Human rights and North Korea

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Human rights and North Korea



Victor Cha

The international community will come together in New York City in about two weeks, a gathering meant to provide an opportunity to showcase the world’s concern for the people of North Korea. In this regard, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea in March 2013 constituted an important step forward in addressing the terrible human rights abuses inside North Korea.

The Commission report detailed the crimes against humanity committed by the regime against its people and has galvanized world opinion on an issue that has remained for so long on the fringes of policy. Because of the COI report, U.S. statesmen now finally feel obligated to mention human rights in any statement on North Korea, rather than focusing solely on the nuclear issue. Moreover, people around the world now have a better awareness of the issue.

The question now is how to sustain momentum after the COI. The UN General Assembly is an opportunity to feature the COI’s findings in a public way. This fall also marks the 10th anniversary of the North Korean Human Rights Act passed in the U.S. Congress that, among other things, created a senior-level U.S. government position exclusively for human rights in North Korea - a seat now held by Robert King. The act also created a North Korean refugee resettlement program in the United States, the first of its kind outside South Korea.

The main policy recommendation of the COI was for the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, but the likelihood of this is low as China and Russia, both permanent members of the Council, would likely block discussion of the issue.

But there is still plenty that can be done. UN member states can be encouraged to meet through arranging “Arria-formula” meetings, which allow for informal discussion of an issue among Security Council members when formal discussion is blocked. There have also been calls for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to take part in high-profile “sideline” meetings during the General Assembly focused exclusively on North Korea. The purpose of these measures would be to show that the COI has not been forgotten; to create some “accountability anxiety” in China and North Korea; and to create a regularized gathering among states on rights abuses in North Korea.

The COI called on the North Korean government to undertake fundamental political and economic reform. While such a demand is unlikely to work, it is an important statement by the UN that links human rights abuses in North Korea to the nature of the regime. The other target of policy pressure is China. Through the practice of sending back North Korean refugees and the mistreatment of North Korean women and children who migrate across the border, Beijing is as responsible in these abuses as its little Communist brother.

China’s willful neglect demonstrates that it simply does not value the lives of these human beings and sees them solely as a policy nuisance. The only way to get China to care is to shame them publicly and hold them responsible in high-level U.S.-China bilateral dialogues and in international forums like the UN. Otherwise, Beijing sees no cost to its inaction.

As much as the COI has raised awareness of the problem, there is still need for a broader campaign. Only a fraction of the American public, for example, have an understanding of what is taking place inside the North. Of the ones who do know, they are also astounded at how little attention the problem gets in South Korea. A concerted effort by public and private sector groups to push out stories, images and information through social media is the only way to get the world on the side of the North Korean people. Such a campaign should also enlist well-known individuals from the entertainment world. We have actors Richard Gere on Tibet and Matt Damon on clean water. Where is Hollywood on North Korean women and children?

Any human rights campaign must help the North Korean people. But given the impenetrability of the regime, this is difficult to accomplish. Empowering the people with information about the outside world using balloons, short-wave radios and thumb drives has been the preoccupation of NGOs. More of this should continue.

However, greater attention and resources need to be given to the defectors who have left North Korea. After all, they are the future of the country. Efforts to educate them, train them and give them opportunities are tangible ways to improve their conditions and secure a better tomorrow for the people of the country.

* The author is a Georgetown University professor and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

BY Victor Cha

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