The 2014 report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea marked a watershed moment in international awareness and action on North Korea’s human rights problem. It sparked widespread international condemnation, and prompted anxiety and insecurity on the part of North Korea, evident in the North’s immediate response. This included a verbal counter-offensive, some surprising willingness to engage with UN mechanisms, and a range of diplomatic engagement. I argue that contrary to the popular perception of North Korea as impervious to external criticism, when viewed through the conceptual lens of ontological security, the North’s response to the UN COI revealed a desire to defend and secure its image in the eyes of the international community. While acknowledging continuing obstacles to a genuine normative transition in its approach to human rights, the article supports a deeper understanding of North Korea’s self-identity to guide measures to bring about change.