea around disability rights demonstrates that engagement can yield positive benefits for North Koreans and still advance certain U.S. goals. It’s also a good example of how human rights work can promote more connections with the international community rather than fewer. “Especially in the current context of escalating tensions, the human rights system needs to put its energy into promoting dialog and discussion,” says the U.N.’s Devandas Aguilar. “That is the only way forward to avoid armed conflict or confrontation.”