North Korea: new approaches – conference report

The panel and attendance list of the 8th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights & Refugees was a who’s who of North Korean experts and Koreanists in general1. As expected, there was no representation from the DPRK embassy. Given that more than one panellist characterised past conferences as “people getting together to bash North Korea and feeling better afterwards” that was hardly surprising. But this conference was billed as exploring new approaches, so maybe a different attitude might have been fondly hoped-for this year. Instead, the embassy had tried to dissuade at least one of the panellists from attending. But we heard at least that, hopefully reflecting a greater openness to engagement, the DPRK ambassador will be appearing at the all party British North Korean parliamentary group, whose main agenda item last year was human rights.

I thought I ought to show my face in the office, so missed some of the key talks, opting to show up at the beginning and the end of the day, which was probably an error of judgement. While it is always encouraging that these events have august and generous sponsors (enabling the whole thought-provoking day to be totally free of charge to freeloaders such as myself) it does mean that there are rather too many bland “keynote” addresses before you got to the actual meat of the proceedings. The conference was well-provided with simultaneous translation facilities, enabling the monolingual to get some benefit when faced with panellists not speaking their language – though inevitably one suspects that nuances were lost in the translation.

While the theme of the day was billed as human rights, the agenda flowed freely off-topic. A senior Pyongyangologist gave a fascinating talk about differences between North Korea under the two Kims, highlighting:

  1. the move to Military First (songung) politics under Kim Jong-il, under whom power is exercised primarily through the National Defence Commission rather than the Workers Party of Korea:
    • the National Supreme People’s Assembly meets only once every 5 years, leaving civilian matters to be governed by its Standing Committee
    • Civilian ministers / cabinet (members of the Standing Committee) have limited importance
    • the Defence Minister doesn’t report to the “Prime Minister” – instead reporting directly into the National Defence Commission
  2. the move from the doctrine of “Juche” to that of the “socio-political organism”, a holy trinity of the Supreme Revolutionary Leader, the Military and the People. One strand of this doctrine is that while human life is 80 years, political life is eternal – thus subordinating the individual to society as a whole.

Note: this is a stub article. If I find my notes and have the time, I might write up some more in due course.

  1. The Chatham House Rule was invoked, and a strict reading of that implies that I can’t say who was in the audience, but at least the speakers are a matter of public record []

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