Slave to the Blog: Human Rights Edition



Last week, we published the full text of a letter from Ambassador Ja Song Nam, the North Korean Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to his fellow ambassadors. This letter reflects evidence of a subtle shift in North Korean policy on human rights issues. On the one hand, the regime continues to assert that “human rights”—frequently in quotation marks in North Korean statements—are part and parcel of the “hostile policy” of the US and its allies toward the DPRK. On the other hand, Pyongyang has made greater efforts both to defend its human rights record and suggest that there is room for dialogue on the topic. In this post, we note several additional developments in this vein as well as commentary by Roberta Cohen and David Hawk at the 38North and Rajaram Panda for the Eurasian Review.

First, Adam Cathcart of SinoNK has done the service of collating North Korea’s rejoinder to the CoI report, which has no stable URL: the 167-page Report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies in .pdf can now be found here. (Interestingly, the government chose to release the report in Chinese as well as English, suggesting that audiences beyond the West were also in play.) The document offers a dense and wordy defense of the North Korean conception of human rights, rooted not in the individual but in the collective. Yet while defending the nationalist idea that all countries have distinctive notions of human rights, the report simultaneously seeks to portray North Korea as democratic, citing at length the constitutional provisions and institutions in place in the country designed to protect rights. The report also goes to great length to portray North Korea as acting in conformity with international norms.

As David Hawk points out in his analysis for 38North, this strategy comports with how North Korea has responded to criticism leveled through the UN Universal Periodic Review. Following a presentation by a delegation from Pyongyang in May, governments involved in the review made 268 concrete recommendations to advance human rights in the country. However, those that involved concrete actions on the part of the government, or even acknowledgement of its own practices, were rejected out of hand, or at best “noted.” Those that were accepted generally took the form of signing international agreements, passing more domestic laws or non-controversial aspirations such as “stepped-up efforts at human rights education, training and awareness, empowering women in decision-making, and increasing access to food, health services and housing.”

Roberta Cohen also provides a summary of the human rights charm offensive at 38North, including comments we noted on the country’s prison camp system. Cohen goes through a number of possible motives, from the affront to the country’s leader that he might be held accountable, to the more mundane efforts to secure trade, aid and investment. Most important in this regard were the limited results of Kang Sok Ju’s ten-day visit to four countries in Europe. It was clear that Kang sought to expand relations with the community. Hoever, the EU offered meetings only with Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis; both delivered tough messages on nuclear weapons and human rights. Not surprisingly, the North Korean offer of dialogue appears to target Europe, reopening a bilateral human rights dialogue launched in 2001 but that the North Koreans shut down in 2003.

Cohen argues rightly that the international community should set aside any cynicism and seize the opportunity to open a human rights channel. But she also rightly issues a number of caveats that are relevant to the European process as well. Most notably she argues that the effort should not constitute a bargaining process designed to dilute the CoI’s message or secure short-term rewards. Cohen argues that the point of contact for the dialogue should be UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid of Jordan, and his Office. We would add that it should also ultimately engage the UN Special Rapporteur as well; the mandate of that office is outlined here, with links to its important reports that fed into the CoI process.

Perhaps the main motive for the charm offensive is the looming vote on a UN General Assembly Resolution being advanced by Japan and the European Union. The resolution—likely to be voted in November or December--will certainly endorse the CoI’s main findings and probably advocate for some UN action on the report. This could include a non-binding request that the Security Council consider referring the DPRK to the “appropriate international criminal justice mechanism” (in the language of the Human Rights Council resolution from earlier in the year), a reference to the International Criminal Court.

Of course, China and Russia would veto such a move, but the vote will be an embarrassing reminder of North Korea’s international isolation. In an earlier post, we tracked the steady increase in support since 2005 for the resolutions sponsored by the EU and Japan on North Korea. In 2005, the votes were yes: 88, no: 21, abstentions: 60, with 22 countries not voting. Last year, the vote was 112 to 16, with 55 abstentions and 10 countries not voting. The letter we published last week suggests that North Korea will circulate a counter-resolution, appealing to Non-Aligned Movement norms on non-interference. That position is looking like a harder and harder sell.

Witness to Transformation Posts on the CoI

Commission of Inquiry Report: the Mandate (March 25, 2013)

Commission of Inquiry Report: Initial Reaction (February 17, 2014; includes full links to Commission materials)

Commission of Inquiry Report: What Next? (February 24, 2014).

Roberta Cohen, Karin Lee and Christine Hong on Human Rights (January 29, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup I: The UN Role (March 3, 2014)

Commission of Inquiry Roundup II: the UN Role (March 6, 2014)

The Human Rights Council Vote (March 31, 2014)

The Commission of Inquiry: The Arria Meeting (April 21, 2014)

Human Rights Racket: Alive and Kicking (October 10, 2014, on the October 6 letter from the DPRK Permanent Representative)

All Witness to Transformation human rights posts

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