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The Peninsula

North Korean Human Rights and Korea’s “Global Destiny”

Published December 18, 2012
Author: Sang Kim

By Greg Scarlatoiu

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming December 19 presidential elections in South Korea, there will likely be changes in Seoul’s approach to North Korea. Since the shooting of South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja at Mount Kumgang in July 2008, inter-Korean exchanges have subsided, and inter-Korean tensions have been further exacerbated by the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan on March 26, 2010, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korean artillery on November 23 of the same year, North Korea’s dispatching agents to assassinate North Korean defectors including the late Hwang Jang-yeop and “balloon launch activist” Park Sang-hak or high-ranking South Korean officials such as Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, and North Korea’s long-range missile tests. Undoubtedly, the thawing of inter-Korean relations would depend, first and foremost, on an attitudinal change on the part of the Kim Jong-un regime, which appears keen, however, on continuing the development of its long-range missile and nuclear capabilities.

Under any circumstances, a return to the old version of the Sunshine Policy is unlikely. If it were to happen at all, engagement would have to proceed under different auspices, for several good reasons. First, the South Korean people are unlikely to sanction unconditional support of a bellicose North, a regime with an established history of killing the golden goose provided by the southern brethren. After all, Kim Jong-il’s North Korea did not shy away from attacking South Korean naval ships right before the historic 2002 Soccer World Cup semifinal between South Korea and Turkey, from a nuclear test in October 2006, or from an attempted Taepodong-2 ICBM launch in July 2006, all hostile acts executed as South Korea was trying to induce positive change in the North through aid, investment, and inter-Korean contacts.

Second, from 1998 to 2012, South Korea has undergone a spectacular transformation, from a noteworthy Asian Tiger to an aspiring global leader. In 1998, South Korea was in the midst of engineering a spectacular recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, while also consolidating its political scene into a robust liberal democracy. In 2012, South Korea, once a recipient of humanitarian and development assistance, has become a provider of such assistance throughout the developing world, as well as a contributor to international peace and security through participation in peacekeeping operations worldwide. “Global Korea” is more than just the motto of a particular presidential mandate. It is Korea’s destiny, and acting based on the inevitability of that destiny is the true measure of Korean leadership. Whenever South Korea approaches North Korea, it should do so as an aspiring global leader. Pointing to the human rights violations happening in North Korea and seeking the cooperation of the international community to improve the human rights situation in the North certainly befit South Korea’s position in the world today. South Korea must approach the North as a global leader, fully appreciative of the universality of human rights.

Third, in particular during the past decade, the international community has learned a lot about the extent of the human rights violations in North Korea. Much of this information has been provided by North Korean escapees, whose number has increased exponentially after the great famine that ravaged North Korea from the mid to late 1990s. According to data provided by the UNHCR and the South Korean Ministry of Unification, between 1993 and 1999, 462 recognized North Korean defectors resettled in South Korea, and 42 recognized North Korean refugees escaped to countries including Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Norway, Singapore, Thailand and Uzbekistan. In 2012, there are more than 25,000 former North Koreans living in South Korea, and over 5,000 have been granted refugee status in 23 other countries. Among North Korean escapees, there are former political prison camp detainees, and even former camp guards. Their testimony, substantiated by satellite imagery now available publicly through Google Earth and other providers, has made a compelling case for dismantling North Korea’s vast system of arbitrary detention, where between 150,000 and 200,000 perceived wrong-doers or wrong-thinkers are imprisoned, often together with three generations of their family, based on a system of guilt by association. While North Korea continues to adamantly deny the existence of its political prison camps, “Escape from Camp 14,” the best-seller by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, featuring the life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the North Korean escapee born and raised in a political prison camp, has captured worldwide attention.

In 2004, the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea was established within the scope of UN “Special Procedures.” In the most recent report submitted by Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman to the UN General Assembly, key issues are mentioned, including North Korea’s political prison camps and North Korea’s social discrimination system, which classifies the people of North Korea into three categories and 51 subcategories, based on their supposed loyalty to the regime.

In 2005, the first UN General Assembly Third Committee resolution on North Korean human rights was passed with 88 votes in favor, 21 against, 60 abstentions, and 22 non-voting. The seventh such resolution was passed by the 67th UN General Assembly Third Committee in December 2011 with 123 votes in favor, 16 against, 51 abstentions, and 3 non-voting. In December 2012, the eighth such resolution did not go to a vote, and instead passed by consensus for the first time. Although China abstained from the consensus, together with Cuba and Venezuela, it appears that China and the Russian Federation are increasingly less enthusiastic in their support of North Korea at international fora. Furthermore, the three-year term as member of the UN Human Rights Council Member has expired in 2012 for both China and Russia. With the most recent General Assembly resolution passing by consensus while stating serious concern about violations of political, economic, social and cultural rights occurring in North Korea, and pointing out to key human rights matters including the use of torture, the political prison camps, and the severe restrictions imposed on the freedom of thought, expression, and movement, it also appears that the once eager support of the non-aligned movement is no longer there for the North Korean regime, with the isolated exceptions of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Raul Castro’s Cuba.

The peaceful transformation of totalitarian and repressive regimes through an approach beginning with steps to improve of the human rights situation is possible. Burma, a military dictatorship for half a century, provides such an instance. The release of about 500 political prisoners in late 2011 and early 2012, followed by the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner and legendary opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese parliament resulted in an overwhelmingly positive international response, including the lifting of sanctions and a first ever visit by a U.S. president. While Burma is a long way from being a full-fledged democracy, the international support for its peaceful transformation constitutes a precedent that North Korea could learn from.

North Korea needs to be reminded that the vehicles needed to take steps towards the improvement of its human rights situation are already available. As a first step, North Korea must resume reporting under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, a requirement it hasn’t followed since 2004. Recognizing the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for North Korean Human Rights and allowing him and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights entry into North Korea to monitor the current human rights situation would constitute subsequent significant steps.

If Kim Jong-un’s regime intends to signal that it is ready for change, it should understand that it must take steps to open up its closed society, end the repression of its population and become a full-fledged member of the international community. North Korea can’t change unless the rule by law currently exercised by the regime is replaced with an actual rule of law.

In particular, the North Korean regime must acknowledge the existence of its political prisoner camps, of whose actuality the international community is painfully aware, through the work of dedicated NGOs, the testimony of defectors and publicly available satellite imagery. The Kim Jong-un regime should order the release of all the political prisoners reportedly held without charge or trial in brutal and harrowing conditions, and allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) entry into the camps to assist with the release and rehabilitation of prisoners. Responsible members of the international community, including South Korea, should work towards persuading the North Korean regime to halt the ongoing arrests of North Koreans on political and religious grounds or for trying to leave the country. If significant food assistance programs are to be resumed, the North Korean regime must comply with international standards of food distribution and monitoring, and allow full access to international humanitarian agencies.

Over the past two decades, considerable numbers of North Koreans have risked their lives to cross the border into China. They have done so because of starvation, economic deprivation or political persecution. Many of them are apprehended and forcibly repatriated by the Chinese authorities, in violation of China’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. China claims the North Korean refugees are illegal economic migrants but,  even in cases where the defection was driven by hunger, one needs to remember that the fundamental causes of North Korea’s economic disaster are political, i.e. the regime’s failed policies and its refusal to open up and reform. Since leaving North Korea without official permission is a criminal offense eliciting harsh punishment, North Koreans in China qualify as refugees sur place and clearly qualify to be granted political refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Seoul should consider placing the protection of North Korean refugees high on the agenda of Sino-South Korean contacts.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s unanimous re-election by the General Assembly for a second term until the end of 2016, South Korea’s election for a two-year term as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and South Korea’s upcoming three-year mandate as a member of the UN Human Rights Council highlight the recognition and appreciation South Korea enjoys within the international community for the contributions it has been making to enhancing global prosperity, security and peace. Subsequent to its international standing, the new South Korean administration will continue to be bound by a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to cooperate with the international community to dismantle North Korea’s system of political oppression and protect those who are trying to escape it.

Greg Scarlatoiu is the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the photostream of the US Mission Geneva.

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