The road ahead

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The road ahead

It was just about the worst possible day for holding a conference. Washington, D.C., was hit by a major snowstorm. Schools were closed due to the weather emergency, and the federal government was shut down. Even the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the venue for our conference, was closed. But organizers thought this gathering of people from all over the world to commemorate the day was too important to let slip.

So on Feb. 17, CSIS, the George W. Bush Institute, Yonsei University Center for Human Liberty and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea held a public meeting, “North Korea Human Rights: The Road Ahead.” The purpose of the conference on the one-year anniversary of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report was to take stock of progress on improving conditions in North Korea, as well as bring all the major stakeholders together to discuss the next steps in the campaign in 2015.

In part, we thought it was important to hold the conference to keep the human rights issue in North Korea in the public eye. After an unprecedented year of progress in 2014 with the UN General Assembly Resolution on North Korean human rights abuses and the start of UN Security Council discussions on the issue, there was a desire among stakeholders not to see momentum wane in 2015. In particular, the danger foreseen was that a return to nuclear negotiations, or progress in North-South relations, or even a trip by the North Korean leader to Moscow in May would divert attention from human rights issues, thus allowing policy to fall into that traditional trap of trading off progress on highly politicized issues (e.g. denuclearization) for lower-profile ones like human rights.

The consensus at the conference was that nuclear diplomacy with North Korea should be encouraged, but there should no longer be a zero-sum trade-off that shortchanges the human rights issue. On the contrary, no diplomacy on denuclearization can be believed unless it is accompanied by metrics for human rights reform that would demonstrate a strategic decision by the North to comply with international norms and the UN Charter on prohibitions against slave labor, prison camps and violations of civil rights.

The conference, attended by the UN COI members (Michael Kirby of Australia, Sonja Biserko of Serbia, and Marsuki Darusman of Indonesia), Robert King (U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights), Lee Jung-hoon (South Korean envoy for human rights), Kurt Campbell and other experts, also noted the importance of archival documentation of all information on abuses for future use in accountability deliberations; continued outreach to China to seek access by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to border areas; formation of a “contact group” on North Korean human rights, led perhaps by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, that would meet on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings like APEC, the G20 and East Asia Summit to take stock of progress; dedicated funding to bring information about the outside world into North Korea through radio and other means; and garnering the support of other Asian countries and the developing South, perhaps through the passage of Human Rights resolutions in their legislatures.

While there were many topics of discussion over the two days, a couple stood out to me. First, a number of experts and officials called for direct engagement with North Korea on human rights. Whether this takes the form of a human rights dialogue or not, this engagement would primarily be aimed at finding areas of overlap between humanitarian need and human rights for the North Korean people in such areas as medicine and health, help for the handicapped and nutrition for children.

Judge Michael Kirby, head of the COI, said that he would be open to meeting with North Korean representatives to discuss the COI report, and many observers called on the North to allow the Special Rapporteur for North Korean Human Rights, Marsuki Darusman, to visit the country. It should be noted that the conference was a public event with the agenda posted online weeks in advance. Press reports stated that North Koreans were denied entry to the event. Any party, including North Korean officials, could have registered their participation with a simple click on an RSVP link.

Finally, conference participants agreed that in terms of consciousness-raising on the issue, there was still much work to be done. The Bush Institute’s surveys of the American public found that a relatively small percentage of people had heard of the COI report. And in Korea, the North Korean human rights issue reverberates in a domestic-political context that complicates support for what should not be a complex issue.

One of the ways to break through these barriers is to find a champion for the cause. Like Matt Damon on clean water or George Clooney on Sudan, a high-profile advocate could bring more policy attention, funding resources, and public interest to the issue. Angelina Jolie, now a ambassador for UNHCR, would seem like a natural fit given the refugee problems on the Sino-North Korean border. But Hollywood remains unnecessarily timid on the issue for fear of responses by the Beijing government that might dim their star power in the lucrative Chinese market. What is misunderstood is that the Chinese public, when enlightened to the stories of human rights abuses in North Korea, feels no less empathy than Americans or Koreans.

*The author is professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Victor Cha

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