International aid and human rights in North Korea

Following a period of strong distrust, largely because of the Korean War and the Cold War, diplomatic relations between the UK and North Korea were only established in 2000. Embassies have opened in both Pyongyang and London. There is a UK ambassador to North Korea in Pyongyang and, in 2014, there was a visit to North Korea from an official British delegation to promote English language classes. The UK Government also gives aid to North Korea, estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pounds in total.

Nonetheless, the UK Government has been critical stance of the regime’s brutality. In the House of Lords last year, Baroness Anelay - the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN - expressed dismay at the country’s appalling human rights record. Late last year, at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, she urged North Korea to respect the rights of its citizens, end widespread human rights violations and engage substantively with the international community.

Human rights abuses

The North Korean Government has ratified four international human rights treaties as well as including rights protection in its constitution.

But the closed nature of North Korea has made gaining evidence on the exact nature and scale of human rights abuses difficult to attain. The media is state-controlled and internet access is restricted to a small selection of people who have state approval. Authorities allow very few foreign journalists to report in the country and curtail their ability to gather information by preventing them from freely talking to people on the street and constantly monitoring their movements.

However, in 2014, a report from the Commission of Inquiry on human rights established by the United Nations Human Rights Council found systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean Government. These included: murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion and other sexual violence. The purpose of these acts against political prisoners, according to the report, is to create a climate of fear that prevents any challenge to the current regime.

This year, a Human Rights Watch report suggested North Korea remained one of the most repressive states in the world, curtailing all basic human rights including freedom of expression, assembly, association and freedom to practice religion.

Political opposition is prohibited. Those accused of serious political offences are usually sent to political prisoner camps, characterised by systematic abuse on inmates including torture and abuse, starvation rations and forced labour. United States and South Korean officials estimated that in 2015 between 80,000 and 120,000 people were imprisoned in the political camps.

Kang Chol-Hwan, who spent ten years at a political prison in North Korea and now lives in South Korea and works for a charity smuggling USB sticks across the border so people are able to access alternative information to what the government disseminates, described the conditions in these camps: prisoners are forced to watch public executions, and they are physically abused, hit and tortured. He described the camps ”as another form of Auschwitz.”

Workers in North Korea are systematically denied the right to organise and bargain collectively, and are often forced into hard manual labour.

Aid to North Korea

UK aid payments to North Korea have been spent on a range of projects, including: teaching training programmes, helping North Korean journalists connect to the web, and training officials in UK values.

Furthermore, figures released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2016 show the the UK Government has been funding a number of humanitarian programmes such as orphanages and relief items and English language classes. Baroness Anelay, the Minister for the Commonwealth and UN, stated  that the aim of the humanitarian projects in North Korea was to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in North Korean society, and that the purpose of the English language projects was to make North Korean participants aware of other ideas and cultures.

In addition to this UK aid, North Korea receives aid funding from the UN. North Korean Economy Watch report that in 2016 the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released $8 million from the UN Central Emergency Fund to help severely underfunded aid operations, especially for life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people who were at risk of malnutrition. NGOs such as the Eugene Bell Foundation also donated aid for specific purposes with the aim of ending unnecessary deaths from tuberculosis in North Korea.


The debate about whether we should be giving aid to North Korea is contentious. Former North Korean citizen Jang Jin-sung argues that aid funding for food in North Korea has hindered economic reform, prolonging the current regime's human rights abuses. On the other hand, Dr James E Hoare, Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea, has argued that it would be morally unjust to penalise those already suffering by denying them food aid. He argues that 10% of the country’s two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting - a condition which will confer a lifetime of health problems to them. Not to attempt to help these two-year-olds would be morally wrong.

North Korea is a clear example of the ethical dilemma at the heart of international aid: whether it is right and effective for the West, specifically the UK, to apply conditions to the granting of aid to recipient countries, even stopping it to countries that undermine human rights. In a recent Bright Blue essay collection, Sir Paul Collier - a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Oxford - seemed to reject this approach: “It would be an abuse of power over the desperate to insist that recipients confirm to our standards of behaviour if this is not material to the escape from poverty”. Grant Shapps MP, recently a Minister in DFID, recently complained that there is a culture in that department of allowing aid without proper consideration of human rights abuses in recipient countries. But, in some cases, the UK Government has made the granting of aid conditional on human rights: in November 2012, for example, it halted aid of £21 million being given to Rwanda over human rights abuses. This year, this debate will be very high-profile in public and political discourse.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue