Tag Archive | "Human Rights"

Drought in North Korea — What Should Be the Response?

By Robert R. King

Just a few days ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that North Korea is facing its worst drought in 16 years.  The report, prepared by the FAO in cooperation with the European Union’s Joint Research Center, concludes that the period April through June of this year was particularly dry, which has delayed planting and stunted plant growth in key crop-growing areas.  Food security in the DPRK has been precarious since the famine of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now the UN agency is warning that “cereal output may decrease significantly.”

The other shoe that has yet to drop this year are floods.  North Korea frequently faces late summer monsoon rains and occasional typhoon rains in September that complicate farm production.  Because North Korean government policies limit private farming on good farm land in the flatter bottomlands, farmers end up over-cultivating hillsides.  Then when the late-summer rains come, they can accelerate the runoff, causing devastating damage to the hillsides through erosion.

The late August 2016 floods along the Tumen River on the northern DPRK border with China and Russia were caused by Typhoon Lionrock.  In North Korea, the floods killed over 500 people, left over 100,000 homeless, and did major damage to farmland in the area.  Flooding such as this is an all too common occurrence, and exacerbates existing food scarcity.

Unfortunately, food shortages in the North are not unusual.  Even in an average year, the country has to stretch to meet the food needs of its 25 million people.  The government provides only limited resources for agricultural inputs and equipment, farming methods are not the most modern or effective, and central planning generates further inefficiencies.  Some improvements have been made in recent years with better farming practices that reward individual efforts to encourage greater efficiency, but shortages are still serious.

In the 1980s, annual grain production (principally rice and corn) averaged around 8 million tons.  During the famine (1996-2003), annual production averaged 3 million tons, with some years considerably lower.  For the last five years, it has averaged just below 5 million tons.  Furthermore, gaps between regions and a poor transportation system make it difficult to adjust for regional differences.

The suffering of the North Korean people is certainly not their own fault.  They have little, if any, ability to influence the decisions of the tyrants that control their fate.  The food shortages are the responsibility of the regime.

In fact, the regime provides ample food and luxuries for the elite in Pyongyang, and the military leadership and elite military units will have sufficient food.  Resources that could provide much-needed inputs for agricultural production will be spent for nuclear and missile development and maintaining the military, and of course the supply of luxuries will continue to flow to the privileged.

Certainly UN agencies will appeal to member states to help North Korea. However, humanitarian assistance from the UN, particularly the World Food Program, will likely be difficult to secure.  There are great demands on UN humanitarian resources in other parts of the world right now, and in recent years special appeals to provide aid to the North Koreans have secured only limited help.  North Korea has lavished resources on missile and nuclear capabilities, despite the urgent humanitarian needs of its own people and the condemnation of its military actions by the UN Security Council.  Thus, aid to North Korea will be a particularly difficult case to make to elected political leaders.

In addition, the U.S. government is unlikely to be responsive.  A sharply divided Congress, preoccupied with healthcare, taxation, and other divisive domestic issues, will find it very difficult to support humanitarian aid to a country which has announced that its nuclear and missile programs are aimed at Washington.  Furthermore, the Trump Administration has indicated its intent to significantly cut back on all U.S. foreign assistance.

The new government of the Republic of Korea is likely to give the most serious consideration to the humanitarian needs of the North.  These suffering Koreans are their cousins, and many Koreans in the South have roots in the North.  In fact, Seoul has put forward an initial proposal for engagement with Pyongyang.  Based on previous experience, the North will likely expect to be paid to engage, and in the past humanitarian aid has been a place to start.

Another avenue for assistance in coping with the effects of drought is private humanitarian groups.  A good number of them are American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which have a good record and experience in aiding the North.  Unfortunately, these NGOs face serious difficulties raising funds.  These groups are well-organized and managed, do extremely good work, and have dedicated and compassionate leaders.  The DPRK, however, has become such an international pariah because of its nuclear and missile programs, its periodic provocations, and crude verbal outbursts that large and small donors alike are reluctant to be involved.

In considering a possible response by governments, international organizations, and private non-profit organizations to the growing signs of an impending food shortage in the DPRK, two considerations are important.

First, they must assess the need for help.  Our satellite imagery is remarkable, and we can make reasonable estimates about the extent of the need from afar.  But on-the-ground assessment is essential to determine the reality.  What crops and which regions are most affected?  What steps is Pyongyang taking to deal with this problem?  What are the transportation issues?  Does the North have the capacity to move aid from ports to affected areas?

Second, agreements must be reached to allow on-the-ground monitoring by designated representatives of the country or organization providing the aid.  In the past, South Korean and international organizations delivered food aid to the border or to the ports, and Pyongyang determined where the aid was sent.  Some was apparently sold on the black market and the payments may have helped fund the military. Other funds subsidized the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.  If aid is provided, foreign donors and the international community need to be assured that humanitarian assistance is going to those most in need.

The longsuffering North Korean people have limited alternatives for humanitarian help.  Unfortunately, the bad decisions and self-destructive policies of its own leadership, over which they have little or no control, make it very difficult to find help for them.

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 (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Five Documentaries About Life in North Korea

By Jenna Gibson

Life in North Korea is largely unknown to much of the outside world. The following five documentaries provide insight into the lives of North Koreans and the challenges faced by those who try to escape.

1. Under the Sun (Available on Netflix)

This is Pyongyang, presented virtually without comment.  By Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky, Under the Sun was originally begun with the sanction of the North Korean government. Throughout filming, Mansky was able to hide additional footage, which eventually made up the final documentary. It shows the main subjects, a young girl and her family, recording scenes over and over, with a government official off-screen directing every word, every movement, every smile captured by the camera.

If there is one critique of this documentary, it is that the lack of explanation makes this film inaccessible for viewers who are not well-versed in what’s going on in the DPRK. When I mentioned this to a Russian-American friend, however, she pointed out that this film was made with a Russian audience in mind – an audience that would immediately recognize some of the details in staging that Americans may miss. In any case, this is certainly an interesting and unique look into what the North Korean regime wants the outside world to see.

2. Crossing Heaven’s Border

This Emmy-nominated documentary by a South Korean journalist follows the desperate journey of North Korean defectors fleeing to freedom. It’s one thing to read that defectors have to endure a harrowing journey, it’s another thing to watch them crawl through miles of dense jungle, desperately trying to escape detection.

The journalist released a book of the same name a few years later, giving more of the backstory of how he decided to follow this journey, and the difficulties he and his crew endured (not to mention the defectors they were trailing).

3. The Lovers and the Despot

Truth is stranger than fiction, particularly when North Korea is involved. And this may be one of the most bizarre stories of all, involving a kidnapped actress, her unsuccessful savior, and a movie-loving dictator.

Kim Jong-il was notorious for his love of movies, and directed many films over his lifetime.

In 1978, he decided that he needed new talent to star in his projects, and decided to lure prominent South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee to Hong Kong, where she was kidnapped by North Korean agents. Her ex-husband, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, attempted to find her, and wound up in Pyongyang as well.

The most fascinating piece of this film is the actual recorded conversations between Kim Jong-il and his captives, which the two secretly recorded in part to prove that the crazy story of their disappearance truly did happen. This is a must-see for casual or more serious DPRK-watchers.

4. I am Sun Mu (Available on Netflix)

This film shows a very different side to the plight of the North Korean people – following a defector artist who is pushing back against the regime. Sun Mu (a psedonym that means “no boundaries”) was once a propaganda artist in North Korea. Now, after having escaped, he has turned his art into satire against the regime.

The film follows Sun Mu as he prepares for an art show in China, a bold and dangerous proposition considering the close ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. This documentary is must-see for casual and professional North Korea watchers alike.

5. Frontline – Secret State of North Korea

Using secret footage smuggled out of North Korea as well as defector and expert interviews, this film is aimed mainly for a general audience that may not know much about North Korea. A lot of the focus is on how North Korea has changed, including the emerging black market. This project is a great introduction into life in North Korea today.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Could North Korea be Sent to the International Criminal Court Over Kim Jong-nam?

By Troy Stangarone

Under Kim Jong-un North Korea has continued to commit a wide range of human rights violations including political and religious discrimination, forced abductions, rape, and murder. These and other violations of the North Korean people’s rights have been well documented by both the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report and the continuing testimony of those who have escaped the regime. However, with it becoming increasingly clear that North Korea had a role in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam some have suggested that North Korea be investigated and tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Despite North Korea’s human rights violations, North Korea has faced few costs for its actions. The United States has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their role in North Korea’s human rights violations, but despite the evidence against the regime there have been few efforts to hold the regime accountable. The COI report suggested referring North Korea to the ICC and the UN General Assembly has passed resolutions encouraging the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC, but these efforts have yet to result in the case being referred to the ICC.

In recent days we have seen both the South Korean government and South Korean human rights and defector organizations call for the ICC to take up the case of North Korea’s human rights violations. However, the ICC may not be a viable venue for holding North Korea accountable.

The ICC was established by UN member states to try cases of human rights violations and other crimes that states either did not have the capacity or the will to try. However, the court only has jurisdiction over crimes committed on or after July 1 2002 and those crimes committed by a State that has accepted the court’s jurisdiction by acceding to the Treaty of Rome or that is referred to it by the UN Security Council.

In the case of North Korea, its human rights violations committed before July 1, 2002 would not be eligible for review by the ICC, but all of the crimes committed since then and under Kim Jong-un would be within the court’s jurisdiction. However, North Korea is not a party to the Treaty of Rome, nor is Malaysia, and for the court to investigate and try the regime the UN Security Council would have to refer to case to the ICC. There seems little hope of that occurring.

When the UN General Assembly urged the UN Security Council previously to refer North Korea to the ICC, the Security Council declined to take up the case. Despite North Korea conducting an assassination using a toxin banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention (which North Korea is also not a party to) that could have endangered other lives, it seems unlikely that the Security Council would change its stance over the murder of Kim Jong-nam. This is especially the case with Russia having recently withdrawn from the Treaty of Rome declaring that the ICC had become politicalized when efforts were begun to bring Russians before the court for their actions in the Ukraine. Similarly, African states have withdrawn from the court as it has gone after their leaders. In this environment, it seems unlikely that Russia or China would allow a referral of North Korea to take place.

If the ICC is not a viable option, what recourse does the international community have? There are a series of states that have universal jurisdictions which allows for the prosecution of crimes against humanity in national courts. Spain, for example, has tried a series of individuals from Latin America for human rights violations with its case against Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, being one of the higher profile examples. The indictment by a Spanish judge led to Pinochet being arrested in London and held for more than a year before being allowed to return to Chile where we was later tried for his crimes. While Kim Jong-un is unlikely to travel abroad and risk facing arrest, courts with universal jurisdiction could potentially be used to go after other North Korean officials who do travel abroad or to seek financial awards that seize North Korean assets.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nation’s Photo on flickr Creative Commons.

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Challenges for NGOs in Internationalizing North Korean Human Rights

By Greg Scarlatoiu

Since the days of the great famine, for more than two decades, 30,000 North Koreans escaped and resettled in South Korea. Others have resettled in other countries, including 211 in the United States by the end of 2016. They have been the heroes of the movement. Their testimony has informed investigators and empowered public awareness campaigns. They founded NGOs that conducted effective information campaigns and public outreach. Through their hard work and dedication, they made critical contributions to internationalizing North Korean human rights.

Continuing to internationalize the North Korean human rights issue is a critical task. Civil society in the United States, South Korea, and many other countries will continue to play a main role in this process. But many NGOs face significant resource limitations. South Korea, in particular, presents a challenging environment. In South Korea, the culture of charity is rather different from the United States. Individual contributions may be given toward scholarships and other educational goals. North Korean human rights organizations will find it hard to identify individual benefactors. Public funding in South Korea was hardly available for North Korean human rights NGOs. The Human Rights Foundation recently established pursuant to the ROK North Korean Human Rights Act could provide a lifeline to South Korean NGOs, but political tension and conflict between conservatives and progressives prevent it from becoming fully operational, for as long as its eleven-member board does not have quorum. Private corporations that donated to causes perceived as “conservative,” including North Korean human rights, during the decade of the Sunshine Policy, were penalized through tax audits and other more or less “unconventional” punitive means. Consequently, they were not overly enthusiastic to give to North Korean human rights defenders even during the past nine years, with conservative administrations in the Blue House. The political outlook in South Korea indicates that corporate charitable propensity toward such groups is unlikely to improve.

Human rights groups in South Korea, in the United States and even elsewhere will continue to depend on the same lifeline: The U.S. government, U.S. private foundations, and American individual donors dedicated to the North Korean human rights cause. The funding available to North Korean human rights groups, from both public and private sources, has been limited. The number of organizations fundraising for the cause in the United States has been on the increase. This group of organizations includes new entrants to the area, South Korea-based organizations now seeking fundraising opportunities in the United States, frustrated by the difficulty of this task at home, and organizations that didn’t use to have an interest in North Korean human rights, but have now joined the movement. This is a decidedly positive development, ultimately conducive to truly internationalizing the issue. What we haven’t seen so far is a worldwide campaign on North Korean human rights run by one of the large grassroots organizations. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have certainly made critical contributions to the movement, through their research, reporting, advocacy, and action at the UN. But a worldwide grassroots campaign on a par with other campaigns such large NGOs run is yet to take shape. Many NGOs, their staff, their board and advisory council members and volunteers have the know-how, institutional capacity and enthusiasm to translate this into reality. But adequate resources are needed to maintain momentum. Increasing currently available funding and broadening the donor base will be essential.

In the United States, awareness of North Korea’s human rights violations has recently been at its highest point ever. Unlike UN Security Council Resolutions 1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, 2094, 2270 and 2321, US Public Law No. 114-122 includes not only the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles in the North Korean behavior subjected to sanctions, but also human rights violations. In 2016, Congress made it a legal requirement that the State Department report on the status of North Korea’s political prison camps and ongoing developments within this vast system of unlawful imprisonment.

But securing the needed resources to highlight the North Korean human rights violations and bring freedom to the people of North Korea continues to be a challenge in the United States as well. A dedicated source of funding for North Korea programs will continue to be needed in appropriations. Moving forward, it will be the Administration’s responsibility to make the request, and up to Capitol Hill to make the appropriations. Especially while tackling so many daunting challenges other than North Korean human rights, the Administration may lack the necessary motivation, unless questions come from the legislative branch. Directives to the Administration supporting North Korean human rights programs, including efforts to research, report, and disseminate investigation results and recommendations as well as programs supporting the flow of outside information into North Korea will continue to be essential. While the legislative branch has by far been the most active branch of the U.S. Government on North Korean human rights, personal dedication will continue to be critical, both on the Hill and in the Administration. Governor (former Congressman and Senator) Sam Brownback set the standard, and other members of Congress, most notably Congressman Ed Royce, have carried the torch. To effectively address North Korean human rights, ever increasing Congressional support will always be needed.

During previous “surges” in funding for North Korean human rights NGOs, several initial problems were obvious: the funding was disbursed too quickly, and resulted in a proliferation of small NGOs with little absorption capacity, also lacking fiscal responsibility. While most NGOs funded by the U.S. Government today have overcome those initial issues, improving the grantees’ institutional capacity will be particularly important in the case of NGOs staffed and run by former North Koreans. Along those lines, training and human capacity building programs focused on young North Korean escapees will constitute worthy investments.

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 David Maxwell’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The North Korean Human Rights Conundrum: Moving Forward

By Greg Scarlatoiu

The crimes against humanity and other shocking human rights violations committed by North Korea’s Kim regime have received more attention after the February 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK. In the 21st century, North Korea continues to be the only country on the face of the planet that runs a vast gulag system imprisoning 120,000 men, women and children, victimized by what author Mark Helprin once described as a “slow-motion holocaust.” In the 21st century, the Kim regime continues to classify its citizens based on their perceived degree of loyalty to the regime. In Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, members of three generations of the same family are punished for the supposed trespasses of one relative, pursuant to yeon-jwa-jae, a system of guilt-by-association of feudal extraction. In the 21st century, the Kim regime continues to hold captive South Korean and foreign nationals abducted by its agents and U.S. citizens sentenced to long years of hard labor on fabricated or grossly exaggerated charges.

Despite the enormity of North Korea’s human rights violations, international attention cannot be taken for granted. While the outpouring of millions of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia continues, a refugee crisis has been emerging in South Asia. North Korean human rights investigators and activists must continue to compete for attention as massive human rights crises erupt elsewhere. And they continue to worry about the reinstatement of the pre-UN COI predicament, when the Kim regime’s nukes and missiles often out-competed human rights concerns.

North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are critical issues, as they threaten regional and international peace and security and endanger the lives of millions. But, under the Kim family regime, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, as they are essential to the regime’s top strategic objectives, i.e. its own survival and the establishment of Kim regime hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. The Kim regime understands that Middle Eastern despots who gave up their WMDs lost their absolute power, their vast treasure and ultimately their lives. The Kim regime may also have noticed that Ukraine, a newly independent state at the time hoping for market and democratic reforms, gave up almost 200 ICBMs, more than 30 long-range strategic bombers, and about 1,700 nuclear warheads while acceding to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. While Ukraine did not have operational control of its nuclear arsenal anyway, its abandonment of nuclear weapons and strategic delivery vehicles through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances failed to safeguard its territorial integrity. Twenty years after the Budapest accord, part of Ukraine was occupied by the Russian Federation, one of the three nuclear powers that had guaranteed its territorial integrity. The Kim regime has learned from historic precedent. Moreover, every time North Korea engaged in diplomatic interaction over its nuclear weapons and missiles with no intention to abandon their development, that engagement made the regime look strong, internally and externally.

But nations keen on maintaining international peace and security have also learned from historic precedent. As the recent tragedy unfolding throughout the Middle East has taught us, despots committing crimes against their own people are certain to become threats to regional peace and security, especially if they are armed with WMDs and the means to deliver them. Against that background, every time the crimes against humanity and other human rights violations are brought up at the UN or other fora, the legitimacy of the Kim regime is undermined. So, while the focus on nuclear weapons enhances the legitimacy of the regime, focus on human rights undermines it.

The Kim regime cares about its perceived legitimacy, but, in order to maintain its grip on power, it continues to run illicit activities, enslave and exploit its workers at home and abroad, engage in diplomatic deception, threats and aggression against its neighbors, and conduct what author Robert Collins views as a systematic “policy of human rights denial” victimizing the overwhelming majority of its people. Every time human rights is brought up, whatever semblance of legitimacy the Kim regime might retain further dwindles, especially when juxtaposed to free, democratic and prosperous South Korea.

Far from being a nuisance for any past or future diplomatic interaction aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, addressing North Korea’s human rights provides the key to understanding the Kim regime and its motives. One of the most important determinations made by the UN COI is that North Korea can be characterized as a totalitarian state that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within. The UN COI found that crimes against humanity and other abysmal human rights violations are at the very core of the North Korean regime’s modus operandi. The COI has characterized North Korea as “a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” due to the “gravity, scale, and nature of the violations committed” by the North Korean regime

If, at some stage, talks with North Korea resume, human rights must be addressed. But if that happens, the North Korean regime should not expect to be rewarded for mere participation. As unlikely as they may be, steps to address the toughest human rights issue of all, recognizing the existence of political prison camps and granting international access to these unlawful detention facilities, will be an absolute must. Moreover, diplomacy, talks, human rights campaigns and sanctions alike will have to target the right individuals and institutions, those who are truly responsible for devising and implementing North Korea’s policy of human rights denial.

Moving forward, any initiative must be based on a thorough understanding of the evolution and current nature of North Korea’s Kim regime. Since the days of the great famine of the mid to late 1990s, a bottom-up marketization process has emancipated many North Koreans from exclusive dependence on the Public Distribution System (PDS), a tool of ultimate social control. In the process, a post-communist, post-industrial kleptocratic network emerged. Fully subservient to the Kim family, the members of the North Korean kleptocratic network are the enablers of tyranny. The Kim clan requests absolute subservience in exchange for admission to this exclusive club. Far from having been overwhelmed by money and market opportunities, the Songbun system of loyalty-based social classification is alive and well in North Korea. Markets are surely a positive development, but those who ultimately control them must have good Songbun, or at the very least access to those of good Songbun. Through giftpolitik and fearpolitik, the Kim regime ensures that North Korea’s “political marketplace” should not become a cartel, but an absolute criminal takeover of the state by a ruling family that eliminates any threat of new “political entrepreneurship.” The only threat of what Michael Porter refers to in his “Five Forces” as “alternative political structure” the Kim regime faces is South Korea. Efforts to address its human rights violations exacerbate its fear of alternative political structures. Ensuring effective sanctioning of the regime limits its access to the sources of political finance it needs to keep the elites happy.

Moving forward, one must effectively apply all instruments available in the status quo-busting toolkit: diplomatic and civil society pressure centered on North Korean human rights violations; sanctions; bilateral efforts by like-minded states and allies; persuading North Korea’s protectors that aspiring superpowers must not harbor, aid or abet regimes that commit crimes against humanity; and, since true change can come only from the people of North Korea, information campaigns that tell them about the outside world, in particular about South Korea, about the corruption of their leaders, the inner core of the Kim family regime, and about their own human rights situation –  the protection and rights they deserve as human beings.

However unlikely that might be, the Kim regime should be encouraged to consider a gesture of good will that would have no impact on its grip on power and at the same time could restore a little of the credibility it has squandered away over decades of diplomatic deception. That gesture would be the release of American hostages it continues to detain: Kim Dong-chul, imprisoned on fabricated espionage charges; and Otto Warmbier, the UVA student imprisoned for committing alleged “hostile acts” that would amount at best to a fraternity prank in any normal country.

While efforts at the UN will not provide an overnight miracle cure, one has to keep in mind that, despite justified controversy on many other fronts, the UN COI report was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the UN Human Rights Council. Although the membership of the Council is often not conducive to progress, all 47 member states did establish the UN COI by consensus in 2013, through a resolution that didn’t have to go to a vote. The subsequent report resulted in three strong Human Rights Council resolutions, three firm General Assembly resolutions, and North Korean human rights being placed on the agenda of the Security Council in December 2014, 2015, and 2016. Despite the inherent imperfections of the UN system and the UN Human Rights Council in particular, these efforts must continue. The movement to expose and eliminate North Korean human rights violations has come too far. Withdrawal is not an option, and the UN system is a critical vehicle in this campaign.

Following the UN COI report, the North Korean human rights movement has gained and maintained critical momentum. However, this is not a sweeping victory. The North Korean regime has not even attempted to implement any of the 19 recommendations made by the UN COI. Implementation of Universal Periodic Review and human rights treaty body recommendations has been sporadic and pro forma at best. At the UN, the High Commissioner for Human Rights did establish, in the summer of 2015, a field office in Seoul, as recommended by the UN COI, while the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have extended and continued country-specific human rights monitoring and reporting mechanisms. But Security Council action is still lacking, although North Korean human rights has been placed on its agenda three times. It is not only the referral of the North Korean case, but also the inclusion of the grave human rights concerns, in addition to nukes and missiles, that is still lacking in the sanctions regime grounded in Security Council resolutions. Advocacy, research, and cross-country programs will be essential in keeping the issue in the crosshairs of like-minded permanent Security Council members, despite anticipated Chinese and Russian hostility.

Moving ahead, all hope would be lost in the absence of a robust U.S.-ROK alliance. The alliance, friendship, and partnership between the two nations is the bedrock of peace, prosperity, freedom, human rights and reunification on the Korean peninsula. In the coming years, openly and effectively supporting Korean reunification will be the only way of resolving the extraordinarily difficult issues we are confronting on the Korean peninsula today: North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles, and its abysmal human rights record.

As daunting as that will always be, the United States must seek ways to persuade China and the Russian Federation to ensure proper implementation of sanctions pursuant to UNSC resolutions and U.S. Public Law No. 114-122, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. China can’t transform North Korea, but it can shut it down. All China has to do is sever the Dandong-Shinuiju transportation route, and the North Korean regime will be in trouble. China’s objective has been to ensure stability on the Sino-DPRK border, prevent large refugee inflows, and create some business opportunities in the process. China is not enamored with the Kim Jong-un regime, but continues to regard it as the most desirable political arrangement conducive to its strategic goals in North Korea. China has not changed its fundamental strategic stance toward North Korea as a satellite state, buffer zone, and bargaining chip, but it does have leverage over North Korea.

“Outsourcing” North Korea policy to China cannot be a desirable approach. But, in addition to improving the effectiveness of sanctions implementation, there is one area where China alone can clearly make a difference: the protection and resettlement of North Korean refugees. The United States and its allies must use all available persuasive powers to convince China to cease and desist the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees. China must abide by its 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Additional Protocol. North Korean escapees in China are refugees sur place, pursuant to the 1951 Convention, as they face a credible fear of persecution in North Korea, especially if they came across South Koreans or Christian missionaries along the road of defection. They must be granted protection and access to the process leading to acquiring political refugee status. In a December 16 2013 letter the UN COI addressed to China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, it warned that Chinese officials who forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees facing a well-founded fear of persecution amounts to aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

Effective implementation of sanctions will depend not only on Chinese compliance, but also on a solid understanding of the modus operandi of the North Korean regime, its strategic objectives, and the individuals and institutions responsible for its policy of human rights denial. The U.S. State Department and Treasury Department will have to continue to ensure that officials, including senior officials along North Korea’s human rights denial chain of command are identified and included in lists of sanctioned individuals. Treasury rules and procedures are not necessarily the most effective way to address North Korea. They are meant for more or less “regular” sovereign states, but the nature of the Kim regime is very different. The U.S. Government must find ways to effectively apply punitive measures to individuals truly responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korea, without being distracted by the presence of pro forma institutions devoid of any power or influence that just pretend to perform tasks including legislative functions.

UN action will continue to matter. The U.S. Government must continue to support strong resolutions on North Korean human rights, including provisions on crimes against humanity and accountability, at the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. Efforts to press for the referral of the North Korean regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as recommended in the UN COI report, must also continue. The United States must continue to work with allies South Korea, Japan, the EU and others to strengthen the coalition of like-minded states ready to support strong measures addressing North Korean human rights violations

Coordination with UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana and also with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will be necessary. Efforts must continue to gain access inside North Korea and to conduct site visits on the terms of the UN and possibly U.S. officials involved.

It will be important to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable, in particular North Korean women and children. The investigation of violence and any form of abuse perpetrated against women along the road of defection through China and other third countries must be a priority.

Diplomatic efforts may as well be renewed at some stage, but based on a thorough understanding of the North Korean regime. The agencies involved in bilateral and multilateral negotiations execute policy designed elsewhere within the regime (the Organization and Guidance Department in particular). While unavoidably engaging with pro-forma North Korean agencies and ministries, one must find ways to effectively influence those that are decisive in policy-making (OGD).

North Korea must be pressed to allow internationally acceptable standards of project monitoring and evaluation as well as transparency, as a prerequisite to humanitarian assistance reaching out to the most vulnerable. UN agencies, many of them reliant on significant U.S. contributions, must adopt a Human Rights up Front approach to their humanitarian operations in North Korea. They must be cognizant of human rights issues and apply the findings and recommendations of the UN COI to their work in-country. UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs involved in North Korea should work toward uniform standards of project monitoring and evaluation and transparency, to be adopted across the board by UN agencies, bilateral humanitarian and development agencies as well as private NGOs.

The UN COI was an initiative envisioned, designed, and effectively promoted by civil society. Civil society organizations addressing North Korean human rights in the United States and South Korea in particular need support and resources to continue their work. Creative approaches are needed to encourage the private sector to engage in public-private partnerships, or entirely private initiatives to support such organizations. Information dissemination operations deserve particular attention. Investment is needed in both content and the vehicles of transmission.

Human rights NGOs, including my own, will continue to do what the Kim regime fears the most: finding out and disseminating the truth about its crimes against humanity and other human rights violations. As we move ahead, we need determination, resources, and a concerted effort involving all available vehicles, including action at the UN, sanctions, diplomacy, information campaigns to empower the people inside North Korea and human capacity building programs to empower those who have escaped the country. The North Korean human rights movement has come a long way. Withdrawal or surrender is not an option.

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 European Commission DG ECHO’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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More than North Korean Diplomats Fled to the South in 2016

By Patrick Niceforo

Last year, North Korea dominated international headlines with stories about their satellite launch, ballistic missile launches, and two nuclear tests. However, another interesting phenomenon did not receive as much media attention. In 2016, while Thae Yong-ho’s defection from North Korea’s London embassy was widely covered, a total of 1,418  North Korean refugees entered South Korea, an 11.2 percent increase from the year prior and the first time that the number of refugees has gone up since 2013. What is the cause for this increase and what is the primary driver for North Koreans to leave?

The most dramatic shift in recent years occurred between 2011 and 2012 when the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea fell from 2,706 to 1,502. DPRK watchers have suggested several reasons for this sudden drop including North Korea’s tightened border security, increased propaganda, and overall healthier economy relative to previous years. While it may be too soon to tell if this trend has reversed, the slight increase for 2016 may suggest a shift in defectors’ motivations. Experts have suggested that there is an increase in overall political dissatisfaction and deteriorating loyalty to the Kim regime. In fact, the North Korean government has even had to tighten border security in order to deal with the temporary bursts in defections after events such as flooding and high-profile defections.

Defectors 2005-2016

Experts have pointed to an increase in certain kinds of North Korean refugees, such as overseas laborers and individuals belonging to the middle-class, as a sign that more people are growing dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification concluded that, based on survey results, the number of North Korean defectors who self-identify as “middle-class” has jumped to over 55% after 2014 from 19% before 2001. According to another survey, 90% of defectors stated that living conditions have deteriorated under Kim Jong-un.  Also of note is the increase in high-level defections of North Korea’s elite, or at least increased mention of in the media. The data seems to suggest that a mix of political grievances and economic hardship are primary motivators for leaving North Korea as opposed to the famine in North Korea in the 1990s.

With this increase, South Korea is working to improve services for refugees. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification recently issued their Work Plan for 2017 in which they stated that their overall objective was to “Encourage North Korea to denuclearize by making right choices and lay the foundation for a peaceful unification.” Defectors also played a key role in their plans, including strategies to a) carry out follow up measures for social integration policy of North Korean defectors; b) spread consensus on the need for peaceful unification through participation and communication, as well as public-private cooperation; and c) provide unification education in preparation for a unified future.

North Korean refugees have also been prominently featured in the South Korean media recently with a number of biographies and popular television shows such as Now on My Way to Meet You. Whether these programs are explicitly part of a strategy to prepare South Korea for more North Korean refugees is unclear, but they do accomplish two related goals for the Ministry of Unification, promoting sympathy and social integration and undermining the Kim regime’s credibility by highlighting its inability to provide for its people.

Despite the increased exposure to the South Korean public, North Koreans still face many obstacles to assimilation such as gaps in physical health, bullying, and unemployment. Moreover, recent political developments have affected the travel status of North Korean refugees outside the Korean peninsula. Among the tens of thousands of people affected by President Trump’s executive order on travel restrictions is a small, but unspecified number of North Korean refugees. However small, the rising number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea may be a sign that the United States and other countries may likewise receive additional applications for asylum.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, “Freedom from want, freedom from fear and the freedom of future generations to inherit a healthy natural environment – these are the interrelated building blocks of human and therefore national security.” As of 2016, over 30,000 North Koreans have entered South Korea for one reason or another. Although the Kim regime is infamous for its labor camps and nuclear testing, it is the absence of opportunity and certain liberties that seem to be driving people out of North Korea.

Patrick Niceforo is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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A Conversation on Human Rights in North Korea with Justice Michael Kirby

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Justice Michael Kirby who led the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea. The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the conversation can be found at http://keia.podbean.com/.

Jenna Gibson: It’s now been two years since the Commission of Inquiry’s report was first released. How do you see things, have they changed much in those two years, and can you see some long-term impact?

Justice Michael Kirby: The DPRK is a very closed society. We can’t really know for sure what is going on either in the community generally or in the leadership except insofar as we are permitted to know by the propaganda and broadcasts and media from that country. Therefore we can’t be certain. On the whole, I think the report of the Commission of Inquiry had some impact, possibly for example, in what appears to be going on in the form of rationalization of the detention facilities in North Korea where we found that between 80,000 and 120,000 citizens of that country were detained effectively, political and other like crimes. But it’s true that not a great deal appears to have changed for the better, there is still serious shortage of food which is one of the most lasting impacts of the evidence on me and there are many other abuses that are almost certainly still occurring, and therefore what we have to ask ourselves in the international community and the United Nations is do we just tolerate this, do we just look away, do we get on with something which is more likely to be fruitful for outcomes, or is this so intolerable that as an international community we resolve to do something about it, and I think we will answer that question that it is not tolerable and the international community has to move things along particularly in respect of crimes against humanity .

Jenna Gibson: When your report first launched in February 2014, KCNA, or the official news outlet of the DPRK said that it was fake, it’s basically an unfounded attack on North Korea, that you have some sort of vendetta against the regime. So how did you deal with this response and how do you, do you write off the attack, do you try to confront it directly?

Justice Michael Kirby: Don’t forget, before I chaired the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, I had been a judge for nearly 35 years and therefore I was used to people not particularly liking an outcome. The nature of the judicial role is that you are bound, almost daily, to upset somebody. It’s just part and parcel of the job. Therefore, the fact that people attack the decisions and our recommendations and our findings, that wasn’t particularly surprising to me. So, what did I do about it? Well, I said which was the fact, if you don’t accept the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry, you should go online. If you can go online, you should have a look for yourself. There, on the web, is the testimony of the witnesses who gave evidence in our public hearings and anybody who doesn’t believe the conclusions that we reached can have a look at them and if they think as the government of North Korea said, that they are human scum, well that wasn’t the conclusion we reached. We reached the conclusion that the witnesses who came before us were decent people who were horrified with what had happened to them and were willing to take the risks of speaking up on camera in order to try to improve their country and improve the situation of human beings in their country. So that’s what I say today, if you don’t believe the Commission of Inquiry, fine. Have a look for yourself. Google it, go online, have a look at the witnesses and reach your own conclusion on whether the horrible stories that they they tell of their own lives and what they seen and felt in North Korea are true or false.

Jenna Gibson: So outside of that relatively predictable response on the DPRK itself, were there any responses that surprised you after the report was released?

Justice Michael Kirby: I was surprised at the rather banal approach. Instead of being clever, instead of responding to my repeated requests to invite the Commission of Inquiry to go to Pyongyang, I offered with no pre-conditions to go into their country, to answer questions to see situations which they said were different and were much better than painted in our report and I said, if in fact I was convinced that in any way the report was unfair or unjustified, I would acknowledge that fact. But they continued their strategy, “Pull down the barriers, pull up the drawbridge, have no communication”, and expect that the world will accept the word and assertions of a government which if the victims are even partly right is horrendously oppressing its people and has been doing so for decades and North Korea refused to allow the Commission of Inquiry into their country, it refused to allow the special rapporteur on human rights into their country, and it has so far not allowed the High Commissioner for Human Rights to go to their country. So, I think the world draws the inference, they won’t have these representatives of the United Nations come in even though they are a member state of the United Nations, even though they’ve signed up to the treaties of the United Nations, they wont allow it because they are afraid that they would see confirmation of the raw and cruel circumstances in which the people of North Korea are forced to live.

Jenna Gibson: One concern for any major international issues like the North Korean human rights situation is keeping the world’s public interested and engaged. Do you see sustained public engagement now two years on? Do we need another Commission of Inquiry report or something similar to keep the interest alive?

Justice Michael Kirby: We do in fact see a renewed engagement two years on, but unhappily that’s because of two recent events in in the DPRK. The first is the underground explosion of the fourth nuclear test which has been claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb, and the second following closely after that was the launch of a rocket, a missile system, which was said to be to put a satellite in orbit, but which anybody seeing the congruence of those two events would be reasonable to conclude is part of a weapons ballistic missile system designed to deliver a nuclear weapon. And that is an extremely dangerous thing, it would be dangerous for any country to have such weapons but it’s particularly dangerous for North Korea first of all because it’s an explosive country, it is a country which is performing and continues to perform extremely cruel oppressive and totalitarian acts against its own people over many decades but its also a country which is executing people who are thought to fall out of favor with the leadership elite in the country and that is a very unstable circumstance. One of he dangers that is presented by North Korea is not just that they have the fifth largest standing army in the world for a country with a population of twenty-three, twenty-four million, not just the fact that they are closed off, but the fact that accidents can happen, mistakes can happen, and in a situation where there is so much oppression of so many people, there is a real risk to the region and to the world of this sort of country developing not only nuclear weapons and not only missiles, but now a submarine facility which can harass the whole pacific and can harass its neighboring countries including Japan and China itself. So this is really a dangerous situation and therefore, that focuses the attention of the world. But it’s probably true and inherent in your question, has there been an ongoing interest in human rights in North Korea? I think not. I think in North Korea, the concern now is nuclear weapons and the attention to the shocking state of human rights has diminished and we must make sure that it is really positioned and becomes an important matter because it is interrelated to the dangers to peace and security that the weapons of North Korea has.

Jenna Gibson: So I want to follow up on that, because I think that that’s really important, the fact that there is the nuclear issue, there is the security issue, and with the nuclear test, the missile launch in the last few weeks, people have been talking about North Korea a lot, they’ve been talking about tougher sanctions, THAAD deployment in South Korea, taking these kind of security or hardline tactics towards North Korea. So, do you see ways that we can integrate human rights into this conversation that might be helpful?

Justice Michael Kirby: I think the greatest weapon that the United Nations has at its disposal is not on this occasion blue helmets or a renewal of the United Nations force, is not a military solution, but the greatest weapon is knowledge, the greatest weapon is information, the greatest weapon is to be able to jump the wall that divides North Korea from its neighbors and the rest of the world and I think it’s a pity actually that the United Nations which is very good at organizing a Commission of Inquiry and getting people of experience and integrity to perform the work on them, it’s not so good in delivering the report after it’s done. And it’s rather old fashioned in the way it does so. It has the report in hard copy and it’s put on the table of the human rights council, it is available online, but it’s not user friendly. And my own feeling is that one step that should be taken is to have our report published in an attractive form, have it at every airport in the world, have it so that people who are only partly interested or not even particularly interested in North Korea can pick it up and start reading about this horrendous circumstance in North Korea. Actually, our report, the one on North Korea, is I think, very well written. It’s easy to read, and it contains very powerful text from our witnesses. Having public hearings is not the usual way the UN conducts most commissions of inquiry but it was the way we decided to conduct this Commission of Inquiry in order to give the dignity of a voice to the people who had fled from North Korea and allowed them to speak directly to the United Nations and to the world, and throughout our report on every page, or every second page, there are indented passages of the actual voice of the people who have suffered, and what they’ve suffered, and how they’ve suffered, and how their families have suffered, and what they feel about it and I think that really speaks very directly to the human heart and that’s why I’ll be urging during this week in Washington that steps be taken urgently to get that report in every airport in the world.

Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Human Rights in North Korea – Igniting the Pilot Light

By Mark Tokola

Since the United Nations’ “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (usually shorthanded to “COI” for commission of inquiry report) came out in September 2015, commentators have sometimes hypothesized that one of its positive effects could be that North Korean prison officials might moderate some of their brutality out of fear of eventually being held accountable.  We have now heard that this may be happening in reality.

A North Korean defector said during a presentation in Washington, DC on February 23 that she had recently heard from personal contacts in North Korea that prison guards have noticeably reduced their arbitrary beatings of prisoners, apparently because of their new awareness that the human rights abuses of the North Korean regime are under international scrutiny, and out of concern that they could be held personally responsible for their actions.  When asked about how much awareness there is of the COI in North Korea, the defector said that although there may not be detailed understanding of what is in the report, people in North Korea are well aware that a UN report has accused their government of crimes against humanity.  Part of this awareness comes from the DPRK’s own vigorous efforts to refute the report.  Middle and lower ranked officials are further aware that with international scrutiny comes the possibility of personal accountability.

Reinforcing the COI’s premise of accountability for North Korean officials, the new U.S. sanctions also include a human rights element.  It has been overshadowed by the legislation’s focus on slowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  It is, nevertheless, important for the promotion of human rights in North Korea because it creates the possibility of sanctioning individual North Korean officials who are responsible for human rights abuses.  Naming names, particularly in a time before Kim Jong-un has fully consolidated his power, will have the effect of concentrating the minds of North Korean officials on the possibility of someday standing before a court.

This has happened before in the history of regimes engaged in criminal behavior.  Before the end of World War II – well before the Nuremburg trials – Nazi officials sought to secretly negotiate terms of surrender based on immunity from prosecution for their crimes.  Toward the end of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, war criminals also sought to indirectly engage officials of the international community to plea bargain against their potential prosecution.  Most officials with enough wit to professionally survive within a brutal political system are both adaptable to circumstances and know how to calculate their odds.

The defector also had an interesting story to tell about the dawning of an awareness of human rights within North Korea.  She said that in her youth, neither the words nor the concept existed.  When markets began to develop, in a rudimentary way under Kim Jong-il and then in a more developed way under Kim Jong-un, the notion of private property introduced the idea of personal rights.  When everything belonged to the state, search and seizure by officials was part of the natural way of things.  But when the operators of stalls began to own their stalls, they began to feel that the police had no right to search their property without some legal process.  The development of human rights in North Korea may not be based on concepts of free speech or right of assembly, they may have found root in the simple idea that “my property is mine.”  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Most of the 800-year old Magna Carta is about property rights.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Mike Holloway’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Congress Wants to Up the Pressure on North Korean Human Rights Violators

By Jenna Gibson

Earlier this month, three U.S. senators took on North Korea (DPRK) by introducing a broad sanctions bill aimed at addressing concerns about cyberwarfare and the North’s continued nuclear ambitions. Known as the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (S. 2144), this bill would codify the sanctions put in place by presidential Executive Orders after previous North Korean provocations, including the Sony hacking incident last year, and impose additional sanctions on the North, including penalizing any financial institution that conducts business with the DPRK. S. 2144 mirrors many of the provisions in a similar North Korea sanctions bill (H.R. 757) that passed the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last February. But while these bills are sold as a response to cyber and nuclear provocations from the North, the Senate and House versions also contain additional steps to address the issue of human rights and accountability in the DPRK, building on the previously enacted North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

Along with its enhanced sanctions provisions, Title III of this the new bill asks for concrete plans on how the U.S. Government can more effectively promote human rights in North Korea. If passed, the president would be required to submit a classified report to Congress on how to make “unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.”  In addition, the bill requires the State Department to submit another report to Congress to delineate a strategy on how to “promote international awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea.”

Further, S. 2144 takes on the issue of forced overseas labor of North Korean citizens. Interestingly, this is one of the few sections unique to the Senate bill – perhaps as a result of the increased attention put on this subject since the House bill passed committee in February. In fact, this issue was the subject of a program KEI hosted earlier this year in collaboration with the Database Center for Human Rights in North Korea, which raised awareness about the plight of North Koreans sent abroad in to work in terrible conditions to raise money for the Kim regime. To address the issue, the Senate bill would require an annual report that includes a list of countries that forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees,  a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, and a diplomatic strategy to end repatriation of North Korean refugees and forced labor and slavery of North Koreans overseas.

One other difference between S. 2144 and H.R. 757 is that the Senate bill creates a North Korea Enforcement and Human Rights fund, which would take fines for violating sanctions and redirect the money toward human rights promotion, such as radio broadcasting into the DPRK.

Public understanding of the North Korean human rights issue has risen exponentially since the release of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry report in February 2014. Up until that point, in the mind of the general public, the DPRK was a strange, mysterious place where bad things probably happen. The COI report, with its thorough and detailed descriptions of exactly what the Kim regime has done to the people of North Korea, changed all that, and has allowed a discussion of North Korean human rights to make its way into the media in an unprecedented way. In a similar way, producing official documentation and creating concrete strategies to combat the gross human rights violations occurring within North Korea and in countries where North Korean forced laborers work could keep this important issue in the news, and hopefully up the pressure on this regime to make some changes.

One word of caution, however – these new reports must stick to the facts and not become hyperbolic in order to be viewed as credible in the eyes of the global community. The harsh truth about North Korea’s deplorable human rights violations is already so startling that there is no need to exaggerate.  This has been a problem for some North Korean defectors who reportedly feel pressured to attract more attention by exaggerating their harrowing escape stories.

If done correctly, these new American publications could serve a similar function as the COI report. The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report and International Religious Freedom Report are the gold standard for tracking these issues around the world, and should serve as models for this new North Korea-focused report. Similar to the COI report, the annual release of these State Department reports garners a lot of attention from foreign governments and from the general public. While these bills have not become law yet, Title III of H.R. 757 and S. 2144 legislation could be one of the few items that can easily pass Congress because of the commonality between the two bills, and this provision would not be viewed as objectionable by the Executive Branch. Hopefully, this provision will be signed into law and this new publication can become a similarly authoritative source that will keep the discussion going about this important issue.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Phil Roeder’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Three Dilemmas of Dealing with North Korea

By Mark Tokola

Short conversations about North Korea generally end with similar conclusions: it is too soon to tell whether Kim Jong-un has successfully entrenched himself; the North Korean economy whether by design or necessity has introduced some market elements; China is growing impatient with North Korea’s unpredictability and belligerency; and Kim Jung-un’s regime is even more brutal and repressive than his father’s.  The level of purges and numbers of executions is unprecedented, even for North Korea.  The regime’s fixation with building amusement parks while much of its population goes malnourished is the epitome of how far a dictator can place whims above necessities. That much, at least, attracts a consensus of opinion.

It takes a longer conversation to reveal the fault-lines and seams in opinion among experts regarding what should be done in regard to North Korea.  There is a weight of opinion, but without unanimity, that urgency is beginning to ratchet up.  The DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs are closer to producing weapons which can threaten other countries.  In truth, Seoul has been within the range of North Korean artillery for decades, but longer-range North Korean weaponry carrying nuclear warheads would alter broader, strategic equations regardless whether they could reach the United States. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights violations in North Korea is making it increasingly difficult for the international community to avert its eyes from the regime’s widespread and systematic abuses of its own people, which are likely to be counted as crimes against humanity.  The prospect of unification of the Korean peninsula is being discussed more seriously than it has been for years.  The most surprising outcome of the change that seems to be in the air would be if the situation on the Korean peninsula remained as it is for another generation.  Hence, the need to talk about North Korea with increasing seriousness.

Two such longer conversations about North Korea were held first, at the June 2-6 Salzburg Global Seminar on “International Responses to Crimes Against Humanity: The Challenge of North Korea,” and second, at the Annual Conference of the International Council on Korean Studies (ICKS) held at Georgetown University from June 25-26 on “Unification of the Korean Peninsula: Issues and Opportunities.”  The Salzburg Seminar was held under the Chatham House rule and therefore remarks by the participants are not to be publicly attributed to them without their permission, but what they discussed can be shared.  Confidentiality was necessary in order to have a free-flowing and frank conversation among the government and private sector experts who attended the seminar.  The Seminar ended with an agreed public statement outlining specific steps that should be taken by governments, private organizations, and concerned individuals to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. The ICKS conference by contrast was a public meeting and will be made available on the KEI website.

During long conversations among experts on North Korea, three questions often surface, the answers to which have practical consequences: Is it better to engage North Korea or to isolate it?  Is there a choice to be made regarding whether to prioritize North Korea’s strategic threat or its human rights record?  And, which is the higher goal, peace or justice?  The answer to each of the questions may be “It depends,” “That is a false choice,” or “This isn’t black and white, the best policy lies along a spectrum.”  In any case, the questions are not ones that can be ignored.

Engagement or Isolation?

If the goal is to change North Korea’s behavior, is that more likely to come about through interacting with the North Korean government, or through refusing to have anything to do with it until its behavior changes?  The answers depends upon a series of further, refining questions:  are we talking about government-to-government, diplomatic engagement? humanitarian assistance and other NGO engagement? or people-to-people engagement (and is that even possible with a country as totalitarian as North Korea)?

The question of diplomatic engagement already seems to have an answer.  Both the South Korean and U.S. governments have said that they are willing to engage in talks with North Korea.  President Park says she is prepared to hold talks without preconditions, but rejects North Korea’s requirement that U.S.-ROK military exercises be cancelled before it is willing to meet.  North Korea has called for “unconditional” talks with the U.S. but then conditioned the unconditional talks by saying that they would have to be held without reference to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  In essence, the path is open for diplomatic engagement should North Korea choose to take it.  Demanding that South Korea end its military exercise while continuing to conduct its own, and insisting that the U.S. abandon its primary objective, getting North Korea to abide by the international obligations it undertook regarding its nuclear program, seem to show a lack of enthusiasm for diplomacy on North Korea’s part.

An alternative might be to make unilateral gestures towards North Korea in hope that North Korea might respond positively.  It seems likely, however, that the Kim Jung-un government is not firmly enough on its feet to be able to respond to concessions, whether a reduction in sanctions or a pause in U.S.-ROK military exercises.  Absent a signal from Pyongyang that it was truly interested in a negotiation, a unilateral concession from Seoul or Washington would only reduce the number of bargaining chips available for future talks, making them more difficult.

For organizations that provide or might provide assistance to North Koreans, there are serious practical and ethical questions regarding their unavoidable interaction with the North Korean government.  On one hand, the humanitarian need for nutritional supplements and medicine is great.  The cost of saving a life in North Korea is less than in other struggling countries because the base line is so low.  On the other, does providing assistance merely serve to extend the life of an abhorrent regime?  Do outside resources allow it to channel its resources to prison camps and nuclear weapons programs?

One NGO has given up and pulled out of North Korea.  The problem was not that its resources were being diverted to the government, but that the government was controlling the population that the NGO in question was serving.  The government in effect chose the people whom the NGO would help.  The people being served were needy, but not the neediest or most vulnerable population in North Korea.  Because the baseline principle of the organization was that it would serve those most in need of assistance, it deemed that it could not continue.  Other organizations have decided otherwise, that providing assistance to anyone in need was worth doing if possible.

There are other considerations in deciding whether to engage with humanitarian assistance or not.  One is the theory of “feeding the executioner.”  The idea is that if the international community did not provide assistance to the needy in North Korea, neither would the North Korean government.  Belief that Pyongyang would fill the gap left by decisions of NGOs not to operate in North Korea is naïve.  In fact, the DPRK government would be more likely to extract what it could from its most vulnerable populations to support its programs rather than to assist them.  If everyone has enough food, the government will not have to take any from the people to give to the ruling class and army.  If everyone has too little, the government will take what it can from the population.  Providing humanitarian assistance, therefore, prevents the DPRK from further preying on its own people.

Finally there is the notion of investing in the future through humanitarian assistance.  Providing help to the people of North Korea now will make unification of the peninsula easier when it occurs.  A healthier, better-educated North Korean population will be easier to accommodate into a unified Korea than one that is stunted and unable to work.  In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves whether their engagement with North Korea is a good idea and what compromises they are prepared to make to achieve their goals.  The term “principled engagement” is often used.

Even people-to-people engagement is a tougher calculation than we would all wish.  It would be nice to think that all contacts that can be arranged with North Koreans — whether government officials, sports figures, or artists – are bound at least to give them a better impression of us, and at most to raise questions in their minds about the state of their own country and whether it might be different.  That may even be true.  However, there is another side to the argument.  The costs of people-to-people engagements may be that they give the North Korean government propaganda points to argue to their own people that the Kim Jong-un regime is indeed internationally accepted and admired.  Second, the DPRK has complete control over who gets to participate in people-to-people programs.  If they are being used to reward the party faithful, does that make them little more than treats which can be dispensed to maintain loyalty to the regime?  There is no easy answer.

The Strategic Threat versus Human Rights

So long at the DPRK argues that it will never abandon its nuclear weapons program and that its population enjoys the world’s highest level of human rights, there is no reason not to press the DPRK on both issues.  It should abide by its commitments to not pursue nuclear weaponry and should accept the UN COI recommendations on how to put an end to its abuses of the rights of its citizens.  It could, and should, do both.

However, it is possible to imagine a different situation.  What if the DPRK expressed a willingness to engage in negotiations on its nuclear program, but only if the international community would stop trying to undermine the government by charging it with human rights violations?  Why would members of a government who were being threatened with being sent to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity agree to negotiate with their prosecutors?  Being afraid to travel for fear of being arrested would make protracted negotiations impossible.

This is a dilemma that posits a situation different from the one we are in with North Korea, but among the DPRK’s few international defenders, there are voices who argue that the choice is already upon us.  We should accept right now the DPRK as a sovereign, “normal,” state rather than treating it as an outlaw.  Sanctions should be ended and serious negotiations should begin to reduce regional tensions.  After all, they argue, the greatest violation of human rights would be general warfare on the Korean peninsula rather than the selective if unfortunate actions by the DPRK against disruptive individuals in its quest to maintain domestic order.

One argument that may tip the balance towards those who argue that accountability for crimes against humanity cannot be negotiated away is the weight of international opinion.  The Six Party Talks have six parties because they (South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., Russia, and China) have the dominant stake in the strategic stability of the peninsula.  The circle of countries who have an interest in human rights is far broader.  It should be possible to enlist democracies such as India, South Africa, Brazil, and others in an international effort to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights situation.  Not only North Korea, but its chief patron, China, have shown sensitivity to wider international opinion beyond what the U.S. and its close allies have to say.  The human rights situation in North Korea is, or should be, a global concern.  That is reason enough to keep it on the agenda with North Korea.

Peace or Justice?

The call usually goes up for peace and justice, but what if they are not compatible in regard to North Korea?  This dilemma is similar to that of strategic threat versus human rights, but different.  It most likely would surface in regard to unification.  Under any unification scenario (usually boiled down to peaceful and negotiated, or following a collapse of the DPRK) it will be necessary to deal with the crimes against humanity that have been committed by North Korean authorities.  Will the priority be to quickly reach a peaceful situation by giving amnesty to those who might otherwise resist unification, or to give justice its chance to do its slower work to determine crime and punishment?  In the longer term, will the many North Korean mid and low-level authorities be given the right to resume positions of authority in a unified Korea, or will they be forever excluded?  Peace may argue one answer, justice another.

The UN’s COI report is legally correct in its carefully worded finding of “reasonable grounds to establish that crimes against humanity have been committed.”  The rule of law requires that the facts and judgment be weighed through a trial process, not though a presumption of guilt.  The “reasonable grounds” are strong enough that the COI recommends a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, but the report is light on naming names or identifying institutions of those who should be tried.  It is for this reason that a UNHCHR Field Office began operating in Seoul this June.  Its purpose is to collect evidence for use in  future prosecutions, whether international, Korea, or hybrid.

There is much to be decided in regards to eventually holding North Korean authorities accountable for crimes committed by the regime.  Which authorities, at what level, and with what degree of culpability should be tried and for what crimes?  This is an issue that will need to be decided primarily by the unified Korea, but the international community also has a stake in the prosecution of crimes against humanity.  The Nuremburg trials, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are examples, if imperfect models, of how justice might be done.  Other countries that have emerged from conflict have opted for ‘peace and reconciliation commissions,’ to make sense of what they have been through.  Maybe in the case of Korea both will be needed: criminal trials to establish guilt among those most responsible for the human rights abuses, and peace and reconciliation organizations to help all Koreans come to terms with living in a shared Korea.

One future benefit of the justice system is that it will establish a common, evidence-based history of Korea from 1954 to the date of unification.  In the case of Yugoslavia, the ICTY has created an invaluable collection of first-person, sworn testimony offered by all sides that will help settle future disagreements about the true story of their tragic recent history.  One of the problems in dealing with the ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland is that there is no common historic database of fact shared by the unionists and the nationalists, leaving each with its own version of history.  The court records of the Korean human rights trials, when they come, will help people come to terms with their past better than any government-organized, official history.

Well-informed, well-intentioned people can disagree over how to deal with North Korea.  Discussing the common dilemmas can help them make their individual decisions.  The stakes are high.  Today’s decisions on engagement immediately affect the lives of people living in North Korea.  Coming to terms in advance with the issues that will follow unification will increase the odds that the process of unification will be less costly and painful than might otherwise be the case.  Unification of the peninsula will improve the lives of millions.  The process of getting there will require the best that South Korea and her allies can do.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Niels Sienaert’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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