Academics share views on impact of COI report

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Academics share views on impact of COI report


Kim Keun-sik, left, a North Korean studies professor at Kyungnam University, and Yun Duk-min, right, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, sat down on Feb. 18 for a productive debate. By Ahn Seong-sik

On Feb. 17, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) concluded in a report after a yearlong investigation that senior members of North Korea’s military regime, including leader Kim Jong-un, had committed or overseen a broad range of crimes against humanity and advised the UN Security Council to bring the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The revelations shifted the focus of the international community, making human rights violations in the reclusive state a major cause for concern. For Pyongyang to come under investigation by the ICC, such a move would have to be approved by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and questions have been raised as to whether China, a close ally of North Korea, would block that initiative.

So on Feb. 18, two renowned scholars known to have opposing views on North Korean affairs sat down together with the JoongAng Ilbo for a productive debate on China’s role regarding this issue. Despite their differences, the two men co-published a book last year titled “A Rational Approach for Improving the Human Rights Situation in North Korea,” a rare alliance between the two that attracted widespread public attention.

Yun Duk-min, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, who is known as a conservative analyst on North Korean affairs, contends that though China doesn’t completely sympathize with the regime’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, or human rights violations in political prisons, in the long term it will pressure North Korea to become an ordinary nation.

Meanwhile, Kim Keun-sik, a North Korean studies professor at Kyungnam University respected among liberal analysts, has argued that rather than pushing China to reach out, South Korea and the international community should create a mood to build up trust with North Korea in the long term.

In a joint interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, the academics discussed the COI report and its repercussions on inter-Korean relations and other countries.

Q. How do you think the COI report will help in improving human rights violations in North Korea?

Yun: The report is a transition for the international community in understanding the issue. It means the international community now perceives human rights violations in North Korea as the worst human rights problem in the world. It is such a shame for us to abandon this issue as we have a brotherhood with the North. The interest of the international community in the issue will definitely play a role in pressuring the North Korean leader [Kim Jong-un] to improve human rights abuses in his country.

Kim: The COI report will become a standard and will help the international community form an official position on human rights issues in North Korea. Even though there will be many hurdles to overcome in order to take concrete action, the report gave the international community cause to get involved with the regime in the name of human rights improvement.

Do you think China will play an active role in implementing the report’s recommendations?

Kim: Beijing would feel uncomfortable if the matter of North Korea’s human rights sparks Washington to tackle human rights abuses in China.

So we need to develop cooperation with North Korea, such as expanding economic partnership among the three countries - North Korea, South Korea and China - [so that China will agree upon the implementation of the report].

Yun: China has five principles in its diplomacy policy, and one of them is to never interfere with the domestic issues of other countries. So it will not be easy for China to come forward on this issue. But the international community supports interference in domestic issues in a country when human rights violations are involved.

Although it would be difficult for us to seek direct cooperation [from China] on the matter of [the repatriation of] North Korean defectors, [I think] China will secretly pressure North Korea to become an ordinary nation in the long term.

Do you think the report would have a negative effect on inter-Korean relations?

Kim: North Korea would not compromise inter-Korean relations by tackling the COI report. Although, the regime could protest the content of the report, the possibility that the report will be raised at the ICC is slim.

Yun: It’s total nonsense that we don’t raise the issue of human rights abuses in North Korea for fear that inter-Korean relations would deteriorate. Better inter-Korean relations are possible on the basis of improved human rights in North Korea.

How do you think politicians will respond to the issue?

Yun: In general, human rights issues are a universal matter. But when it comes to human rights in North Korea, it always creates [political conflict in the South]. There is always an irony in human rights violations in North Korea, because the offender is North Korea, but at the same time, it is only North Korea that can solve this problem. The politicians need to understand this point.

Kim: To solve the human rights issues in North Korea, conservatives always that the regime needs to be collapsed first, while liberals say South Korea should offer aid to the regime.

Liberals claim conservatives don’t deserve to say anything about human rights in North Korea because they kept mum about the human rights violations during the military dictatorship [in the 1970s and ’80s]. Conservatives argue that liberals just want to pump money into North Korea and that they are followers of the Communist state, only helping Kim Jong-un. These South-South conflicts only trigger misunderstandings.

In the past, liberals claimed unification was a more important issue than human rights. But it’s wrong for liberals to believe that if they address human rights in North Korea it would upset the regime. But we should not also think, ‘human rights issues are the top priority in all cases.’


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