At long last, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights has opened its new field office in Seoul. Its mandates will be as follows:
- Strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
- Enhance engagement and capacity-building with the Governments of all States concerned, civil society and other stakeholders
- Maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives
The U.N. picks up this work after a lost year, in which China and Russia prevented the Security Council from acting on the February 2014 report of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State.’” Those crimes include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” All of these crimes went unanswered because no one made China and Russia pay a political price for shielding their perpetuation, least of all the nominal of leader of the U.N. itself.
If the UNHCR takes its mandates seriously, it still could do much to attach political, diplomatic, and eventually, financial costs to Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity. UNHCR investigations could help to separate established fact from rumor and disinformation, test the credibility of claims and counterclaims, report on and publicize the facts it establishes, humanize the victims, and keep the rights of the North Korean people in the public eye and on the diplomatic agenda. Ultimately, its findings could build support for an international movement, along the lines of the movements that isolated South Africa and Sudan.
Judging by its reaction, Pyongyang also recognizes this potential. It has called the opening of the field office an “unpardonable hideous politically-motivated provocation and an open declaration of a war,” threatening “revenge” and “harsh punishment,” and written that the field office “will be the first target of its merciless punishment and strike immediately the office is set up in south Korea.”
Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry also threatened Seoul for hosting the field office, calling it a “hideous politically motivated provocation challenging [the North’s] the dignity and social system.” Its counterpart to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, has threatened to “mercilessly punish” South Korea, and threatened “‘catastrophic’ consequences” in relations between the Koreas. But then, Pyongyang says that the human rights issue in the North is “non-existent,” which unwittingly validates the need for the office.
High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein hasn’t escaped Pyongyang’s charm offensive, either. Uriminzokkiri recently called him “a mediocre peddler of cheap goods.”
Hussein responded to at least some of this, calling the “threats from a member state” of the U.N. “deeply regrettable and unbecoming of that member state.” (What’s really unbecoming of the U.N. is that North Korea is still a member at all.) Threats notwithstanding, Hussein promised that “the U.N. will continue to work to highlight the dire human rights situation in North Korea and pressure the Kim Jong Un regime to change.” He added, “The fact that this U.N. human rights office in Seoul is now a reality and will start fully operating in a month or so is a sign that the commission’s work is starting to bear fruit.”
(Similarly, Pyongyang has also threatened the United States last month with “tougher countermeasures” over a new State Department report criticizing its human rights conditions as “among the worst in the world.” The North Korean threat came just a week after another State Department report concluded that North Korea is not known to have supported an act of terrorism since 1987, which is a lie. Also last week, South Korean police stated that a pro-North Korean attacker who slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert—for which North Korea almost immediately expressed its approval—was inspired by North Korean propaganda. Discuss among yourselves.)
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U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was a no-show for the office’s opening, although just three weeks earlier, he tried to visit Kaesong, North Korea, only to be turned away by the North Koreans. But despite Ban’s absence, the field office has had a modestly good beginning. The office’s publicity, and its bilingual posts and tweets, are finding their way into the newspapers. As such, they will force a younger generation of South Koreans to pay some attention to issues their elders spent the last two decades ignoring.
“Less than 50 miles from here lies another world marked by the utmost deprivation,” Hussein said in a statement to mark the opening, referring to the North.
“The Seoul office will monitor and document human rights issues in (North Korea), building on the landmark work of the commission of inquiry and special rapporteur. We firmly believe this will help the basis for future accountability,” he said.
Many North Koreans have escaped to find a new life in the South, but millions remain “trapped in the grip of a totalitarian system which not only denies their freedom but increasingly their basic survival needs”, he added.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson described the new UN office as a “critical step forward” in the campaign to end North Korea’s “systematic and pervasive human rights abuses”. [AFP]
There is much work for the UNHCR to do. A new report from the Korean Institute for National Unification alleges that North Korea carried out 1,382 known public executions since 2000, the year Kim Jong Il met Kim Dae Jung, although the “actual number of public executions is presumed to be higher.” This figure certainly excludes many more hidden executions, deaths in labor camps, and culpably preventable deaths due to starvation and disease.
Shortly after the field office opened, some of the 27,000 North Korean refugees living in the South presented it with a list of 180 of their countrymen whom they believed were held at Camp 15, one large camp within North Korea’s gulag, as of 2000. Some estimates hold that 20% of the prisoners die from starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution each year. And soon, a defector’s evidence may confirm whether there is a modern-day Mengele at work inside North Korea.
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It’s also worth noting that 20 “activists” of another kind protested against the opening of the office, “saying it would be used to ‘bring down’ the North Korean government”—as if that would be a bad thing—and “aggravate strained inter-Korean relations.”
To be sure, there is a hard core of North Korean sympathizers in South Korea, but many other South Koreans will be ambivalent about the UNHCR’s work, and will eventually be tempted to throttle it. If North Korea’s most successful political strategy has been its appeal to ethnic nationalism, its most successful diplomatic strategy has been to lure governments into commercial ventures that never quite transform the North, and talks that never quite disarm it, but which keep them too conflicted to choose between their principles and their own short-term interests. Consequently, many South Koreans in the squishy center share Pyongyang’s view that any inter-Korean contact is a privilege—for the South, that is.
Pyongyang is already linking the establishment of the field office to inter-Korean contacts, such as a sporting event in Gwangju, to pressure Seoul. Pyongyang’s strategy appears to be to force the South Korean government to choose between abolishing (or more plausibly, muzzling) the field office, or going without the pleasure of its company.
North Korea reiterated its strong opposition against the opening of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul via its state-controlled media, warning that the move has made the possibility of improved bilateral ties “hardly imaginable.”
The Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the North’s ruling Communist Party of Korea, slammed the South for establishing the office.
“The puppet forces’ hosting of such ‘office’ for confrontation in Seoul which no country in the world dared do is as a foolish an act as planting a time bomb in their house,” the paper was quoted as saying in the English dispatch of the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“Dialogue and improved relations between the north and the south can hardly be imaginable,” it said, adding, “It is the steadfast will and determination of the DPRK to mercilessly punish those who are keen to hurt its dignity and social system.” [Yonhap]
That strategy is likely to have some success during Park Geun-Hye’s administration, which has always seemed ambivalent about pressing the human rights issue. It would almost certainly be even more successful under a left-leaning South Korean government, and the law of pendulums suggests we’ll soon see one of those.
It is particularly likely to succeed if the next President of South Korea is the current U.N. General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon. It is one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that Ban intends to run in South Korea’s 2017 presidential election. As Foreign Minister under Roh Moo Hyun, Ban was the executor of Roh’s appeasement policies. For a more detailed criticism of Ban’s record in office in South Korea, I’ll refer you to this 2006 post.
As Foreign Minister, Ban was architect and executor of a no-questions-asked appeasement policy toward North Korea. During those years, North Korea’s human rights record was the worst on earth, and probably the worst since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Kim Jong Il’s absolutist regime, supported by $7 billion in South Korean aid since 1994, stands accused of racial infanticide, the use of gas chambers for horrific chemical weapons on entire families, and a politically selective famine that “cleansed” North Korea of millions while the regime went on an arms-buying spree. North Korea’s forced labor camps are estimated to hold as many as 250,000 people,* including thousands of children.
Ban and his government had little to say and nothing to ask as these atrocities went on, and go on to this very day. When resolutions condemning these crimes came before the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and later, the General assembly, South Korea’s ambassadors were instructed to either refuse to vote or abstain. Publicly, Ban’s government failed to raise more than one mild, belated, token call to improve human rights in the North, and then, only in the most vague and general sense and in response to withering criticism from abroad.
As General Secretary, Ban validated my worst suspicions by devoting token attention, at best, to the North Korean human rights issue. He continues to prioritize appeasement over human rights.
Consider, for example, Ban’s recent comments about the Kaesong Industrial Park, despite long-standing criticism from human rights groups that it violates the labor rights of the workers, and despite the Treasury Department’s long-standing concerns about how North Korea spends the money it earns from Kaesong. Ban, however, sees no down-side to Kaesong, nor any need to bound it with any principled conditions:
“All parties would benefit from renewed engagement and commitment to genuine dialogue. It is essential for building trust and promoting inter-Korean relations,” Ban said at an education forum in the South Korean city of Incheon, adding he aimed to make the visit on Thursday.
“The Kaesong project is a win-win model for both Koreas,” he said.
“I hope my visit will provide a positive impetus to further develop it and expand to other areas,” he said. [Reuters]
But as I argued here, engagement programs like Kaesong haven’t raised North Korea’s standards; they’ve lowered South Korea’s standards, and diluted the pressure needed to force North Korea to disarm–pressure that is the logical basis of five U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Perhaps I fret too much over the electoral hopes of Narcolepsy Patient Zero. But Ban–and the many other Koreans who share his world view–can still do plenty of damage to the UNHCR’s work. By extension, they can also damage the argument for a world where institutions preempt violence by addressing the humanitarian crises that inevitably lead to war. I would argue that Ban’s failure to speak up for his countrymen in North Korea is an exemplar of his tenure at the U.N. Among the following international crises that occurred during Ban’s tenure, how many have the U.N. or Ban himself addressed effectively: (a) Syria, (b) Ukraine, (c) Ebola, (d) climate change, (e) the South China Sea, or (f) the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS?** Not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re fundamentally opposed to a strong, activist United Nations. But what a shame if you still think the U.N. might have played a useful role in any of these crises.
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* More current estimates range between 80,000 and 120,000.
** Or, I might have added, Iran’s Green Revolution, Boko Haram, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen.