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Published on February 25th, 2014 | by Liam Anderson
Image © European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Logo.

European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Logo.

Interview with EAHRNK’s Michael Glendinning: The EU and North Korean Human Rights

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s human rights record is notoriously bad, and the country – when it appears in international news – is often presented as the unreachable and impenetrable ‘hermit kingdom’. While the regime is certainly aggressively insular and adept at physical and information control, however, it would be inadequate to accept a status quo in which the international community can do little or nothing to help North Koreans. The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) is a young and growing organization focusing on enhancing international and national European policy, so as to improve human rights within North Korea and among the significant refugee population. Michael Glendinning, EAHRNK’s co-director, talks about the organization’s work and objectives, and discusses the failings and the potential improvement of international engagement with North Korean human rights.

What is the main motivation and focus of EAHRNK’s work?

The main motivation and focus behind our work is the improvement of humanitarian conditions in North Korea. However, that is a rather simplistic overview of what we want to achieve. We want to correct misinformation and build upon correct information to create empowered citizens in the country.

There are three North Koreas: one as understood by Western media, a view carefully cultivated by the North Korean regime; one driven by internal efforts to clamp down on proper understanding of the world by painting the country as being on the receiving end of Western aggression; and finally, the reality on the ground in North Korea itself. The basis of all our work is centred on providing intelligent and correct analysis of these internal realities rather than focusing on the external manifestation of the North Korean state’s power. All evidence of this comes from our connections with the exile community in Europe and South Korea. The exile community in South Korea, in particular, contains the full gamut of North Korean society – by working closely with all levels of society we can ensure that we base our work on correct understanding of North Korea.

Without proper understanding of who governs North Korea, what motivates the regime to commit atrocities, and so on, we really cannot begin to implement our Theory of Change because it will lack support. It is often said that we cannot understand what is going on in Pyongyang, but it is simply not true; high-level exiles are able to accurately tell the world exactly what is happening through their own understanding and through their contacts in the regime. Once we have established correct information, we can move forward.

To better understand our motivation, an overview of our Theory of Change would probably be helpful:

Basing itself on rigorous research and analysis, our Theory of Change will:

1. Encourage the empowerment of individual North Koreans (as opposed to DPRK state agents working to stem this empowerment for the sake of retaining control).

It would be important, for example, to provide psychological or economic support to North Koreans inside and outside the country.

2. Recognise that such empowerment is already underway and ensure that outside policies do not reverse or hinder it.

The collapse of the state economy has unleashed market forces into North Korea that continue to economically, psychologically and, to some degree, politically empower individual North Koreans. This trend is the only development that has pushed the DPRK to reconsider its positions on economic policy.

3. Prepare the ground for this empowerment to contribute to a stable and positive transformation of the country.

At present, there is no work being done in this regard, with studies focusing either on collapse or reform scenarios looking only at DPRK-state agency. Seeing agency in ground-up forces does not necessary entail looking to revolution, but rather looking at how these forces affect and interact with DPRK state policy.

Is the general character of international engagement with the DPRK too biased towards security issues? What should states and civil society be focusing on?

Yes, it is. The nuclear issue is a great tool for the regime – not for the purpose of being an aggressor or for maintaining their power, but it is the perfect aid-mining tool. That is precisely what it and other methods of external aggression are used for.

The most important thing for states and civil society to be focusing on is correct understanding of what controls the political framework of North Korea. By understanding that, sensible diplomacy and improvements in humanitarian conditions can happen. The focus of Western media is Kim Jong Un, but the real power behind the North Korean state is the Organization and Guidance Department.

The North Korean refugee population is quite large now; how can they be helped by states and international organizations, and how can they assist positive change within the DPRK?

The North Korean exile community is barely assisted at all by the international community. Britain, for example, has made it increasingly difficult for North Koreans to settle here on the premise that North Koreans are also South Korean citizens. However, it is our belief that Britain should be encouraging North Koreans to settle here. In order for our government to improve their understanding of North Korea, they must work closely with North Korean exiles.

The North Korean exile community is the only way for improvements to take place in North Korea. Unfortunately, there is a belief that by working with the regime (tourism, business, etc.), that will force North Korea to open up. That is not backed by any evidence at all – on the contrary, the North Korean state is using trade, and so on, to centralise economic power and crush economic empowerment. As we note in our Theory of Change, the only thing that has caused the regime to reform is citizen-driven, ground-up economic empowerment. Black markets, in particular, have played a major role in creating self-sufficiency in North Korean households. The exile community is sending large amounts of money and information back to the country. This is helping citizens break their dependency on the state.

What role can the EU play?

The EU can and should play a much larger role in improving conditions in North Korea. In the case of North Korea, the EU does not have the political baggage of such actors as the US, China, and Russia, so it is ideally placed to work on North Korean issues.

We would like to see the EU encouraging North Koreans to settle here, to continue to provide aid, to set up educational and cultural exchanges, to start funding North Korean human rights-related projects, and to start engaging with citizens rather than government officials (where possible).

What is the EAHRNK’s strategy for influencing EU and international policies?

Our primary method of influencing is the creation of policy papers. Unfortunately, while there is a lot of work that needs to be done on EU policy, it is hard for us to influence their policies because the EU and European countries continue to fail to try to understand what North Korea is. However, that just makes us want to try even harder. We are still a new organisation, so it is going to take time to build the relationships that might help influence the key decision makers.

What practical challenges does EAHRNK face?

In one word: money. A lack of funding does hamper our activities, but it is also feels like we are swimming against the tide with our efforts at times. The (incorrect) views of what North Korea is are so entrenched in government policy that it makes it difficult to influence them.

How accurate and reliable is international media on North Korean issues generally, and how could it improve? How effective are alternative sources of information within the DPRK?

It is not credible. There is a tendency to publish stories without bothering to check the sources – a perfect example of this is the story of Jang Song Taek being killed by dogs. It is much easier for the media to demonise the North Korean government rather than to try to encapsulate the reality of North Korea.

The easiest way for the international media to improve their reporting is by working with the defector-led and defector-staffed media groups with a proven track record of providing accurate information. Even then, the international media would prefer to control the narrative, which makes it hard for such groups to work with them.

The sources of information inside the DPRK are incredibly vital for our understanding of the country. Unfortunately, such work is hampered by a lack of funding.

Could we see any changes with regard to the human rights and media situations in the short to mid-term?

Unlikely on both fronts. Despite the North Korean government’s attempts to hinder progress, economic rights, access to food, and access to information have slowly improved. A more worrying recent trend, however, has been the attempts to clamp down on illegal border crossings. Such crossings create a channel for information and goods to flow into the country. As a result, I do not really think it is likely that human rights will improve any time soon.

As for the media, as I said before, it is easier for them to demonise rather than provide accuracy. To speak about media more broadly, the inflow of information is just as important as the reporting. The current media landscape in North Korea is incredibly oppressive. The black markets have ensured that USBs, DVDs, and unrestricted radios are now available, bringing vital impartial news and other media into the country. The international community must support the flow of information into the country. It is our belief that the BBC is the ideal organisation to provide that information. We have created a report on the need for a BBC Korean service (available at, started a supporting petition (which you can sign here, and are meeting with key decision makers to make it a reality.

Finally, how can interested activists, students, and graduates become involved with EAHRNK’s work?

We have set up student groups in order to further our mission. Students can be involved in these groups by emailing to find out more. If there is not a group set up already at your university, we can provide a welcome pack with materials for a first event and meeting.

We will shortly be looking for interns. As we do not have an office yet, most of these internships can take place from home. It is also possible to volunteer with us. For more information, email


Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Liam Anderson

Liam holds a Master's degree in International Affairs: International Security from Sciences Po. His interests include post-conflict stability, state development, and group identity.

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