REFRAMING NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS
ABSTRACT: Introducing the core concerns animating this two-part thematic issue of Critical Asian Studies (December 2013 and March 2014), this essay offers a historicized overview of the consolidation of contemporary human rights as the dominant lingua franca for social justice projects today. Highlighting what the rights framework renders legible as well as what it consigns to unintelligibility, this essay examines the antinomies of contemporary human rights as an ethico-political discourse that strives to reassert the dominance of the global North over the global South. Relentlessly presentist in its assignment of blame and politically harnessed to a regime-change agenda, the human rights framing of North Korea has enabled human rights advocates, typically “beneficiaries of past injustice,” to assume a moralizing, implicitly violent posture toward a “regime” commonsensically understood to be “evil.” Cordoning off North Korea's alleged crimes for discrete consideration while turning a willfully blind eye to the violence of sanctions, “humanitarian” intervention, and the withholding of humanitarian and developmental aid, the North Korean human rights project has allowed a spectrum of political actors—U.S. soft-power institutions, thinly renovated cold war defense organizations, hawks of both neoconservative and liberal varieties, conservative evangelicals, anticommunist Koreans in South Korea and the diaspora, and North Korean defectors—to join together in common cause. This thematic issue, by contrast, enables a range of critical perspectives—from U.S.- and South Korea-based scholars, policy analysts, and social justice advocates—to attend to what has hovered outside or been marginalized within the dominant human rights framing of North Korea as a narrowly inculpatory, normative structure.
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