North Korea: A misunderstood nation
Over the past decade, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights bodies have brought the world’s attention to the egregious human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The information has largely been based on the “testimonies” of North Korean defectors who, since the late 1990s mostly, fled to China and South Korea. Combined with satellite imaging, NGO reports have confirmed the existence of prison camps, Kwan- li- so, as well as instances of serious infringements of civil, political, economic, and social rights. However, North Korea has repeatedly denied the existence of political camps or human rights violation in the country and requested for food aid from the international community.
In February 2014, the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea published a report documenting widespread torture and abuse, and called for urgent action, including the referral of its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution. In the report, North Korean leaders have been accused of committing murder, torture, slavery, sexual violence, and mass starvation to prop up the isolated regime and exercise total control over its citizens.
Nevertheless, the treatment of individual testimonies as clinching evidences of violation of rights lacks merit. Further, the problem is real as Japanese and Korean media pay defectors for interviews. Paying for interviews creates an incentive to pad up, or create stories that will boost one’s market value for the media houses. As in international media, news about “bad boy” North Korea really sells.
Based on COI report, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution and subsequently in December 2014, the Security Council, the highest decision making body of the world body, voted to add an Agenda to discuss. The debate resulted in a resolution calling for a formal referral of the case to the prosecutor of the ICC against Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, both China and Russia, who share borders with North Korea, not only opposed but also voted against the resolution. Instead of condemning such unverified documented abuses, the Human Rights Council is targeting North Korea without actual evidence that would stand for scrutiny in a court of law.
Moreover, the UN does not have any precedence of adopting a General Assembly decree without engaging with the country concerned and verification of allegations through ground assessments. These unilateral efforts on Human Rights would not result in genuine improvement of civil liberties in North Korea, but it would trigger the issue further. It seems the protection of Human Rights is only applicable to those who oppose the American hegemony in the global order. In fact, there are severe human and labor rights violations in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Why is the Human Rights Council not considering the infringement on rights in South Korea? In fact, in its 2013 annual report, Amnesty International criticised the draconian National Security Law (NSL) of South Korea. The report highlighted that, the Law is being increasingly and arbitrarily used to curtail freedom of association and expression, the basic traits of a democracy.
According to the Supreme Prosecution Office, the number of new NSL cases has continued to increase: 129 in 2013 from 112 in 2012. The condition exacerbated when the constitutional court banned the third largest political party, Unified Progressive Party (UPP) in 2014. These cases are well documented examples of serious Human Rights violations in the region. The Amnesty International has stated that, the court ruling against the political party “raises serious questions about the authorities’ commitment to the fundamental freedom of expression and association under the incumbent President, Ms. Park-Geun–hye. The global Human Rights observer also firmly viewed, the space for freedom of expression in South Korea has been vastly diminished in recent years.
Moreover, on June 23, the government allowed to open a UN office to monitor the alleged human rights violations in North Korea on a daily basis. Pyongyang considered it as a “grave provocation”. In protest, North Korea immediately scrapped plans to participate in the ongoing the World University Games in South Korea which were scheduled to be finished on July 12. This act may adversely affect the Inter-Korean relations which have already touched the lowest point ever since Park’s “trustpolitik” policy failed to build trust between Seoul and Pyongyang. As a matter of fact, the normalisation of Inter-Korean relation is prerequisite for the peace and stability in the Northeast Asian region. North Korea is an isolated country suffering from acute food shortage and facing prolonged international economic sanctions since the Korean War. Sanctions have depleted fertilisers and fuel supply is in deficit. After the collapse of Soviet Union in early 1990s and continuous famine, the North Korean economy was almost shrunken and this phase is called the “Arduous March”. Nevertheless, the country’s food security had been slightly improving since 2004, the figures rose from 4.22 million tons in 2011 to 4.84 million tons in 2014.
Even though the food crisis persists, North Korea is very cautious in taking help from outsiders due to self-respect and self-reliant socialist ideology called Juche and also Songun, the “military first policy’”. India is one of the trusted partners in this regard. North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Su-yong’s recent visit to India, the first ever, seeking humanitarian aid is a significant step between the two countries. New Delhi had offered humanitarian food aid for Pyongyang on various occasions in the past.
Perhaps, the provoked regime-change confrontations are far away from the reality on the ground. Since, there are no exact empirical measures to study the extant of Human Rights abuses, strong coordination and cooperation with multilateral efforts to address North Korean Human Rights should be encouraged. Until there is committed and true engagement without containment, there is not going to be any solution to the issue.
(Dr. Sudhakar Vaddi is working as a Research Assistant at Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS) JNU)