In February, two years will have passed since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released its historic report on human rights in North Korea, finding “human rights abuses on a scale ‘without parallel in the contemporary world,’ comparable to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.” The bad news is that we’re still just talking about this. The good news is that America, and most of the world, are uniting around the importance of holding Kim Jong-Un accountable for those crimes.
[Samantha Power addresses the Security Council on North Korea last year. Via.]
Last December, the U.S., with support from the U.K., France, and Japan, succeeded in having the North Korea’s crimes against humanity added to the U.N. Security Council’s permanent agenda. Today, the U.S. leveraged its presidency of the Security Council to convene a meeting on that subject. There, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power gave an address whose words lived up to her name. You really should read it in full, but this will give you the flavor of it:
It is not only the blanket denial of enjoyment of freedom of expression and these infernal conditions in the prisoner camps that persist – but all of the grave human rights violations perpetrated by this regime: the summary executions; the use of torture; the decades of enforced disappearances with no accountability, including of citizens from neighboring countries, whose families continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The list is long, the abuses vast, and the anguish profound.
The systematic human rights violations persist for a simple reason: the North Korean government wants them to. They continue because the State still seeks to intentionally dehumanize, terrorize, and abuse its own people. The regime depends on this climate of fear and violence to maintain its grip on power. [….]
We must continue to take steps that one day will help us hold accountable the individuals responsible for the horrors like those experienced by our guests today. We cannot let immediate obstacles to accountability undermine our determination to document atrocities and identify those who order and carry them out, so that one day the perpetrators will be brought to justice. [….]
Our continuing spotlight on this situation sends a clear message that we hope will reach the North Korean people, tight as the regime’s control over information may be: We will not turn a blind eye to your suffering. You, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. And we will continue to press for the nightmare you are living to end. To the regime, our message is just as clear: We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them. [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Dec. 10, 2015]
I’ve never heard an American diplomat denounce the tyranny in Pyongyang so … powerfully. The language is even more confrontational than that of a former U.S. diplomat who, in 2005, called North Korea “a hellish nightmare.” The former diplomat’s words caused a small uproar then, among politicians and members of the commentariat who thought this was an undiplomatic thing to say to a murderous despot. Shortly thereafter, this diplomat was also nominated to be our U.N. Ambassador. Then, the Junior Senator from Massachusetts opposed his nomination, in part because of the mean things he said about Kim Jong-Il.
Now, the ex-senator is our Secretary of State and the boss of the current U.N. Ambassador. Ambassador Power’s strong words just might give Kim Jong-Un’s minions reason to hesitate in the pursuit of their atrocities, so I hope there won’t be an uproar against her. If there isn’t, a charitable interpretation of the disparate reaction is that the global consensus has shifted.
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Power also addressed North Korea’s threats against the U.N. itself:
North Korea continues to demonstrate that regimes which flagrantly violate the human rights of their own people almost always show similar disdain for the rules that help ensure our shared security. We see this in the DPRK’s flouting of prohibitions imposed by the Security Council on its nuclear and ballistic missile activities, including by undertaking launches. We see it in the destabilizing rhetoric the DPRK routinely uses to threaten the annihilation of its neighbors. And we see it in the DPRK’s aggressive response, as the High Commissioner has mentioned, to the opening of an office in Seoul by the OHCHR – an office aimed at gathering ongoing information on human rights conditions in the DPRK.
In March of this year, before the OHCHR office opened, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea – a DPRK-sponsored group, like every other group allowed to exist in the country – said that, “as soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May, a DPRK-controlled newspaper issued a near identical threat. And in June, the regime issued a statement accusing “hostile forces” of using the UN office to “make confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights.” It is hard to imagine another UN Member State making such threats against a UN office or staff; and we as a Council cannot take them lightly.
This is part of a well-established pattern of intimidation and escalation by the DPRK in response to criticism of its human rights record.
Hmm — a pattern of using threats of violence to intimidate non-combatants for political purposes. Someone should come up with a word for that sort of thing. Also, someone should teach it to Ambassador Power’s State Department colleagues in Washington.
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China and Russia “worked behind the scenes to block the debate.” They convinced Angola and Venezuela to join them in voting against holding the meeting, but they were outvoted 9 to 4, with two abstentions. Before the meeting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece said, “We have always opposed the involvement of the U.N. Security Council in a country’s human rights issues.” (Has anyone in Beijing read the U.N. Charter? One of its first stated purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”) Power had an answer for this, too:
I would like to address those who believe that what is happening in the DPRK is not a threat to peace and security. I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don’t think that. So, could this level of horror be seen as neutral? A level of horror unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Is it neutral – have no effect at all on regional and international peace and security? Really? None? It stretches credulity and it sounds more like cynicism. These arguments – some of which we’ve heard here today – will not go down well in history, particularly when North Korea opens up. For those who have charged double standards, I would ask: where are there in the world conditions like these ones, like the conditions behind the lines of the DPRK? Where? This regime has no double.
The Commission of Inquiry Report itself said that the human rights situation in North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” [….]
No member of this Council, or of the UN, can afford to ignore this situation.
Power also called on “UN Member States, and particularly members of this Council,” to “stop sending people who try to flee” back to North Korea, where “gruesome punishments” await them. Not much doubt about who she meant there.
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For most of the journalists covering the meeting, the big headline was the call by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to bring North Korean officials responsible for these crimes before the International Criminal Court.
In a strong speech, Hussein called Pyongyang’s human rights violations dangers to “international peace and security,” and denounced its threats to the U.N.’s Seoul Field Office as “wholly unacceptable.” He spoke of the continued “vulnerabilities” of North Korea’s poor to hunger due to the “systemic failure” of state distribution system, and “social inequalities.” He cited widespread “gender-based violence,” which he attributed to a lack of “awareness that such violence is unacceptable.” (Gloria Steinem, take note.)
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Depending on your perspective, the consequences of the Commission of Inquiry’s report have been either negligible or profound. True, neither the U.S., Japan, South Korea, or the EU has passed a resolution, imposed effective sanctions, or changed its policies materially. Chinese and Russian obstructionism has prevented the Security Council from acting, and there is little chance that Kim Jong-Un will face justice anytime soon. Our banks are helping His Corpulency fatten himself on foreign delicacies, and he continues to shore up the foundations of his palaces, if only by packing their crawlspaces with the corpses of those who once served his father.
But language like Power’s and Hussein’s can contribute to a crisis of legitimacy for Kim Jong-Un, a leader whose consolidation of power has shown some signs of unsteady progress. The COI report has cost him his international legitimacy by defining him as a mass murderer. It has also given an elucidating context to his nuclear tests, cyberattacks, and other provocations — after all, if he has so little regard for North Korean life, what regard could he possibly have for ours?
In 2012, a large share of the commentariat spoke of him as a Swiss-educated reformer; today, only a few sycophants and lunatics still do. This shift of perceptions will also have policy and financial consequences. It will transform North Korea into an international pariah, isolate it, and deny it access to hard currency it needs to survive. Eventually, the loss of that access will force Pyongyang to choose between reform and extinction.
~ Updates, Dec. 11 ~
In this video, Hussein answers reporters’ questions after the Security Council meeting. In response to Chinese arguments that the UNSC shouldn’t address human rights, Hussein argued, in effect, that North Korea’s defiance of standards is likely to engulf the region in war (and look no further than Syria or Libya for examples of how that could happen). He also made the point that a country that kidnaps the citizens of neighboring countries is a clear threat to international peace and security.
Hussein also reveals that the North Koreans invited him to visit, separately from the invitation they had extended to Ban Ki-Moon. This represents a change of strategy for the North Koreans, who denied or ignored repeated requests by the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur to visit. Recently, after a General Assembly resolution called for holding the North’s leaders accountable for their crimes, the Rodong Sinmun called the vote a U.S.-orchestrated plot to use “the non-existent ‘human rights’ issue,” “fabricated with falsified data,” to “discredit the DPRK and ultimately bring down by force of arms the social system the Korean people chose themselves.” Naturally, they threatened to answer this “ill-intended inveterate repugnancy” by building more nukes.
There are still no details on the timing, agenda, or venues, and one wonders if this really will happen. I’ve long feared that the North Koreans would take a (another?) page from the Nazis’ book and “prepare” one of their camps for a guided tour — and later, a propaganda movie — the way the Nazis did with the Danish Red Cross at Theresienstadt. With the ruse successfully completed, the SS sent everyone who appeared in the film to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Indeed, despite the consensus that, overall, nothing has improved in North Korea, the Daily NK has reported that conditions do seem to have improved “marginally” for non-political prisoners in some of the “reeducation” camps, because of international scrutiny and the fear of accountability.
“Detailed instructions have been handed down, ordering officials not to torture those in for financial crimes, violence, and even narcotics,” the source added. “However, this is not the case for those in because of political offenses such as watching South Korean TV dramas and other ‘non-socialist’ acts, so beatings and violence against them continue.” [Daily NK]
Obedience to the new guidance appears to be uneven, and this report follows earlier reports that conditions had gotten much worse at one of the reeducation camps, at Cheongo-ri. (None of this concerns the much larger political prison camps, such as Camps 14, 15, or 16.) That’s why the Red Cross shouldn’t settle for anything less than a permanent presence at the camps.
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I had intended (but forgotten) to mention in yesterday’s post that South Korea was recently chosen to lead the Human Rights Council for a year. Although I’d like to see South Korea amend its National Security Law to decriminalize non-violent speech, by almost any measure, South Korea is a much better choice than some of the other alternatives.
South Korea’s election is an inevitable appointment with history and destiny, but when South Korean officials say nonsensical things like this, I wonder if they’re about to flunk it. On the other hand, according to Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, “It would seem that the government of (South) Korea has geared itself towards the eventuality that accountability will have to be taken within the context of the unification process.”
I guess we’ll see just what the South Koreans are prepared to push for. In the end, South Korea is the only country with a claim to jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula, which means it could, in theory, circumvent the Security Council and (with a mandate from the General Assembly) convene an independent international tribunal under its domestic laws. This has actually been done, in Cambodia, also due to Chinese obstructionism. Whether South Korea is prepared to defy China and anger North Korea that way is doubtful today, especially under a Park Geun-Hye presidency.