Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il could spend the duration of their reigns answering charges of atrocities with flat denials. That hasn’t worked since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) published its landmark report in February, or during the scrutiny that has followed. Today, Kim Jong Un must deepen his overdraft of diplomatic capital to fend off an indictment before the International Criminal Court. Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, describes North Korea’s diplomats as “scrambling” and “fighting back” to escape this “horrendous publicity” — to say nothing of the risk, however slight, that Kim Jong Un and his minions could face personal accountability for their crimes. Oddly enough, King still described these reactions as “helpful” and “positive:”
“The North Koreans are losing the battle. They’re recognizing it, and they’re becoming engaged. They are sending their foreign minister and others around the world to see if they can stop the damage,” King told a seminar at a Washington think tank. [….]
King noted some small, positive developments in Pyongyang’s attitude. He said the North had acceded to an international convention on people with disabilities in response to suggestion in a U.N. periodic review of its rights situation.
“I think it’s helpful that they are becoming engaged,” King said.
Doug Anderson, general counsel to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, however, the progress was superficial. He said he’d be less skeptical if North Korea took an important step like allowing outside observers to visit the prison camps. [AP, Matthew Pennington]
Other than the fact that Pyongyang is “losing the battle” at the moment, it’s hard—for me, anyway—to see much good coming of this “engagement.” Maybe I’ve been watching the way North Korea engages a little too long, or maybe the incoherence of Pyongyang’s message robs it of its persuasiveness. Writing at 38 North, Roberta Cohen summarizes the early stages of this diplomatic schizophrenia:
Initially, North Korea denounced the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) upon which the resolution was based and made inflammatory personal attacks against its chair, Australian justice Michael Kirby. Now it offers dialogue, seemingly with the aim of weakening the text of the resolution and encouraging “no” votes or abstentions in the 193-member General Assembly.
Although the DPRK is often said to be impervious to outside criticism, the resolution’s focus on accountability for “officials at the highest level of the state” seems to have caught the attention of the leadership. No North Korean Foreign Minister had been sent to the General Assembly for 15 years and presumably one of Ri’s purposes in September was to head off the resolution. Soon thereafter, the North’s UN Ambassador sent out a letter to all UN Missions proposing an alternative resolution that would exclude reference to an international criminal justice mechanism and promote instead “dialogue and negotiations.”
This sudden interest rings hollow for many because for more than a decade, North Korea refused any dialogue and ignored annual UN resolutions requesting talks. The DPRK also broke off its human rights dialogue with the EU in 2003 after the Europeans, finding the dialogue unproductive, introduced a resolution on North Korea’s human rights at the UN.
Pyongyang’s “outreach” strategies have evolved from the offensive, to the conciliatory, to the ridiculous, and predictably, back to the menacing. In September, it impressed The New York Times when it said that it had, in the Times‘s words, “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.” But by October 6th, North Korean diplomat Ja Song Nam was calling the General Assembly debate a “human rights racket … kicked up to the extreme.”
On October 9th, North Korea was said to be taking “the unusual step of proposing its own text praising its human rights record,” which really doesn’t sound so unusual for North Korea. Its text would have included demonstrably false boasts about its “free compulsory educational system and free medical care,” and praised its widely ridiculed and criticized human rights self-audit.
This must not have gotten much traction, either, because by October 12th, the North Koreans had asked the EU to “soften” the draft in exchange for bilateral talks, in a transparent effort to split the EU from other U.N. member states. The next day, Yonhap quoted the Rodong Sinmun as calling the draft an attempt “to meddle in North Korea’s internal affairs,” and suggested that it was the result of (Yonhap’s words) “the influence of some powerful countries.”
By October 18th, Yonhap quoted KCNA as describing the draft resolution as “typical politicization, selectivity and double standards,” and the work of “hostile forces attempting to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries under the signboard of human rights.” The AP reported that Pyongyang had called for an across-the-board “end to the practice of calling into question the human rights situation of specific individual countries.” It also called a plea by South Korean President Park Geun-Hye for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs and improve its human rights practices “reckless,” “double-dealing,” and an “unpardonable politically motivated provocation … chilling the atmosphere of the hard-won North-South dialogue.”
Ironically, just a week after Pyongyang offered the EU bilateral talks on human rights, it had answered a similar South Korean proposal with fury and venom.
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Pyongyang’s recent gestures toward dialogue may be its way of “recognizing that the international focus on its human rights will not fade away,” but then, the same could once have been said about the international focus on its nuclear programs and its food crisis. In both cases, Pyongyang offered “engagement” that amounted to so much stalling, lying, and cheating, but which was financially lucrative for itself. Twenty years, three nuclear tests, and 2 million dead North Koreans later, that engagement has benefited no one but Pyongyang. There’s little question that “engagement” on human rights, at least as Pyongyang envisions it today, would have similar outcomes.
Despite her reservations, Cohen ultimately concludes that “no opportunity to promote the human rights of the North Korea’s people should be neglected,” and sets forth conditions and caveats for that dialogue. But if the incoherence of North Korea’s recent responses causes you to conclude that today’s opportunities aren’t yet worth taking, you’re in good company (mine, for instance). There will be better opportunities for dialogue after the General Assembly has acted, after the Security Council has voted, and after civilized nations have agreed on and implemented a plan of action to force North Korea to change. Change will only become possible when Pyongyang perceives that its alternatives are evolution, extinction, and absolutely no others.
Even so, pressure is merely a means to an end. Those who will eventually engage Pyongyang on human rights must think carefully about their strategies, objectives, and outcomes if they hope to do better than those who failed to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or its endemic hunger, but that topic also has material enough for another post.
It’s discouraging enough about Pyongyang’s intentions that it would vacillate between these conflicting approaches in the space of a few weeks, but tomorrow, I’ll tell you about a surreal, sad spectacle presented by Donald Gregg at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Monday, where North Korean diplomat Jang Il Hun managed to shoehorn most of them into a single hour. I doubt that Jang altered many views of the regime he represents, but that event might alter plenty of views about Gregg.
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Update: This post was edited after publication.