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Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee discusses human rights atrocities in North Korea

On September 14th, 2020, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar on Human Rights Atrocities in North Korea. This event was a part of IWP’s Asia Initiative Lecture Series and featured a discussion with Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee, the former South Korean Ambassador for human rights as well as the inaugural South Korean Ambassador-at-Large for North Korean Human Rights. The lecture was moderated by Ms. Amanda Won, IWP doctoral candidate and founder of the Asia Initiative Lecture Series.

International Support for Human Rights in North Korea

Amb. Lee began the lecture by discussing the current state of human rights dialogue regarding North Korea. He explained that human rights in North Korea had been a galvanizing force in the international community from 2013-2017, drawing wide support. However, changes in the political topography in the Korean peninsula and the United States have seen a “submergence” of North Korean human rights as an issue. Starting in 2017, greater emphasis has been placed on cooperation, peace, and denuclearization, drawing international attention away from human rights.

History of Human Rights

Amb. Lee then gave a brief overview of the history of human rights considerations, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. In this address, Franklin Roosevelt outlined the “four fundamental freedoms people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy.” These fundamental freedoms include freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. With this speech in mind, Amb. Lee described the new focus on human rights derived from the speech in the context of World War II atrocities like the Holocaust. He discussed how World War II influenced international views on crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Amb. Lee described efforts at accountability and the rule of law to combat these crimes, naming the Nuremberg trials and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR), respectively.

Amb. Lee went on to describe international efforts to introduce legally binding covenants to enforce the premises of the UDHR; these include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). He added that South Korean politics is split on which element of human rights it emphasizes in its discussion of North Korean human rights, with the left focusing on the ICESCR, and conservatives focusing on the ICCPR.

Human Rights in North Korea Today

Amb. Lee then shifted from theory to practice, discussing the full extent of North Korean human rights atrocities, their violation of all 30 articles of the UDHR, and showing photographic evidence of many human rights violations. These photos included depictions of starving children, the military oppression of the populace, the Kim family’s many purges and assassinations, and political prison camps. He questioned the lack of international recognition and legal action on human rights atrocities in North Korea, arguing that a lack of tragic images of North Korean suffering has served to limit international outrage. Despite limited photographic evidence and the accounts of defectors, Amb. Lee argued that there is no image of North Korean human rights violations seared into the collective consciousness of Westerners that “really sticks out.”

Amb. Lee targeted North Korea’s political system as one critical failure of human rights in the country. Showing nighttime satellite imagery of a dark North Korea contrasted with an illuminated South Korea, he argued that the complete economic failure of Communist North Korea further exacerbates violations of human rights.

On the topic of defectors, Amb. Lee emphasized that most defectors are women, and almost all had been horrifically abused, including thousands who were sold as wives or sex slaves in China. In a list of just some violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime, he included the inability to reunite with family members, abductions of foreign nationals, religious persecution, sexual violence, torture, forced abortions, and child labor.

International Successes

Amb. Lee also described some effective pressure campaigns, such as the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI), against North Korea’s human rights abuses. These campaigns were adopted by the United States, Japan, and Europe in the early 21st century. He claimed that North Korea had begun to feel nervous about the seriousness of accusations against it, as evidenced by its release of several Western prisoners and the invitation of journalists and UN officials to the country. However, he argued that setbacks soon followed in the form of the United States’ summit with Kim Jong-Un, which he believes served to legitimize Kim. Another setback came in the emergence of Moon Jae-In’s government in South Korea, which focused on cooperation and peace over human rights.


After concluding his remarks, Amb. Lee took questions from the audience. He also commented on the South Korean government’s silence on human rights, criticizing a defeatist approach. In closing, he provided an optimistic outlook regarding the ability of the international community to pressure North Korea on human rights issues, even if regime change or total reform is impossible.

About Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee

Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee is Dean and Professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University.

He is formerly the ROK government’s Ambassador for Human Rights as well as its inaugural Ambassador-at-Large for North Korean Human Rights. On campus, he served as Dean of the Underwood International College and the Office of International Affairs. He has also served as Director of the Institute of Modern Korean Studies, the Yonsei Human Liberty Center, the Center for American Studies (IEWS), and the Center for European Studies (IEWS). His other academic affiliations include a visiting professorship at the Dept. of Politics, Faculty of Law, Keio University, and a senior fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Ambassador Lee has advised South Korea’s National Unification Advisory Council, Ministry of Unification, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Security Council, and the National Assembly. In the case of the Ministry of Unification, he chaired the Advisory Committee for Humanitarian Affairs.

His current domestic commitments include his role as Chairman of SaveNK, an NGO that helps the defector community, Senior Advisor to the Future Korea Weekly, a current affairs magazine, and Chairman of the Board of Tongwon Educational Foundation.

Internationally, he is a Board Member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) based in Washington, D.C., an International Patron of the Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based organization that promotes Hong Kong’s democracy, and an Advisory Council Member of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, also based in London.

He received his BA from Tufts University, MALD from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, and D.Phil. from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College). In 2017, he published Tongbukah Kyŏkrang ui Hanbokp’anesŏ [In the Midst of a Northeast Asian Current]. His most recent journal contributions include “Déjà Vu in South Korea? Lessons from the 1992 Philippines Withdrawal” in The Washington Quarterly (2020), “The UN’s Human Security Challenge: The Plight of North Korean Refugees in China” in the Journal of International Politics (2020), and “North Korea’s Nuclear and Human Rights Conundrum: Implications for South Korea’s Unification Goal” in Pacific Focus (2020).

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