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UN indicts North Korea on Human Rights Violations, Refers to ICC

Rajaram Panda, C3S Paper No.2081

After facing international sanctions for conducting nuclear test and pursuing nuclear weapon program, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un is now facing the world’s wrath again over rampant human rights violations, which Michael Kirby’s recent report terms as “crime against humanity”. On 18 November 2014, the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee approved a landmark and groundbreaking resolution that urges the Security Council to refer North Korea’s harsh human rights situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This was for the first time such a recommendation was made for prosecution of its leaders for crimes against humanity at the ICC. The non-binding resolution now goes to the General Assembly for a vote in the coming weeks. While it was expected that China and Russia holding veto power on the council voted against it, India’s abstention defied logic. The Kirby report had indicted the Kim regime by declaring North Korea’s human rights situation “exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror”. The Kirby report released in February 2014 was based on interviews with dozens of people who fled the North and detailed abuses including the starvation and a system of harsh prison camps containing up to 120,000 people. The report detailed wide-ranging abuses in the North, including prison camps, systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.

In the past too, UN committee had adopted similar resolution on Pyongyang’s human rights conditions. But this year’s resolution included new idea by which prosecutors targeted the dictator himself, provoking the regime to make more furious response. When Pyongyang’s envoy threatened further nuclear tests at the UN assembly, the UN committee’s resolution would pose a setback to its recent efforts to improve ties with the outside world. In particular, Russia which is responsive for deepening economic ties with the regime may face tough questions from the international community.

Pyongyang’s response was on the expected line. Choe Myong-nam, North’s foreign ministry adviser for UN and human rights issue, sent a sharp warning by commenting that the UN committee’s resolution compels the North “not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests”. He accused the European Union and Japan, the resolution’s co-sponsors, of “subservience and sycophancy” to the United States and warned that if the resolution went ahead, it would lead to “unpredictable and serious consequences”. While 111 countries supported in the vote, 10 countries voted against, and 55 abstained. Besides China and Russia who voted against the resolution, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Belarus, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Sudan, complained that the measure unfairly targeted North Korea.  While human rights groups fear that Russia and China could block any Security Council move, North Korea and its allies argue that a resolution that targets a single country would set a dangerous precedent.

 Pre-empting the indictment by the UN, Pyongyang had launched a diplomatic offensive in recent  months to prevent the resolution from moving forward. Besides meeting for the first time with the UN rights rapporteur and extending an invitation for him to visit, North Korea dispatched a senior official, Choe Ryong-hae, to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, because Russia holds veto power in the Security Council. The move was in an apparent move to prevent the measure from going any further. UN Watch quoted North Korean defector Ahn Myeong-cheol who said the resolution will have an impact in his country “as the people there will learn that their leader is a criminal.” The resolution makes no mention of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, but notes the UN inquiry finding that the “highest level of the state” holds responsibility for the rights abuses.

Though largely symbolic and non-binding, the vote increases political pressure on North Korea. It is unlikely to lead to action in the International Criminal Court at The Hague, however. The ICC looks at serious abuses like genocide and other crimes against humanity. Though ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have nosedived in recent times following Pyongyang’s ‘disrespect’ to Beijing by pursuing policies disapproved by Beijing, it is unlikely that the latter would abandon the former because it has huge compelling strategic reasons to protect and defend Pyongyang. Even when Beijing has been increasingly exasperated with Pyongyang’s behaviour, and this issue presents a particular quandary for Beijing, strategic considerations would dissuade the latter to join others to pin down Pyongyang. This has, however, not deterred Beijing to warm up its relations with Seoul, much to Pyongyang’s annoyance. China, therefore, would probably use its veto power to stop any ICC referral. Beijing’s stance would likely be supported by Russia as well. China and Russia backed an amendment to the resolution by Cuba, which was voted down, to remove the call to refer North Korea to the ICC and an acknowledgement of the commission’s view that there were reasonable grounds to believe it had committed crimes against humanity.

General Assembly resolutions condemning human rights abuses in Iran, North Korea, Myanmar and Syria have become an annual occurrence, but this was the first time a North Korea resolution included a recommendation for an ICC referral. The resolution pointed the finger squarely at North Korea’s top leadership by acknowledging the commission’s finding that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed … pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State for decades.”  China has said the Security Council was not the appropriate forum for human-rights discussions and most likely veto it when it comes to the General Assembly for approval in December.

Though it seems unlikely that the resolution would pass the General Assembly as China and Russia are likely to use their veto power, theoretically, the resolution means that North Korean leaders could one day be hauled as defendants before the ICC at The Hague, which was created to provide justice for victims of atrocities, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A Security Council vote on a referral to the ICC would put both Russia and China in awkward positions. Both would be seen defending the human rights record of the worst human rights offender on the planet, a sure dent on their world image.

The North called the move a “political swindle” aimed at building the logic for an “armed intervention,” citing the U.S.-led NATO bombing on Yugoslavia in 1999. While rejecting “the forcible passage of the U.S.-orchestrated resolution”, Pyongyang has threatened not to refrain from a new nuclear test, thereby reinforce its “war deterrent without limits to counter its plot for an armed intervention and invasion.”

What one can decipher from Pyongyang’s recent behaviours is that the reclusive regime suffers from an acute sense of insecurity and maintaining nuclear as deterrence remains a critical element for its survival. Even while it remains as one of the world’s most isolated and opaque countries, it remains unmoved as it continues to face a litany of sanctions imposed by the UN for its nuclear tests and continued nuclear programs. Such convictions did not deter Choe Myong-nam from warning that linking the human rights and nuclear issues would maintain a confrontational element that could result in unpredictable and serious consequences.

Pyongyang’s robust mix of diplomacy, denials and threats to escape criminal charges and humiliations are unlikely to be taken seriously by the international community. Pyongyang’s diplomatic charm offensive to prevent its leader Kim Jong-un from being prosecuted internationally is unlikely lead the outside world to change views on North’s human rights record. In October 2014, North Korea circulated its own draft resolution at the UN, in which it said it was making effort to improve its human rights and that the issue should not be abused for political purposes. Then in November 2014, Pyongyang released  two US citizens held for alleged “hostile” acts against the regime and even suggested allowing a UN rights investigator to visit the country for the first time in return for the resolution’s withdrawal. However, following the UN move on 18 November, it is still unlikely that Pyongyang’s reaction would entail military aggression. While Pyongyang is expected to make noises against the resolution, it will be cautious about military sabre-rattling because it knows that such an option will limit its room for diplomatic negotiations.

The world is unlikely to ignore the fact revealed in the Kirby report that North Korea has one of the worst human rights violations in the world and the communist regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information. Though North Korea has also released its own human rights report, claiming that it has the world’s most advantageous human rights system and policies, the world community is unlikely to buy such explanations.

The situation in the Korean peninsula is too complex that it appears. Though Beijing is frustrated at Pyongyang’s behaviour, it still adopts a conciliatory tone despite the latter’s unacceptable behaviour. This is clear when Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson urged all parties to return to dialogue and the six party talks and that differences on human rights be resolved by all countries via dialogue as maintaining stability seems to be the primary consideration for Beijing. Such understanding of China’s stance only emboldens the North to pursues policies the way it considers just without consideration of their implications to the world.

Under the circumstance, is another nuclear test a possibility? Can Pyongyang be taken seriously as its spokesperson at the UN made his country’s intensions clear to such a possibility? Pyongyang has made it clear that following the UN decision on referral to the ICC, it would not be refrained any longer from conducting a new nuclear test. Several research institutes in the United States cite evidence that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test. The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said the North appears to be restarting a facility for processing weapons-grade plutonium. The report relied on satellite photos that show steam coming from the Yongbyon plant. The Institute for Science and International Security also said satellite imagery shows a reactor shutdown. Though China and Russia holding crucial veto power are likely to use it to block the resolution at the General Assembly, Pyongyang is likely to review its decision to conduct another nuclear test immediately.

Dr. Rajaram Panda was former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi. E-mail:

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