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Japan Joins U.S. and South Korea in Backing Away from Criticizing North Korea’s Human Rights

By Robert R. King

Japan has backed away from criticism of North Korea for its human rights violations.  In the past Tokyo was highly critical because North Korean intelligence officials abducted Japanese citizens from Japanese soil and kept them in North Korea against their will for intelligence purposes in the 1970s and refused to release information about the victims.  Japan was a leading voice criticizing human rights in the North at the United Nations and other international organizations.  In the last year or so, however, Japan has quietly backed away from championing human rights in North Korea

Every year since 2004, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has adopted a resolution criticizing North Korea’s human rights practices and making specific recommendations on areas for improvement.  This resolution has consistently been adopted after presentation of an annual report to the Human Rights Council by the United Nations “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea.”

The informal procedure for drafting and editing the text of UN resolutions involves one nation taking the lead in coordinating the effort—the “penholder.”  Diplomats of the country which holds the pen coordinate language with other interested UN member countries to develop the text of a consensus resolution.

For well over a decade, Japan has taken the lead in coordinating the production of the annual UN Human Rights Council resolution on North Korean human rights, which regularly is approved in March.  Japan has worked closely with the European Union, which is the “penholder” at the UN General Assembly, which also takes up a North Korean human rights resolution for consideration in New York each autumn.  Japan’s diplomats have earned an outstanding reputation for their work on the North Korea resolutions over the years.  The 2018 resolution, for example, was sponsored by 49 UN member countries, and it was approved by the UN Human Rights Council by consensus.

The human rights issue that roils Japan-North Korean relations is the abduction of Japanese citizens on Japanese soil by North Korean intelligence operatives.  Almost two decades ago, North Korea made modest progress on this issue and several abductees were able to return to Japan from North Korea, but that positive effort stalled soon after it began because of North Korean intransigence, and the abduction issue continues to be the prime North Korean human rights issue for Japan.

Timid Tokyo Stops Criticizing North Korean Human Rights

Japan has traditionally pressured North Korea on its human rights violations by calling attention to the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens.  In 2015, for example, the Japanese government hosted a symposium at the United Nations in New York City featuring speeches of key officials from Japan, the United Nations and the United States.  Japan’s Minister for the Abductions Issue emphatically voiced her government’s position: “The government of Japan strongly demands that North Korea promptly and honestly report the results of its investigation [into the abductions] and that it ensure both the safety of and the return of all Japanese abductees as soon as possible.  North Korea will have no future unless it resolves the abduction issue.”

North Korea under Kim Jong-un has taken an increasingly hostile attitude toward Japan for raising the issue of abductions, and Japanese leaders have seen North Korea’s medium range missile tests as a serious threat.  Pyongyang has resorted to increasingly vitriolic language and personal attacks against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In the fall of 2018 Japan was singled out in a North Korean commentary which blasted “dishonest forces including Japan” for “working hard to cook up” the human rights resolution while President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were meeting to resolve differences.  Although the failed Hanoi Summit made no progress in Washington-Pyongyang relations, the North Koreans have continued to criticize the Japanese.

In October 2019 Abe expressed his interest in meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without conditions to discuss abductions, but he also expressed concern about the North’s ballistic missile testing.  The official North Korean news agency responded with particularly offensive language critical of Abe personally: “Abe is also a rarely ignorant man who dreams of making Japan a military power . . . and he is an under-wit as he is only able to say such crude words as ‘provocation,’ ‘outrage,’ ‘violation,’ ‘abduction,’ and ‘pressure.’”  The vitriolic tirade called the Japanese statesman “an idiot and villain” and said he should not even dream of setting foot in North Korea.

The North has made it clear repeatedly that it considers any effort to discuss its human rights to be highly offensive.  In December 2019, when the UN Security Council was considering discussing the North’s human rights record, North Korea’s Ambassador to the UN Security Council told his counterparts in New York that North Korea would consider any discussion of its human rights record a “serious provocation.”  In a letter to all current members of the UN Security Council,  the Ambassador warned, “If the Security Council would push through the meeting on ‘human rights issue’ of the DPRK . . . the situation on the Korean Peninsula would take a turn for the worse again.”

This kind of harsh and undiplomatic language has emphasized the lack of progress in Tokyo’s efforts with Pyongyang.  Apparently in an effort to improve relations, Japan has abandoned its long-standing leadership at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in calling attention to North Korea’s human rights abuses.  In early 2019, Japan made the decision not to sponsor the UN resolution in Geneva criticizing North Korean human rights.  The significance of that decision was highlighted by a public statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Abe government at a daily press briefing announcing that the Japanese government would not sponsor the UN Human Rights Council resolution.

An unidentified Japanese government source quoted by The Asahi Shimbun explained, “North Korea dislikes criticism from the international community about its human rights.  There is value in trying a different approach to change North Korea’s attitude.”  The Chief Cabinet Secretary explained, “We have reached this conclusion after assessing the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea summit and the situation around the abduction issue.”  Japan did not play its usual leading role in drafting the resolution in March 2019, but it did indicate that Japan would vote for the resolution which was submitted by the European Union.  No vote was called and the resolution was adopted by consensus, as has been the case for several years.

The Japanese government stayed away from taking a leading role in the criticism of North Korea’s human rights again this year.  The resolution will come up for a vote later this month, but Japan again did not play a role in drafting the text.  A joint letter from 54 non-government human rights organizations and human rights leaders urged the Japanese government to continue its leadership in promoting accountability for human rights abuses in North Korea.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government were once champions for international efforts to expose North Korean atrocities, including abuses against the North Korean people and Japanese citizens abducted by the government,” the letter said.  “The Japanese government should re-evaluate its decision to soften its stance, and again take the lead in strengthening international efforts to investigate North Korea’s abuses and hold government officials accountable for their crimes.”

Japan’s abandonment of its commitment to human rights principles has had no visible impact on Pyongyang.  There has been no acknowledgement from North Korea that Japan has backed down, there has been no indication of Kim Jong-un’s willingness even to meet with Prime Minister Abe.

Japan Joins the U.S. in Soft Peddling North’s Rights Abuses

Unfortunately, Japan’s decision to back away from pressing North Korea on human rights is not unique.  Japan is lining up with the United States and South Korea.  Once President Trump announced he would meet with Kim Jong-un in Singapore in spring of 2018, the U.S. President backed away from pressing North Korea on human rights.

The United States withdrew from any participation in the UN Human Rights Council.  While that decision was not related to specific North Korean issues, withdrawal certainly has negatively impacted what the United States has done and can do in calling attention to North Korea’s abysmal human rights record.  The United States prevented the UN Security Council from taking up the issue of North Korea’s human rights abuses in 2018 and 2019, although the United States previously played the key role  in successful efforts in the Security Council to consider this issue—three times under the Obama Administration in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and once under the Trump Administration in 2017.

The most recent Administration failure appropriately to criticize North Korea came just a few days ago when the U.S. Department of State released the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  The list of human rights violations by North Korea against its own people and others was cataloged in painfully explicit detail.

But when Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made live on-camera comments calling attention to the release of the human rights report, the New York Times report suggested that politics distorted Pompeo’s view of the report, and serious questions emerged from his press conference:  “Four nations that are among the Trump administration’s top diplomatic adversaries were singled out on Wednesday for rampant human rights violations, raising questions of whether the State Department’s annual review of civil liberties protections worldwide was being politicized.”  The Secretary of State, however, did not publicly mention serious violations detailed in the report “by governments whose authoritarian leaders President Trump has been reluctant to criticize, including North Korea, Turkey and Russia.”

There is no attempt in the State Department human rights report to rank order countries which are human rights violators, but the four countries Pompeo singled out were certainly no worse in their human rights abuse than is North Korea.

The State Department report enumerated North Korea’s violations:  “Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearances by the government; torture by authorities; arbitrary detentions by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; no judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; the outlawing of independent trade unions; the use of forced or compulsory child labor; the use of domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system; and the imposition of forced labor conditions on DPRK overseas contract workers.”

Japan Joins South Korea in Playing Down North’s Human Rights Abuses

The South Korean government, like the United States and now Japan, has also backed down on criticizing North Korea.  The irony is the South Korea was just elected to membership in the UN Human Rights Council in October 2019.  The Human Rights Council is not a body composed of all 193 UN member states, but only 47 UN members are elected for a term on the Human Rights Council.  South Korea’s UN Ambassador said that “the international community has recognized the nation’s efforts and will in order to protect and promote human rights at home and abroad.”

Ironically, last November the South Korean government did not sponsor the annual UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record, although Seoul had sponsored every annual UN resolution from 2008 to November 2019.  This led Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations to publish an open letter to President Moon Jae-in which was critical of his government’s attitude toward North Korea’s human rights record.

Furthermore, President Moon’s government budget boosted funds for inter-Korean cooperation while aid for South Korean human rights efforts were significantly cut, despite the fact that there has been no indication of progress on human rights issues in the North.  The South Korean Ministry of Unification’s Human Rights Foundation saw its funds cut 93 percent and the budget for the database maintained by the Ministry on North Korean human rights abuses was cut by 74 percent.

For Japan, ceasing its criticism of North Korea’s human rights record seems to have had no positive impact on resolving the Japanese abduction cases, nor has it led to any improvement of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.  Efforts by Tokyo to secure the release, or at least a definitive accounting of the fate of Japanese who were abducted, has been unsuccessful.  As far as the public record shows, the North has brushed aside and ignored Japanese approaches to resolve the abductions issue.

The net result appears to be that the United States, South Korea, and now Japan have backed away from criticizing North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses in the hope that this will lead to progress with North Korea on serious security issues, including Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.  The North continues to conduct aggressive missile tests, hold regular military exercises, and ignore appeals from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan for denuclearization and reconciliation.  The North has also arrogantly ignored requests for meetings from the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea continues its human rights atrocities, actions that the highly respected UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea concluded fit the high threshold of “crimes against humanity.”  It is unfortunate that Japan now appears to have joined the United States and South Korea in ignoring the human rights violations of North Korea, hoping—without any evidence—that progress might be made in security policy or other areas.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.   

Photo from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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