Government and governance, International relations, Law | Asia, East Asia

12 December 2017

While Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship may be grabbing all the headlines, the world should not forget the human rights atrocities occurring inside North Korea, Sarah Son writes.

North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear tests have kept the international media well occupied throughout 2017. These activities do not just provoke a surge in media coverage and the ire of President Trump’s Twitter account. They also overshadow attention to the North Korean government’s other great transgression in the eyes of the international community: its continuing human rights abuses against its people.

The hereditary North Korean regime has long used the most brutal means of oppression to maintain its iron-clad hold on power. Its methods have been well documented by foreign human rights groups, which have recorded the stories of thousands of defectors who have fled since the mid-1990s. Defector accounts now appear on Facebook feeds and TED Talks, drawing greater public attention than ever before to the scale of oppression and violence in the North.

Moreover, the state has long been unable to feed its people sufficiently. It now relies on ever-growing, cautiously state-sanctioned markets to provide food and other necessities to a population in which many continue to face chronic malnourishment.

In 2013 the United Nations responded to an international campaign to establish a commission of inquiry (UN COI) to expose the situation of human rights in North Korea. After a year of investigations, including hearing testimonies from hundreds of North Korean defectors, the 2014 COI report found that rights violations exceeded the high threshold for crimes against humanity.

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An aspect of the report that generated particular affront within the North Korean regime was the recommendation that the UN Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Put simply, it suggested that Kim Jong-un – a leader revered as a deity – and his collaborators may be held criminally accountable for their actions.

Unlike past public condemnation of its rights record, the COI’s findings and recommendations forced a North Korean response that was unprecedented. The North Korean foreign minister visited the UN General Assembly for the first time in 15 years, and state media launched a bitter personal attack against the COI’s Chairman.

A further sign that this very public airing of North Korea’s dirty laundry had made an impact was the sudden, belated acceptance in May 2014 of nearly half the recommendations from the 2009 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a UN process where states review one another’s human rights records and make recommendations. The North went on to engage fully with the 2014 review process, lauding the UPR as “The most innovative and cooperative mechanism in the [Human Rights Council]”.

However, the UPR process is perhaps the only UN mechanism that enables North Korea to make a show of compliance, while in fact making little substantive progress on its gravest areas of abuse. The UPR discourages naming and shaming, and of the recommendations North Korea accepted, many were related to development and other ‘soft’ targets.

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In May 2019 North Korea will undergo its next UPR. NGOs in South Korea and internationally have begun the process of preparing their recommendations for the review process. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea – an Argentinian human rights lawyer – has worked hard to keep the idea of criminal accountability for North Korea’s leadership atop the agenda. However, there is a limit to the practical steps that can be taken to achieve this. Certainly, ICC referral by the UN Security Council is unlikely to be achieved as long as Russia and China retain a veto.

The challenge for NGOs in preparing their submissions for the next UPR is how to deny the North further opportunities to make claims at compliance that in fact represent only minor concessions. Starting with easier targets such as social and economic welfare is certainly one way to initiate dialogue on human rights with North Korea. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of tougher talk on civil and political rights, particularly now that the international community can no longer claim ignorance of the North’s record.

The attempts by North Korea in the wake of the COI to refute the report’s claims and defend its image in the international arena suggest that Pyongyang has more to fear from such public criticism than it did in the past. The proliferation of prohibited media content entering the country means that awareness of conditions on the outside is growing, albeit to a degree that is difficult to measure. The ability of North Korea to control its own narrative internally on the acceptability of the way it treats its people may therefore be weakening.

In the face of sustained global attention on the physical threat North Korea presents to the region and the world, it is imperative that UN state parties and non-state actors also continue to keep human rights in the spotlight. This can be done by engaging in human rights dialogue with North Korea wherever possible, while holding it to account over the implementation of both past and future UPR recommendations.

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