International relations | Asia

14 November 2014

There are some clear and realistic steps the West can take when responding to the UN report on human rights in North Korea, writes Tessa Morris-Suzuki.

The report of the UN Commission of Enquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), chaired by Justice Michael Kirby, has provided a chilling and compelling account of widespread human rights abuses.

Writing in the last edition of Advance, Michael Kirby urged us to pick up on the inquiry’s mandate and demand real change from the North Korean regime.

But, how should other countries and bodies like the UN respond to the evidence presented by the Commission? The dilemmas are obvious, the answer less so.

Armed intervention would spark another Korean War with potentially devastating human consequences. Further economic sanctions by Western countries would have very limited effect, since the North Korean leadership seems impervious to international condemnation.

Despite these dilemmas, there are immediate and practical steps that could be taken, and that Australia could and should be involved in putting these into action.

First, some brief comments on the current situation in the DPRK.

The DPRK is a desperately poor country and beneath tight state controls that operate on the surface, it is also a chaotic country. A large share of economic activity occurs in the ‘grey market’. North Koreans, simply to survive, flout the law on a daily basis; everyday corruption oils a system where the authorities regularly turn a blind eye to a wide range of illicit economic activities, while clamping down fiercely on any signs of political dissent.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, relations between the DPRK and its most important ally and trading partner, China, have deteriorated (although some major new economic projects with China continue to be launched). The North Korean Government is trying to diversify the country’s international connections. One step in that process has been the re-opening of negotiation with Japan about various bilateral problems, including the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea—a problem which had led to a complete freeze in Japan-North Korea relations for more than a decade.

Against this background, there are three steps that the international community could take in response to the findings of the UN human rights report.

Firstly, as the report points out, major human rights abuses arise from the Chinese policy of returning refugees to North Korea, where they are generally imprisoned in terrible conditions. Given the noticeable chill in relations between China and the DPRK, now is a good time for strong but careful, quiet and diplomatic representation to be made to China to stop this practice of refoulement.

China is unlikely to make a public change to its policy, but is has already shown a willingness to turn a blind eye to the transport of a small number of refugees from its territory to safe destinations. A carefully coordinated international strategy on North Korean refugees could encourage China to extend this practice.

Secondly, this strategy would require more countries of the region to be willing to accept North Korean refugees. South Korea defines North Korean refugees as its citizens, and as a result, countries like Australia refuse to accept North Korean refugees for resettlement on the grounds that they have a home (South Korea) to go to.

But abundant evidence shows that many North Korean refugees have great difficulty settling in the South. Just as the international community cooperated to seek solutions to the problems of Indochinese refugees in the 1980s, there is a need for international cooperation to devise better responses to the present and future problems of North Korean refugees

Thirdly, the UN Commission recommends that states and civil society should foster people-to-people contact on social and cultural issues. This would promote internal change by helping to break down the barriers that separate North Korea from the outside world.

There are some fine existing models of small-scale cooperation between European and US NGOs and North Korean communities on health, agricultural and other projects. Australia’s current policy of avoiding all contact with the DPRK and denying visas to all North Koreans hinders rather than supports the development of such dialogue, and should be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, as Michael Kirby emphasises, the outside world must continue to make known and speak out about human rights abuses in the DPRK. The long-suffering citizens of North Korea deserve nothing less.

This piece was first published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Society’s magazine, Advance in September 2014:

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