It’s no secret to readers of this site that I’ve never been an admirer of John Kerry. His tenure has been a rolling catastrophe for our national security, in a way that even a rank amateur could have predicted years ago. It’s often difficult to see that he has a North Korea policy at all.
Not so long ago, I criticized Kerry for showing no sign of pressing for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea. But yesterday, Kerry went to “a ministerial meeting he hosted in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly,” where he said some important and commendable things:
“We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all,” Kerry said.
Kerry stressed that the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on the problem has lifted the veil on the issue, referring to a report released in February that North Korean leaders are responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” violations of human rights. [….]
“No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction because in 400 pages of excruciating details and testimonies from over 80 witnesses, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report of the DPRK (North Korea) has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” he said. [….]
“If we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? If we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?” Kerry said. “So we say to the North Korean government, all of us here today, you should close those camps, you should shut this evil system down,” he said. [Yonhap]
The Voice of America has video of Kerry’s remarks, in which he mentions several of the camps by name.
[Good report, but please do some research before saying how heavily
sanctioned North Korea is. It isn't.]
At the meeting, Kerry joined South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently replaced Navi Pillay. In the video, Kerry can be seen seated next to Shin Dong-hyuk.
Of course, to suggest that rhetoric is the measure of policy is like saying that a man’s jawline is the measure of his virility. Substantively, George W. Bush’s North Korea policy was like Rock Hudson at the Playboy Club, and Kerry’s mandibles may be the only fearsome thing about him, but the words they loosed yesterday were both welcome and overdue. Time will tell whether these words translate into effective action, but words like these are certainly a prerequisite to effective action. And of course, no effective action will issue from the General Assembly, a body that has no binding authority on anyone. But still ….
A strongly worded resolution calling for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take responsibility for his regime’s crimes against humanity is anticipated to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly next month.
“The European Union and Japan have completed a draft resolution that endorses the February report of the Commission of Inquiry [into North Korean human rights] and will soon circulate it among UN member states,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday. [….]
“Australia, the home country of Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the COI, was also very active, and there is a high likelihood that the resolution will be adopted through the momentum on the issue in the UN General Assembly,” said one foreign affairs official.
Another diplomatic source said, “Because human rights problems are a universal issue to mankind, it will be a burden on China or Russia to stick up for Pyongyang against other member states.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Does any of this really matter, then? Pyongyang seems to think so. The New York Times has already noticed a striking shift in the tone of North Korea’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s findings. At first, it flatly denied them and called its Chair “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.” Now, its U.N. Ambassador is feigning some openness to considering some of the criticisms — up to a point — and says his government has “accepted a wide range of recommendations for improving its human rights record.”
North Korea’s declaration falls far short of a commitment to follow through with any action, but the contrast with its blanket refusal to even consider similar recommendations in the past could be seen as a willingness to engage on some issues.
“There obviously has been some decision that this is the way the rest of the world relates, and the decision seems to be that North Korea should do it as well,” said Robert R. King, the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea. [NYT]
Although King concedes the need to “be careful about assuming this means a great deal in terms of what they do,” a shift in tone this significant must reveal something, even if its sincerity is dubious and its execution, inartful. Last week, for example, North Korea released a self-audit of its own human rights conditions that carried all the credibility of an O.J. Simpson progress report on his search for the real killer. It recited from a fictional work called the “Constitution” of “the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” which is an oxymoron. Pyongyang’s report was widely ridiculed in the press.
The North’s ambassador, So Se-pyong, speaking before the Human Rights Council, signaled that the North’s leadership was now willing to consider suggestions about, among other things, freedom of thought, “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” for humanitarian agencies and freedom for them to monitor distribution of their aid. The prevention of human rights violations and punishment for violators were also on the list.
But Mr. So said the North had rejected some recommendations that were “based on distorted information provided by hostile forces which aimed to dismantle the country’s social system,” including calls for unfettered access to detainees for the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosure of the extent and methods of capital punishment, and the end of restrictions on movement and expression. [NYT]
If you happen to be a North Korean, all of this will look like vaporous twaddle. Nothing the General Assembly says will make North Korea a less brutal place in the foreseeable future, and I’d still reckon that a quarter of the people in these camps will be dead within a year. North Korea still denies that the camps even exist, and its verbose human rights self-audit never mentions them. In all probability, North Korea will be back to its old bombastic self within a week.
Even so, it would also be wrong to conclude that none of this means anything. King cites declining foreign aid contributions and speculates, “I think the North Koreans are feeling some pressure.” But concerns over human rights alone wouldn’t justify denying aid. North Korea’s lack of transparency in distributing the aid might, as would its massive and deliberate waste of funds on missiles, ski resorts, German limousines, and Swiss watches. To be sure, the COI report’s findings also support those concerns, but aid programs for the North were already underfunded when the COI published its report. It’s more likely that donors simply don’t think Pyongyang is serious about feeding its people, and are diverting their limited aid budgets to places that are.
I think King is closer to the mark when he also says that “‘growing concerns about human rights conditions in North Korea make it much more difficult to raise money from foreign governments’ and private sources.” (Emphasis is mine, and note that the emphasized words were added by the Times reporter.) It’s not clear if King is referring to private aid groups or private investors, but investors are the far greater source of cash. All investment decisions weigh risks against benefits, and to many investors, the image risks of being associated with North Korea can’t be justified by the limited returns to be gained in its uncertain business climate. The growing threat of intensified sanctions will add to that uncertainty.
That’s why, for the first time, Pyongyang sees human rights as a problem it can’t just ignore. Its crimes against humanity now threaten to become a significant financial liability. Like the COI report itself, a tough resolution from the General Assembly will give investors pause.
Those signs of engagement dispel what was once a common assumption that the North’s leadership was immune to foreign criticism on issues of human rights, said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. “However sincere or insincere it may be, it’s a reflection it does care what the international community thinks and the international community does have leverage to push for change in North Korea,” Ms. Singh said. [NYT]
That is all the more reason to intensify that criticism, but it’s also important to understand what Pyongyang’s game is, too. Pressure is of no consequence unless it extracts fundamental change, and change will only be credible if it’s transparent. Pyongyang is a good enough illusionist to fool the Associated Press — remember how well it worked in this case? — and plenty of its readers. Let’s not forget that in 1944, even the Nazis felt the need to answer damaging charges about their concentration camps. This is Theriesenstadt, which served as Auschwitz’s waiting room. In 1944, the Nazis staged this film to dispel rumors about the “resettlement” of Jews, and portray it as humane:
[Within a month, nearly all of these people died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.]
When Pyongyang can’t ignore problems — usually because it’s under some kind of external financial pressure — it does things like agreeing to “reinvestigate” its abductions of foreign citizens, or agreeing to give up its nuclear programs. It knows well enough that for plenty of us, simply agreeing to talk or (at worst) signing a piece of paper is enough to take the pressure off.
This is where we’ll need to be smarter than the Danish Red Cross, the Associated Press, and our diplomats. Pyongyang knows that there will also be calls for divestment, the blocking of its offshore slush funds, and other forms of financial pressure. There will be calls to tighten the enforcement of Security Council resolutions, and perhaps to pass new ones. Blunting that pressure is Pyongyang’s obvious objective. And those who question that that pressure could work need look no further than the signs that Pyongyang is worried about it.