Pursuant to General Assembly resolutions, the Secretary General is obligated to submit a report each year on human rights developments in North Korea. Since 2014, these have operated under the shadow of Commission of Inquiry findings and recommendations concerning personal accountability for the regime’s manifold derogations. The current report covers the period from September 2015 to August 2016 and is the first to draw on the so-called field-based structure of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Seoul. For the most part it largely reflects the myriad dilemmas outside actors have in engaging the human rights situation in North Korea, with little fundamentally new on offer.
The report cycles through a depressing litany of issues, starting with the most pressing ones of security of person. Among the bits of news:
- In line with stories about an internal crackdown on potentially subversive information, members of the diplomatic and NGO community and UN staff were subjected to a new surveillance and screening regime in July 2015. New screening, including of electronic devices, was apparently aimed at materials that “contain impure contents slandering and calumniating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or contents that are contrary to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea laws, to spread them either by purposely dropping them in their accommodations or at the places they have visited, or by handing them over to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea citizens.” Is this paranoia or is someone doing it?
- Food security was an element of the CoI mandate and findings, but in 2015, the government again suspended the FAO-WFP joint crop assessment. The government’s findings: an 11 percent fall-off in output due to drought, but with much less credibility than previous reports.
- In addition to the well-known problems of human trafficking that the report underlines, it also makes reference to domestic violence. A survey by KINU covering refugees entering the country from 2011-2015 found that 82 percent reported that domestic violence was “common.”
- The only positive changes appear related to humanitarian efforts undertaken with external support, particularly in the health sector. The sole exception seems to be the interest the government has taken in expanding services to the disabled.
The most important question is what to do about the ongoing findings. The report tracks the UN ritual: discussion in the Security and Human Rights Councils, adoption of General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions, and North Korean condemnation. For its part, the newly-created Seoul office is largely limited to documentation and active participation in the NGO community devoted to human rights in North Korea.
In a statement by no less than the Minister for Foreign Affairs in March 2016, North Korea appeared to announce that it was withdrawing from any discussion of human rights in the country and declared it was not bound by any of the resolutions passed, a stance that would appear to justify the interesting line taken by the recent Council on Foreign Relations report that the UN should finally resort to denying North Korea’s credentials.
"The standard blackmail game pertains: outsiders care more about the North Korean population than the regime does."
Perhaps sensing the risk, however, the Minister argued that the country would continue to engage in “genuine dialogue and cooperation in the area of human rights with any countries and persons that respect the sovereignty of the country based on the recognition of the diversity of social and political systems.” The report tracks North Korea’s participation in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women, including the submission of reports under the convention. North Korea even agreed in June 2016 to permit meetings between the Department of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Resident Coordinator to discuss implementation of universal periodic review recommendations.
It is hard to see, however, how this form of incrementalism will ever really amount to anything given the manifest unwillingness to address core rights concerns and the inability to monitor what the regime says it is doing. Moreover, the report makes painfully clear that the UN system continues to be torn between its human rights and humanitarian mandates. This year, the United Nations country team, under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator, negotiated a strategic framework for the period 2017-2021. Under the duress of the floods, the submission reports some positive engagement with the State Committee on Emergency and Disaster Management regarding assessments. But the report notes that operating conditions have not changed, for example in allowing access to needed information, and the game is given away in the concerns the UN voices—however rightly—about the adverse effect of sanctions on humanitarian operations. The standard blackmail game pertains: outsiders care more about the North Korean population than the regime does, permitting Pyongyang to calibrate cooperation to assistance and limiting the leverage to aggressively pursue a “rights upfront” approach.