By Robert R. King
For the past 15 years, the United Nations has been the leading forum in pressing North Korea for improvement and change in its human rights record. Recent actions on the part of the Administration raise questions about whether the United States is backing away from this earlier principled stand.
The UN Human Rights Council by resolution established a mandate for a Special Rapporteur to report to the Council on human rights conditions in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to make recommendations for improvement. A distinguished Thai law professor, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was named Special Rapporteur to report to the Council.
The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York have annually renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights conditions in the DPRK. Two other distinguished individuals have been named to succeed Professor Muntarbhorn in that position—Indonesian jurist Marzuki Darusman and Argentine law professor Tomás Ojea Quintana. All three sought to visit North Korea to observe first-hand conditions there, and all been ignored or rejected. Their reports establish an outstanding record of North Korea’s abuse and mistreatment of its citizens in violation of its own constitution and its international human rights obligations in treaties and agreements it has signed.
Through the recommendation and efforts of Mr. Darusman, a UN-designated Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the DPRK was established to document and analyze North Korea’s human rights. That three-member Commission concluded that Pyongyang systematically violated the human rights of its people, including freedom of thought, expression, and religion. The government discriminated against its people and denied them freedom of movement and residence, as well as denying them the right to food. The commission concluded that the North committed “crimes against humanity” and failed in its responsibility to protect its citizens. The crimes of the government included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial, and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhuman act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
This spring, Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana released his report to the UN Human Rights Commission on continuing human rights abuses in the North and gave a verbal report to the Council. In March, the Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted by voice vote a resolution which “Condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and urged Pyongyang to abandon its human rights abuses. A recorded vote was not requested by any state, since voting on this issue in the past had been so disproportionately in support.
Six weeks ago on October 24, Mr. Quintana presented a verbal report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee and again urged the Pyongyang regime to make improvements in its human rights. The Third Committee approved a tough resolution, including a call for the North Korean human rights situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court because of the seriousness of the human rights violations. The resolution, again, was approved by a voice vote because previous resolutions have been approved by such overwhelming margins. The General Assembly is expected formally to approve this resolution in the next few days.
Although North Korean denounces such UN resolutions and the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs, these actions do have an impact. They raise questions regarding the legitimacy and authority of the Kim regime in Pyongyang. In this era the legitimacy and authority of democracy and democratic institutions have broad authenticity. Hence even a totalitarian regime like North Korea is anxious to at least give the appearance of democratic legitimacy and authority. These United Nations resolutions and public debates clearly bring into question that legitimacy.
In the last five years, an additional point of leverage on North Korean human rights has emerged at the United Nations. The United States has led the fight in the Security Council to hold a debate on the issue of North Korea human rights. U.S. representatives have argued that serious human rights abuses in North Korea threaten the stability and security of Northeast Asia. Russia and China—as well as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—have a veto over UN actions taken in the Security Council, but the agenda of issues discussed by the Council requires 9 votes of the 15 Council members. Beginning in 2014, the U.S. has played a key role in the effort to devote a Council session to human rights in North Korea. Thus far, the Security Council has debated the topic for each of the last four years.
Recently, the record of the United States on North Korea human rights at the UN has been mixed. The Trump Administration in the United States has shown serious inconsistency in dealing with North Korea and human rights. President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is largely transactional: “What is in it for me.” Our foreign policy behavior is less motivated by morality, decency, or even long-term benefits. It is simply what do I get out of a foreign policy action?
That has been particularly true of the situation of human rights. When the President wanted to pressure North Korea, he led the charge on human rights. It was a heavy cudgel he could use against Kim Jong-un. Initially the President was a vocal advocate for human rights. He raised the cry over American citizens being held in North Korea, he singled out North Korean defectors in his 2018 State of the Union speech and met with a group of defectors in the Oval Office a day or two later, and Vice President Mike Pence was accompanied to the PyeongChang Olympics by the father of American student Otto Warmbier, who died after incarceration in Pyongyang.
After the Singapore summit in June between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, Trump announced the two “fell in love,” and he had received “beautiful letters” from the North Korean despot. Despite the fact that the American President has received little from the North toward denuclearization, he is apparently convinced that pressing the North on human rights is not helpful. The President has given no further attention to human rights in North Korea, and he has shown no further concern for the victims of Kim Jong-un’s brutality. Interestingly, we have seen little progress on denuclearization.
The Administration is not simply ignoring human rights, but it has also taken a series of steps that have moved the United States away from its long-standing concern for human rights in North Korea. The U.S. withdrew from participation and membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council, the UN body in Geneva which has played a key role in pressing Pyongyang on its human rights record. It is unfortunate that the U.S. no longer has this platform to advocate for our human rights agenda. We no longer have the opportunity to influence this important organization on North Korean human rights. This decision was not based on North Korea, but on other Trump administration concerns that some human rights violators participate in the Human Rights Council and others countries have used the Council to attack the United States for our policies. Nevertheless, the U.S. voice is not now heard at the Human Rights Council on human rights in North Korea, as it was in the past.
The month after the Singapore meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the United States Congress adopted legislation renewing the North Korea Human Rights Act, which directed the President to name a “Special Envoy on North Korea human rights issues with rank of Ambassador.” The legislation was adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support, a rarity in Congressional action these days. The position, which had been filled in the past, focused attention on the human rights abuses in the North. Thus far there is no indication that anyone is about to be nominated for the post, although we are approaching six months since President Trump signed the legislation into law. There is little indication that many of the other human rights requirements are being implemented.
The element which gives some hope for U.S. policy is the American effort to hold the debate on DPRK human rights this December in the UN Security Council, as it has since 2014. Thus far the U.S. has pressed the case with Security Council members, and American diplomats have worked to assure the necessary votes to put the topic on the agenda.
But Pyongyang is punching back. North Korean news media have accused Washington of “stoking confrontation” and “inciting an atmosphere of hostility” by calling for a Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights. Kim Jong-un has no interest in having his human rights policies questioned at the United Nations. By inciting tough rhetoric in the media, he hopes to get President Trump to back down. Trump’s uncritical embrace of Kim at Singapore has produced few concrete results in terms of denuclearization, but it has given the President a personal vested interest in keeping his “love affair” with Kim alive.
Where does the saga go from here? As President Trump is fond of saying, “We’ll see.” We will also see if the clear, unequivocal voice of the United States, that we have heard in the past, continues to call unequivocally for human rights in North Korea.
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 UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.