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Dealing with human rights abuses in North Korea

Michael Kirby delivers the UN's report on human rights abuses in North Korea. Photo by AFP.
18 February 2014
Michael Kirby delivers the UN's report on human rights abuses in North Korea. Photo by AFP.


An expert panel mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Commission has handed down a report detailing widespread human rights abuses in North Korea.

The UN is urging the world to act and has referred North Korea’s leaders, including Kim Jong-un, to the International Criminal Court over systemic torture, starvation and mass killings.

But ensuring human rights in the Hermit Kingdom will require a lot more than a heavy hand by the international community.

Here, three experts from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific give their thoughts on what the world could and should do.

Refugees, reaching out and regime change
“Any attempt to prosecute Kim Jong-un in the International Criminal Court in response to this report would almost certainly be unsuccessful at the present time, and seems unlikely to do anything positive to help those in North Korea who most need help," says Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki.

“But there are three important steps that Australia and the outside world can and should take.

“First there should be an international initiative, in which Australia should participate, which provides better assistance to North Korean refugees. As the report points out, almost all refugees initially cross into China, where they are at risk of being sent back to North Korea, which is likely to result in harsh punishments (or in extreme cases even death).

“China is now increasingly disturbed about the situation in North Korea. Rather than using the report as a basis for attacking and condemning China, the international community should use it as the basis for careful and diplomatic campaign to persuade China to stop returning refugees to North Korea. Part of this process should include a commitment by countries like Australia, the US and elsewhere to assist North Korean refugees both financially and by granting them asylum in appropriate cases. Countries like Australia cannot take the moral high ground on human rights issues unless they are willing to grant asylum to those who flee human rights abuses.

“Secondly, a carefully considered process of engagement should be pursued. There is abundant evidence that growing communication with the outside world through the spread of mobile phones, video and so on is leading to social change in North Korea. Political communication between North and South Korea has recently been restored. In responding to the report, care should be taken not to take steps that further isolate the regime and close the avenues that are leading to change.

“Thirdly, the international community (and particularly the countries of our region) must begin serious dialogue about appropriate responses to regime change in North Korea. Regime change cannot be carried out by outsiders, but there is good reason to believe that it will occur in one way or another in the not too distant future. The challenges of regime change are enormous. The cost of rebuilding North Korea's shattered economy and assisting likely massive flows of displaced people will be vast. South Korea cannot solve these problems alone. The other countries of the region need to prepare to offer their support.”

Humanitarian aid and engagement, not sanctions, key to human rights
“I think that this report has raised the stakes, particularly with Kirby comparing North Korea to the atrocities committed in the second world war and something will have to be done. It is unlikely that it will be referred to the ICC because China will block it in the UN Security Council," says Dr Emma Campbell.

“Other options include more sanctions but the report warns against inflicting further suffering on the population and current sanctions are already causing difficulties for the daily lives of people in North Korea. Further sanctions may just impose further burdens upon the general population.

“Military action, the ultimate sanction, would be untenable because of the huge casualties and disruption it would inflict on the wider Korean peninsula. However, it is unlikely that North Korea is going to take up the recommendations to change their judicial process or legislation or action regarding human rights.

“What is positive are calls in the report for more people-to-people engagement and to ensure that humanitarian aid continues and is not linked to human rights issues.

“This is the route the international community should be taking to improve the lives of the North Korean population and empower them to bring about change on their own terms.

“Australia should take this opportunity to play a role in encouraging people to people contacts. The report says ‘states and civil society organisations should foster opportunities for people-to-people dialogue and contact in such areas as culture, science, sports, good governance and economic development that provide citizens of the DPRK with opportunities to exchange information and be exposed to experiences outside their home country.’

“Australia used to play a role in the engagement process by hosting North Korean bureaucrats, and we should look to repeat these types of schemes given Australia’s diplomatic relations with both Koreas and the importance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula to Australia.”

“North Korea’s responses are not surprising. They have constantly denied human rights abuses. Control of the population is a key part of the regime’s survival. They will be even keener to maintain the regime as if it were to collapse or open, the leadership are now much more likely to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

“Michael Kirby is a highly respected figure and the findings should be considered highly credible and important. Much of the reports confirm details of human rights abuses that organisations in South Korea had already reported.”

Some friendly advice to the UN  on history and unilateral action
“In early February, I met with the Hon Justice Michael Kirby," says Dr Leonid Petrov.

“Answering Justice Kirby’s question regarding the best way to reach out to the DPRK’s leadership, I recommended pre-ambling the Commission’s report with allusions to the deep historical and political roots of North Korean behaviour: the legacy of colonialism, wartime brutality, a Cold War mentality, and mistrust of the international community. These problems are characteristic of all Northeast Asia, but Korea, at its pivotal point, has harboured the most extreme human rights violations as a result.

“This problem cannot be resolved unilaterally, nor swiftly, without transforming the political climate of the whole region: that is to say, ending the Korean War, diplomatically recognising the DPRK, lifting economic sanctions against it, and improving all forms of exchange with the North. In a perpetual and assiduously cultivated ‘state of emergency,’ the North believes regime survival justifies any means, even at the expense of human rights.

“Whether this can be changed, or not, depends on politicians in Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo. Without the goodwill of regional policy makers to address the problem of the Korean War especially, the issue of human rights in Korea is unlikely to be resolved. We noticed that the DPRK had withdrawn its invitation to US Special Envoy for Human Rights, Robert King, who had been seeking to negotiate the release of Reverend Kenneth Bae.

“Invoking contextual issues does not absolve North Korea’s leadership of responsibility, yet acknowledging them may encourage a greater degree of openness towards dialogue. The DPRK must see that its future development depends upon evolving beyond the legacies and pathologies of history, of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War and Cold War.”



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team