Modern Warfare Korea: the Weaponization of Human Rights

Ask the average American their thoughts on North Korea and without hesitation most will recite the litany of evils that the country is caricatured as, but very few know much beyond a seemingly programmed list of horrors. Searching ‘North Korea’ on the Internet reveals millions of hits echoing a consensus that North Korea is an ongoing “meth-addicted,” “nuclear threat to humanity,” “a holocaust,” a “hell-on-earth,” and a place where “unimaginable cruelties” such as “castrating the disabled,” and “mass murder by machine-gun fire” regularly occur. Even if true, in-depth inquiry reveals little actual proof of these claims. Regardless, most surmise that (for the good of its people) the country should be overthrown and “liberated” as quickly as possible.

Epistemologically, it seems that ‘how we [Westerners] know what we know’ about the country is predominately informed by North Korean defectors and their sponsor NGO’s – who are considered by mainstream media as primary sources. One struggles to find Western pundits, much less “experts,” whose worldviews aren’t in some way informed by the sensational, un-provable narratives of these groups. Through the immense epistemological influence of North Korea human rights narratives, policy approaches to the country are borne. Robert McChesney describes a contemporary media crisis in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy [i] as result of an “anti-democratic communications policy crisis” (McChesney, preface).

This author – a former DMZ reconnaissance soldier and information warfare officer – presents recent examples and draw out the implications of the hypothesis on human rights as a weapon of military/national security strategy; and the fact that human rights awareness campaigns are military campaigns in the Information Era, which are used to program global thinking that perpetuates the ongoing DPRK problem,” and results in hallucinatory responses to the DPRK fiction[ii]. The analysis seeks not to challenge the tenants of that “hallucinatory thinking,” but to deconstruct what leads to it and interrogate the impact on global security such hysteria has.

The Ongoing War(s)

Let us start from the very beginning. The 1953 Armistice Agreement signed between the UN, and the US and DPRK governments called for “a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” At the time of its signing, all actors clearly understood the heinous and inhuman devastation that hostilities brought to the peninsula. Unfortunately the Korean War has been long forgotten, and the USG outsources its agitation operations to NGO’s; the words of the Armistice left completely deprived of their meaning.

US involvement in the Korean War served a larger strategy of Chinese containment. Sixty-two years later, the US is still using ROK as a frontline military base camp for its China containment strategy. The US Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel stated that ROK “plays a major role in the international order,” and that ROK’s compliance with US strategy is necessary for making Asia the “kind of region that you and I [meaning the imperial West] want to live in.” But the American dream of spreading democratic values has (at the institutional level) been ethnocentrically informed, and driven by a Grand Strategy seeking to exert hegemonic power.

Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon best articulate the convoluted irony of jingoistic human rights NGO foreign policy influence in their book The Human Right to Dominate [iii], where they state; “violence protects human rights from violence that violates human rights.” (Perugini and Gordon, p. 3).  They claim that “human rights discourse has become a desired resource for those seeking political influence and power,” and this discourse is the new “lingua franca of global moral speak” – pointing out that human rights politics have become “a new morality in international relations, a way of conducting international politics according to moral norms and rules … human rights are now canonical text for the moral disposition of world affairs.” (p. 5 – 6).

American Hysteria [iv] author Andrew Burt explains that American identity “is a way of defining who we are by who we are against” (Burt p.11). In periods of increased threat to American identity, such as during the Red Scare or post-911, America has gone to war to defend its beliefs. For decades, the American government has shaped and harnessed mass hysteria, according to Burt, to achieve American political ends abroad (p.105 – 107). The UN North Korea human rights Commission of Inquiry (COI) conveniently established itself within four months of Kim Jong-il’s death. As PhD. candidate Steve Haarink points out; “Since 2006, every Commission of Inquiry has preceded military action that worsened human conditions.”

The National Endowment for Democracy heavily finances those NGO’s who develop such hysteria. It is interesting that in order to obtain a NED grant, one must meet two qualifiers in their proposal – to promote religious freedom and human rights. Burk’s arguments pass the Litmus Test for government intentionality to manufacture and harness human rights hysteria, otherwise NED would give grants for cultural and educational exchanges without the two requirements — knowing that those forms of engagement spread democracy more effectively than forcing one’s own ethnocentric worldviews on ‘the cognitive other.’ The fact that human rights awareness campaigns have exponentially increased since the COI is concerning for several reasons, and worthy of explaining how the human rights network is constructed and aligned.

While NED is the go-to organization for financial support amongst North Korea Human Rights (NKHR) NGO’s, the Department of Defense finances a vast human rights industry. Human rights epistemological influence is rooted directly to the military, according to Perugini and Gordon, and has thereby resulted in “the proliferation of human rights appropriations.” They state; “…it is not surprising that state security institutions that hold the monopoly over legitimate violence also began invoking international humanitarian and human rights law in their work,” pointing out that according to Amnesty International, “the US government trains approximately 100,000 foreign police and soldiers from more than 150 countries in approximately 275 military schools and installations while offering 4,100 human rights courses” (p.10-11).

Following international media big and small, especially from the US, one acutely gets the feeling that human rights awareness campaigns operate like bombs – they target, they explode, and they seek to destroy all that is in sight. They are about precisions, but like bombs their explosions can be exactly the opposite – imprecise, unpredictable, and indiscriminate in their maiming. Though their campaigns impact thinking here; their devastation is always across the border – foreign land, foreign lives, and foreign necessary cost of winning. Human rights awareness campaigns have transformed NKHR NGO’s into US government-funded information warfare contractors.

This author interrogates this approach for several reasons. First, it is known that a lying Iraqi defector influenced the decision-making process that led the US into Operation Iraqi Freedom – a war that destabilized the Middle East, leaving it in ruins. Second, North Korean defectors have been known to organize secret disinformation campaigns to sway public opinion in their interests, threatening rule of law and national security in South Korea. Third, the soundness of US government financial support for a network of NKHR’s that actively conspires to carryout operations that agitate – rather than peacefully resolve – the world’s oldest and most volatile conflict MUST be questioned.

Information Warfare Contractors in Action 

Collapsing a country is no easy task. The strategy, or so it appears, consists of several campaigns occurring simultaneously. It is unknown to the author who – if any single person – is orchestrating the overall “North Korea Operation,” but it is apparent that there is a concerted effort to forcibly collapse the regime. Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing NED, was quite candid when he said in 1991: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” Not surprisingly, a good portion of NED funds come directly from Congress, who has allocated $8.9 million toward “accelerating change” in the country, but also in the international community to harness public hysteria in support of the operation.

HRNK NGO’s actively conspired on their future plans at the Salzburg Conference, which contrary to claims of “a diverse nature of conference attendants,” only one of fourteen points recommended people-to-people exchanges. The other thirteen ranged from taking Kim Jong-un to the ICC, to a ten-way rephrasing of ‘conduct information operations.’ The primary “information warfare contractors” carrying-out the “North Korea Operation” are: Human Rights Foundation (HRF), the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Free North Korea Radio (FNKR),Open Radio North Korea (ORNK), North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), and last but not least; an incalculable number of Christian operatives and their front companies.

The Rendon Group, a premier US military and government strategic communications contracting firm, published my short analysis exampling how HRF’s “Hack them Back” campaign became a threat to ROK national security that pushed them to the brink of war during a time when high level inter-Korean talks were talking place. The government, Christian groups, and various foundations sponsor HRF’s work; even though HRF is known for actively working to collapse governments who threaten the American identity; such as North Korea. Besides sabotaging high-level inter-Korean talks, HRF also brought their media and balloons out in the height of recent cross-DMZ fire volleys. During the exchange of fire over the ‘land mine / loudspeaker incident,’ FFNK (HRF’s balloon-launching point of contact NKHR defector group) launched balloons into North Korea – an act that could’ve resulted in the conflict spiraling out of control.

Celebrity defectors are a rapidly-emerging unwelcomed trend at the forefront of a militarized disinformation campaign against the West. Few understand the Korean War or Korean Peninsula in a complete, holistic, and academic way. Celebrity defectors serve to monopolize our empirical knowing of North Korea in the same way Iraqi defector “Curveball” informed our views of Iraq in 2003. Last year, celebrity defector YeonMi Park’s meteoric rise, change in personal narrative, and contradictions in her story caused many analysts (and even defectors) to raise their brows. YeonMi Park became a “Media Fellow” for OFF (an offshoot of HRF that works with small ROK HRNK NGO’s) in spring 2014, and went on a world tour that hasn’t ended. Most notably, she spoke at the One Young World conference, and in 2015 has been a headlining speaker at ‘Freedom Fest’ – an organized collective of philanthropists, right-wing pundits, and deep-pocketed political strategists. Park makes over $12,500 per speech, until her book is released. Her fees could then increase to over $40,000 per speech.

Following now-disgraced defector Shin Dong-hyuk’s narrative; the core narrative of her speeches is that North Korea is a hell on earth, and is currently experiencing a Holocaust. Despite the fact that Park grew up playing Nintendo, traveling, and living lavishly (by regime standards), the majority of people believe her story wholeheartedly. It is known among defector experts that they often tell the world what they think the world wants to hear. In a soon-to-be-released “While They Watched,” Park furthers her core message in the movies’ theme – which is that North Korean leadership are Nazi Gestapo, and its people like the Jews in prison camps. The movie is fictitious, but will have a tremendous impact on Western perceptions, and is likely to have a hypnotic and hysteria-inducing effect on the public whereby millions of people call for the violent overthrow of the regime and persecution of anybody arguing for peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Focus on Unification as a Solution

Information operations can be used to cause change in the country by exposing average North Koreans to the outside world, but in their current militarized behavior are seemingly intended to harness support from the West for collapsing the country.  We must therefore ask: 1. How does demonizing North Korea improve human rights conditions without causing jingoistic mass hysteria in favor of war, and 2. How do these agitation operations affect ROK national security, and 3. Is there not a more diplomatic path to achieving unification of Korea?
Michael Lammbrau, Bureau Chief of the Arirang Institute argues that unification is a mentality, quoting Georgetown Professor David Maxwell in saying; “The problem is we think in linear terms when looking at the North Korean dilemma. We first look to resolve the nuclear problem, then the human rights problem, and then finally unification, but that assumes the current regime is willing to give up their nuclear weapons and willing to resolve its human rights issues. I am saying they are not going to do that, I am saying we have to focus on unification.”

“Momentum is now slowly shifting to a “unification first” mentality. Goldman Sachs agrees with President Park,” Lammbrau points out. That said, it is time for human rights politics to not only be questioned in their impact on international politics, but also time for experts, pundits, scholars, journalists, and policy-makers to scrutinize with careful forethought the impact NKHR’s have on human rights in North Korea. In short, it is time to re-imagine North Korea in international politics with focus on unification – instead of demonization – if we truly seek to liberate North Korean people from the isolation they’ve endured for the past 70 years of the unending Korean War.


[i] McChesney, Robert Waterman. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: New P. 2015. Print

[ii] Choi, Shine. Re-imagining North Korea in International Politics: Problems and Alternatives. Oxford U, 2015. Print.

[iii] Perugini, Nicola, and Neve Gordon. The Human Right to Dominate. New York: Oxford U, 2015. Print.

[iv] Burt, Andrew. American Hysteria. Guilford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.

Michael Bassett is a Public Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution professional in Washington, DC.