By Mark Tokola
People who have worked on policy towards North Korea for some time often remark that nothing really changes: the DPRK’s weapons programs progress, gross human rights violations continue, bad crop years are met with international appeals for food assistance, acts of aggression against South Korea occur periodically, and North Korean propaganda threatens death and destruction to anyone who impugns the dignity of its cult of leadership. The demise of Kim Jong-il in 2011 and the arrival of Kim Jong-un seemed to make little difference. There is a sameness to news about North Korea that can push it off the front pages (or the internet equivalent). Compounding the problem, ISIS’ current depredations in the Middle East are so horrific, they can make even North Korea’s systematic and ongoing human rights abuses seem like “old news” and worthy of less attention. However, the apparent stasis of North Korea can also disguise real change when it occurs.
Two separate but related events this week highlight that there is something new going on regarding North Korea, specifically regarding the North Korean human rights situation. First, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is opening a field office in Seoul on June 23, for the express purpose of collecting evidence regarding North Korean human rights violations. It is unclear whether the collected evidence will be used for potential prosecutions of North Korean officials in the International Criminal Court, a special international tribunal, or perhaps in Korean courts following unification, but the fact that a UN office is collecting and archiving evidence should give North Korean officials pause when they order or carry out human rights violations. The activities of the OHCHR office in Seoul may not lead to a wholesale change of North Korean human rights policy, but it might nudge North Korean prison officials towards making less barbaric choices when they have the latitude to do so. The seed has been planted in their minds that their actions may have consequences.
The origins of the OHCHR Seoul field office go back to the remarkable December 18, 2014 UN General Assembly vote condemning the “ongoing, systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The General Assembly was moved to action by the 400-page UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the DPRK that was issued in February 2014. The COI report was based on first-hand testimony of 80 witness and 240 confidential interviews. Its conclusions were tough but unassailable. One of the COI’s specific recommendations was that the OHCHR should create a field office to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the DPRK. The establishment of the Seoul field office this week shows that the existence of the Chinese and Russian vetoes in the Security Council cannot, in themselves, altogether prevent the UN from acting.
Does this make a difference in North Korea itself? In the past, North Korea ignored charges of human rights violations, or brushed them aside as part of a U.S. and South Korean plot to undermine the DPRK. The 116 to 20 vote in the General Assembly (with 53 abstentions) stung the DPRK into reacting, and undermined their narrative that raising human rights issues was a narrowly-based ploy by their enemies. The COI report and the General Assembly vote led the DPRK to undertake an unprecedented diplomatic initiative, with senior DPRK officials engaging EU and other countries to try to blunt the effect of the UN report and vote. In the same vein, Pyongyang has reacted strongly against the establishment of the OHCHR Seoul field office, calling it an “unpardonable provocation” and an “open declaration of war,” and threatening South Korea with “merciless punishment” for allowing it to open in Seoul.
Because international opinion regarding its human rights abuses seems to matter much more to North Korea than it has in the recent past, it is also noteworthy that this week also saw the release, on June 22, of the “Salzburg Statement on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).” From June 2 to 6, the three authors of the UN COI report – Michael Kirby of Australia, Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, and Sonja Biserko of Serbia — met at a Salzburg Global Seminar symposium with a group of government officials, legal experts, and representatives of human rights and humanitarian assistance NGOs from around the world — including from South America and Africa as well as from Europe, North America and Asia — for an in-depth discussion of what practical steps might be taken to advance the COI report recommendations. The resulting Salzburg Statement on North Korean human rights is something new in that it addresses recommendations not only to governments, but also provides advice to private organizations and individuals on what they might do to help to push North Korea in the right direction.
It is not clear why the DPRK apparently is taking international opinion more seriously than it did in the past, but it is possible that Kim Jong-un and his regime do not feel secure in their legitimacy, and therefore feel threatened by a growing international consensus that the DPRK is guilty of international crimes against humanity. Although still the most closed-off country in the world, the technology of modern media is making it possible for outside news to make its way to the people of North Korea, and specifically to mid and low-level North Korean officials. They may question whether their leadership is indeed universally admired (as DPRK propaganda would have it) if there are calls for them to be sent to the International Criminal Court. If 116 UN member states, broad-based international gatherings such as the Salzburg Global Seminar, and the UN system itself as embodied in the OHCHR field office have publicly concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to establish that crimes against humanity have been committed” by the DPRK, then something has changed. China, in spite of or perhaps because of its own human rights problems, may be increasingly loath to be associated with a regime that is so broadly condemned by the international community.
The stories that have been told by North Korean refugees over the years have set big wheels in motion. It may turn out to be true even in regard to North Korea that the “millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.”
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo provided courtesy of the Salzburg Global Seminar.