UN Diplomacy Continued



"This house, the United Nations, speaks endlessly of universal human rights … and the obligation of those who are guilty of crimes against humanity to answer before justice for their crimes. And the question that is before the United Nations now is, when we face such a moment of truth, will the United Nations back away because of the steps belatedly taken by North Korea?… And my hope is that the answer to that question will be 'no. We don't back away. We stand for the principles of the United Nations, and we expect accountability for great crimes before justice.’ And that is the right of the people of North Korea."

 - Michael Kirby, Chairman, Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK

Last week, we covered the intense diplomacy at the UN over the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) report here and here; we interpreted the release of Jeffrey Fowle to be a part of this back-and-forth. We now have more information to consider in this two-part post: a preliminary draft of the Japan-EU resolution supplied to us (the final draft has just been posted under Item 68 here), an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations between Jang Il Hun, the DPRK’s United Nations envoy, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg (video here; transcript here); the remarkable meeting on the Commission of Inquiry findings that featured exchanges between the head of the CoI, Michael Kirby and Ambassador Jang (from which the forceful statement cited above); and some coverage by Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy on the sharp-elbowed diplomacy over the issues.

The draft resolution is pretty much as expected, with one minor disappointment. The preamble balances a statement of the basic concerns with acknowledgement of the small actions that the DPRK has taken, such as participation in the Universal Periodic Review and the signing of some additional international protocols (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the optional protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography). It also acknowledges cooperation with the variety of UN bodies working in the country. However, the body of the resolution leads with a restatement of all components of the Commission of Inquiry mandate, to wit its findings on each of the following human rights abuses:

  • Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of punishment; including collective punishment, sexual abuse and forced labour;
  • The maintenance of the political prison camps;
  • The forcible transfer of populations and limitations on freedom of movement;
  • Policies generating an ongoing refugee crisis;
  • All-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, the right to privacy and equal access to information;
  • Violations of economic, social and cultural rights, including policies that lead to food shortages and a weak public health system;
  • Violations of human rights and freedom of women, children and persons with disabilities;
  • Violations of workers’ rights;
  • The caste system (my term) embedded in the songbun classification process;
  • The ongoing failure of the DPRK to acknowledge any of these problems.

The main point of the resolution is to endorse the Commission of Inquiry findings, to formally submit it to the Security Council and to “encourage” the Security Council to consider its recommendations. The most dramatic recommendation—and the one of most concern to Pyongyang—is that the human rights situation in the DPRK be referred to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution for crimes against humanity. At the same time, the resolution strongly endorses various forms of engagement with North Korea on human rights, and lists a number of channels through which this might occur.

The one disappointment is that the CoI report had endorsed what it called a “Rights Up Front” policy toward all UN interactions with the DPRK. Making this idea operational is by no means straightforward. But it presumably would have included bringing human rights considerations into all programming with the country, including with respect to food assistance through the World Food Program.

Further insight into North Korean motivations can be found in the Council on Foreign Relations event noted above as well as an interview Jang gave with the VOA. Several points emerge from the exchange:

  • Jang categorically denied the contents of the CoI and touted the DPRK’s alternative. In particular, he completely rejected the idea that North Korean maintains political prison camps, noting that they are “reformatory” and no different than the penal system of other countries. (We obviously beg to differ, see Chapter 4 of Witness to Transformation on the penal system)
  • Jang also made a number of interesting concessions. First, he claimed somewhat contradictorily that (non-existent) human rights violations should be blamed on the US hostile policy. He noted that human rights could be a subject of dialogue, and that the European experiment would be the venue for this effort. He also noted that human rights could be expected to improve as countries develop and that the current leadership is committed to improving the lot of the people, which would certainly be a welcome development.
  • Jang effectively admits in the interview that North Korea’s central concern with the CoI is the attack on the top leadership and the idea that individuals might be held accountable for human rights abuses. He also effectively admitted that he was engaged in a bargaining game: that the offer of holding the human rights dialogue with Europe might ultimately depend on deleting the offending paragraphs of the resolution that dealt with referral to the International Criminal Court.
  • At the same time, Jang slips in the observation that North Korea is playing a long game and may have to wait for the next American administration to come to office; there is clearly little faith that the Obama administration will move any time soon to engage.
  • Jang also slipped in an unfortunate one-liner on the nuclear question; his VOA interview is even less apologetic. Referring to the last test, he had the following to say: “we stated through our nuclear tests, we would further develop our technology, such as miniaturization of the nuclear warheads and the -- maybe the extension of the life of the nuclear weapons. And there may be many things, and I think -- I heard that many specialists or experts through one test can have so much data on further developing.” Needless to say, this continued push is unwelcome news; it would have been costless for Jang to at least offer some return to dialogue on nuclear weapons as well as human rights, but the opportunity was not offered. Jang did, however, try to take the edge off of the collapse of the Leap Year Deal by saying that the satellite launch was a legacy issue: long-planned, Kim Jong Un was not in a position to cancel the test. But this message was not coupled with a willingness to revisit the freeze or any messages on the nuclear issue whatsoever. The US and the ROK, in their 2+2 meetings, reiterated the invitation to resume the talks once North Korea was serious about denuclearization.

Next time: an overview of the dramatic hearing on the report and the subsequent diplomacy.

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