The UN Security Council discussed North Korea’s human rights abuses in a closed session on Friday December 11. Because of the Covid pandemic, it was a virtual (online) meeting rather than an in-person session, and because of Chinese and Russian objections, it was a closed session without the presence of news media to report on the event. This was the first time in three years that the Security Council formally discussed the issue of North Korean human rights. The last time a session was held on this issue was in December 2017.
Following the release of an extensive report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2014, the Security Council held formal discussions on human rights abuses as a threat to peace and security in Korea in December 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
The discussion in 2017 took place almost a year after Donald Trump became President of the United States. The Trump administration, however, did not press for a Security Council discussion in 2018. The following year, in December 2019, the Trump administration stopped the holding of a session on North Korea human rights by refusing to sign a letter to place the issue on the Security Council agenda.
These Security Council discussions since the first in 2014 have been held in early December because December 10 is international “Human Rights Day.” That day was chosen in recognition of the UN General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.
Joint Statement of Eight Security Council Members—Including the United States
Since the Security Council session in December 2020 was not accessible to the press or public, eight of the fifteen Council members issued a Joint Statement following the meeting. The eight were the United States, France and the United Kingdom—three of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. The other five countries, which make up half of the ten non-permanent or rotating members of the Security Council, are Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Germany, and Japan.
The joint declaration said “The situation of human rights in the DPRK is appalling and gets worse by the day.” The document was delivered in the Security Council meeting on behalf of the eight countries by the German Ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen. The document enumerated human rights denied the North Korean people: “Individuals in the DPRK are stripped of nearly all their human rights, their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion or belief, among many others. . . . Media freedom is non-existent, neither is there any possibility of a political opposition to the regime’s tight grip on its people.”
The Joint Statement was particularly critical of North Korea’s prisons camps where “an estimated 100,000 persons, including children, are imprisoned” and where “they are subjected to torture, forced labor, summary executions, starvations, sexual and gender-based violence, and other forms of inhumane treatment.” The Chinese government was also implicitly criticized, though not by name: “Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled the country. Governments along the way often detain and forcibly repatriate asylum seekers. When they are forcibly returned, would-be defectors are reported to be subjected to torture, sexual violence, imprisonment, forced abortions, and in some instances execution.”
The eight countries also reemphasized “the importance of a discussion of this topic in the Security Council as the DPRK’s human rights violations pose and imminent threat to international peace and security.” They also expressed support for the work of the UN Special Rapporteur in human rights in the DPRK. The Special Rapporteur is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and reports on human rights problems in North Korea to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly.
Washington’s About Face on Human Rights Discussion in the Security Council
The fact that the United States was one of the eight countries which signed the Joint Statement represents a dramatic flip flop on the issue of discussing North Korea’s abysmal human rights record in the Security Council. The United States completely reversed its position from 2019 to 2020. In December 2019 the United States single handedly prevented such a discussion. The headline of the story in The New York Times gives the story as it was reported in 2019: “Trump Officials Block U.N. Meeting on Human Rights Abuses in North Korea: The U.S. is trying to preserve a diplomatic opening with Kim Jong-un, even as North Korea dismisses President Trump as a ‘heedless and erratic old man.’” Human rights organizations were quick to criticize the United States for preventing the holding the Security Council meeting in December 2019. Human Rights Watch said, “It is a bitter irony that on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Security Council will give North Korea’s atrocious human rights record a free pass.”
It would appear that the failure of President Trump’s high-stakes personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un failed to achieve the breakthrough he was seeking. It was quite clear that North Korea was not interested in a security agreement with the United States on terms that both countries could accept. Ten months earlier in February 2019 the Hanoi summit was an embarrassing failure for both Kim Jong-un and President Trump. Working level talks in Stockholm in October 2019 which sought to find a way forward also failed despite a serious effort by U.S. negotiator Stephen Biegun.
The Trump administration initially used North Korean human rights as an instrument to gain an advantage in bargaining with the North. The issue of human rights is far down the list of administration priorities. In retrospect it is clear that President Trump’s criticism of Kim Jong-un on human rights in 2017 and early 2018 was simply an effort to use the issue to pressure the North for the release of U.S. citizens detained by the North and for progress on security issues.
The unexpected announcement in March 2018 of a forthcoming Singapore summit and the subsequent release of three U.S. citizens who had been detained in North Korea was followed by United States silence on North Korea’s human rights record. President Trump praised Kim Jong-un for the “excellent” treatment of the three U.S. prisoners by the North Koreans, ignoring the tragic death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier just months earlier.
When the issue of North Korea human rights came up in the fall of 2020, President Trump’s attitude toward Kim Jong-un had changed since the era of hopeful reconciliation (March 2018-early 2020). Three in-person meetings, including two summits, and the exchange of “beautiful” letters had produced nothing that the President could hail as great victories. As he went into the presidential election his North Korea policy was a liability.
By fall 2020 the U.S. position on taking up North Korean human rights in the Security Council was no longer constrained by the hope that Kim Jong-un might productively engage with the United States. When the decision was made that the United States would support the Security Council discussion on human rights, it was clear, though not yet publicly acknowledged, that Trump would not have a second term. There was no longer any reason to attempt to charm Kim Jong-un to reach a security agreement.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Russ Allison Loar’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.