Roberta Cohen on North Korean Human Rights at the UN

January 22, 2013 7:00 AM

North Korean human rights issues are gaining momentum at the UN, and prison camps appear to be a focal point for the new, more candid discussion. In October, we summarized the Special Rapporteurs report and in December we noted the steady decline in the number of countries willing to back North Korea on the issue.  Last week, in a surprising development, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a an unusually strong statement on the issue; it really bears reading.  Calling the human rights situation in North Korea “deplorable,” Pillay said the time had come for a full-fledged international inquiry into “serious crimes” that had been taking place in the country for decades.

Thanks to the indispensable Chris Nelson, we reproduce here an interview with Roberta Cohen, a non-resident senior scholar at Brookings, co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and one of our favorite experts on human rights issues (see her excellent overview at 38North). The views expressed here are personal.

Cohen. [The Pillay statement] was the first stand alone statement--and a strong one at that--by a High Commissioner on human rights conditions in the DPRK. The statement has a few interesting features. First, High Commissioner Navi Pillay acknowledged that "the deplorable human rights situation in DPRK...has no parallel anywhere else in the world" and called for greater international attention to the abuses reported by former prisoners with whom she met for the first time in December 2012. This sharply contrasts with the past when High Commissioners failed to meet with defectors and generally qualified their remarks about North Korea in part because the UN could not directly access the prisons or give an independent diagnosis of the situation.

Pillay in fact repeats, "We know so little about these camps and what we do know comes largely from the relatively few refugees who have managed to escape from the country." Yet, far more than a "few" have escaped and given credible testimony. David Hawk's 200-page report Hidden Gulag, published in 2012 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, contains the testimony of 60 former prisoners and guards. A lot of the accumulated testimony corroborates other testimony, making it factual and hard to ignore. Moreover, hundreds of the 25,000 North Koreans now in the South were former prisoners.

Second, the High Commissioner has put the UN out front in support of a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity by North Korea. Although the brainchild of NGOs, going back to the mid 2000s, she and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea have now embraced that idea. Unlike past practice, she is no longer holding up action in the hopes of gaining access to the North and having a dialogue. Although successive High Commissioners have tried for a dialogue since 2004 in line with UN resolutions, none succeeded. Pillay has evidently concluded that it's time to speak out, given no change by the Kim Jong-un regime.

The question now is whether the United States, the European Union and other states in Asia and Africa will support the High Commissioner. A commission of inquiry will lead to high profile attention to the prison camp system and to other serious crimes committed by North Korea, such as abductions of foreigners. It is not likely to garner consensus in the 47-member Human Rights Council which will meet in Geneva in February-March. But by a stroke of luck, China, Russia and Cuba will not be on the Council this year. There is thus an opportunity to move forward and go beyond rhetoric on human rights in North Korea. As Pillay has observed, nuclear issues should not be allowed to overshadow "applying serious pressure to bring about change for the beleaguered, subjugated population of 20 million people."

Nelson: Lots of folks like PIIE's Marc Noland worry the UN will do little on this, or in real time...judging from the lack of movement (until yesterday?) on reinforcing existing UN sanctions on DPRK bomb and missile tests since last year's "satellite" launch.

Cohen: I believe the real question is whether the Western states (US and EU), South Korea or Japan are willing to expend political capital on a high profile human rights initiative concerning North Korea. Or will they calculate that the impact on their political/strategic/nuclear objectives re the Kim Jong-un regime is not worth the effort?

Some Western states question any disrupting of the current consensus in the Human Rights Council and General Assembly on human rights in North Korea. In recent years, both bodies have adopted strong annual resolutions on North Korea's human rights situation by consensus , a positive development, and one that took work by Western and other states. A commission of inquiry is not yet part of that consensus.

Will states in the Council like India, Ethiopia or Kazakhstan support a commission of inquiry? Will China (although without a vote) be lobbying governments on the Council and in capitals against the commission? Probably. A diplomatic effort will therefore be needed with leadership.

The High Commissioner has basically called it -- she has pointed out that in the human rights area, the Kim Jong-un regime has made no improvements and that's it's time for the international community to do something serious.

Nelson: last year we wrote several times in the Report that it would maximize attention and leverage for the Administration to launch a combined program of human rights and nuclear/proliferation concerns, instead of keeping them implicitly separate. Our argument was that it's hard to believe the human rights concerns would exist if the DPRK regime was a good actor on nukes and proliferation. As of yesterday, given A/S Kurt Campbell's UN statement, it looks like the Administration is now pursuing a dual strategy.

Cohen: [A binary 'either/or'] assumes change is possible in one area but not in another. Yet some will argue that the North Koreans can not be trusted to enforce a nuclear agreement. But others will want to try a nuclear agreement. Well in the human rights arena, change is possible too. There can be surprises -- chipping away at the regime and also working to penetrate the information wall around NK could result sooner or later in change.

Just recall the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the USSR, the change in Arab countries etc. -- such changes were not predicted and took forever to happen but they did happen. What a commission of inquiry would do is put North Korea's record firmly on the international agenda. Right now skeptics dismiss the words of defectors, but a serious credible investigation at the international level would be hard to dismiss. Isn't it time for both strategic and human rights issues to be pursued at the same time without making one VS. the other?

The Carter and Reagan Administrations negotiated nuclear agreements with the Soviet Union while at the same time raising human rights issues in other bilateral and multilateral fora. The US at the present time has a broad agenda with China encompassing strategic as well as human rights issues. Why not work to broaden the agenda with the DPRK and stop pitting one issue against the other?

Haggard: Why not indeed? In the last chapter of Witness to Transformation we provide a menu approach to North Korean human rights that includes more robust UN action and efforts to engage on issues such as the prison camps.

More From

Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

More on This Topic

North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 21, 2015
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 7, 2015
North Korea: Witness to Transformation
December 3, 2015