- Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Confucian Perspectives
Human Rights Discourse in North Korea offers three different perspectives with which to understand North Korean discourses about human rights as explicitly laid out in the subtitle: namely, postcolonial, Marxist, and Confucian. By bringing these three approaches to human rights, the book attempts to provide an alternative conceptualization of human rights, broadening its very definition. Rather than focusing on the traditional emphasis on individual political and civil liberties as the core of human rights, the author challenges liberal notions about human beings as essentially autonomous individuals by incorporating collective duty-bound conceptualizations of human rights. The three perspectives not only show that North Korea has been actively engaged in human rights discourse since its foundation, but also serve to situate North Korea’s discourse within Korea’s historical context, as well as within the international evolution of more communitarian human rights discourses, thereby contesting common characterizations of North Korea as a country without any notion of rights.
After the first chapter lays out a general introduction to the evolution of ideas about human rights and the concomitant theoretical concerns, the book follows a [End Page 214] chronological timeline, moving from premodern Korean ideas relevant to human rights—namely, Confucianism, Sirhak, and Tonghak—to postcolonial Marxist ideas on human rights, the development of chuch’e ideology and its relationship to human rights, and finally turns toward “Our Style” human rights under Kim Jong Il (Kim Chŏngil). Each of the chapters tries to show the combination of postcolonial, Marxist, and Confucian influence on the development of human rights discourse in North Korea to reveal commonalities between North Korean and international human rights discourses.
While the author must be applauded for attempting a historically and culturally informed constructivist approach to analyzing North Korean human rights discourse, serious problems plague the book. Theoretically, the biggest problem is in framing North Korean human rights discourse as a linear evolution, best exemplified by the flow chart at the beginning of the book: “Chosun Confucian state ideology (1392–1910), Sirhak (late seventeenth century), Tonghak (late nineteenth century), Early Korean communism and independence movements (1910–45), Post-colonialism (1945– ), Korean Marxism (1948– ), Juche Ideology (1955– ), ‘Our Style’ human rights (1995– )” (p. 3). The author, thus, traces contemporary North Korean discourses all the way back to the fourteenth-century adoption of Confucianism by the Chosŏn state, the seventeenth-century Sirhak—a form of neo-Confucianism stressing people’s material well-being and philosophical independence from China—and the nineteenth-century Tonghak, a radical peasant movement advocating social equality and land reform.
However, the connections between these large intellectual currents are made without sufficient argumentation as they are understood rather superficially. For example, Song maintains that Confucian emphasis on benevolent leadership results in the cult of personality in contemporary North Korea while the emphasis on family unity leads North Korea to shun foreign relations (p. 61). Religious overtones in chuch’e ideology are the result of Kim Il Sung’s exposure to Christianity as a child and the importation of the concept of divine rights from Western Christianity to produce “a divine concept of rights” (pp. 126–27). However, the author’s own quotations of primary sources on chuch’e ideology lack any reference to divinity, emphasizing instead how the people are masters of the state (p. 128).
Likewise, North Korea’s emphasis on collective interests, socioeconomic rights, and citizenship duties not only make up the major tenets of its Marxist perspective, but, according to the author, these elements “pre-existed in Korean traditional thinking, which focused on the role of the benevolent ruler to protect people’s subsistence rights and security, the collective and harmonious unity, and citizens’ loyalty in return for the guarantee of food and security from their rulers” (p. 2). Thus, rather than specifying what makes certain aspects of North Korean human rights discourse specifically and particularly Confucian or Marxist, collective interests, socioeconomic rights, [End Page 215] and citizenship duties are framed so generally...