Tag Archive | "Human Rights"

Where do Biden and Trump Voters Stand on U.S.-Korea relations?

By Juni Kim

Next week’s U.S. presidential election has, to put it mildly, significant implications for the future of U.S.-Korea relations. The Trump administration’s aggressive approach to rethinking U.S. alliances has unnerved longstanding allies like South Korea. The last four years saw the renegotiation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, U.S. demands for South Korea to pay more for military costs, and Trump’s push for withdrawing U.S. troops stationed abroad. Stalled peace talks with North Korea also underline the continuing danger of North Korea’s increasingly capable missile and nuclear arsenal.

To understand where American voters stand on important issues on U.S.-Korea relations, KEI commissioned a study by YouGov that surveyed 1,064 American adults on August 26th to the 31st. Respondents were asked both who they voted for in the 2016 presidential election and who they would likely vote for in next week’s election. The results show that despite a split response among likely Biden and Trump voters on approving the Trump administration’s overall handling of South Korea and North Korea, there is clear agreement by American voters on specific policy issues like North Korea’s denuclearization and stationing U.S. troops in South Korea.

When asked on approving or disapproving of the current administration’s handling of relations with North Korea, 70% of likely Biden voters predictably disapproved while 69% of likely Trump approved. The split is similar for respondents who voted in the 2016 presidential election, with 72% of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton voters who disapproved and 74% of 2016 Trump voters who approved. On approving or disapproving of the administration’s handling of relations with South Korea, 22% of likely Biden voters approved and 65% of likely Trump voters approved.

Despite the wide split on the administration’s overall approach to North Korea and South Korea, U.S. voters generally agree on how important it is for North Korea to give up is nuclear arsenal. Likely Biden and Trump voters responded nearly identically with 89% and 88% respectively believing it is very important or important. There is some divergence when voters were asked about the U.S. providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean citizens. More likely Biden voters (60%) are in favor of providing assistance than likely Trump voters (47%), though there are still more Trump voters approving of assistance than disapproving (25%).

U.S. voters also show general agreement on the benefits of U.S.-South Korea trade, the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, and support for U.S. troop presence in South Korea. 74% of likely Biden voters and 67% of likely Trump voters believe that U.S. trade with South Korea is beneficial for the United States, and 68% of both sets of voters believe the U.S.-South Korea military alliance is in U.S. national security interests. Despite Trump’s critical view of U.S. troop presence abroad, including in South Korea, more likely Trump voters (66%) are in favor of maintaining or increasing troop presence in South Korea than likely Biden voters (59%).

Even in the current divisive political climate, the results reflect an understanding by Americans regardless of voter preference of the importance of the U.S. commitment to South Korea and the seriousness of the North Korean threat. While voters may be divided on Trump’s own performance, the public consensus should be noted by the next administration and how it approaches relations to the Korean peninsula.

Juni Kim is the Senior Manager for Operations and Technology at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Graphics created by Juni Kim. Cover image created by Juin Kim from photos on Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Flooding and COVID and Sanctions! Oh My! Are These Problems Behind Changes in the DPRK News Format?

By Robert R. King

From July 25 to August 26 Kim Jong-un convened three high-level meetings of the Worker’s Party Politburo—an unusual display of urgency by the North Korean leader.  Only four such meetings were held in the previous six months of this year.

The problems Kim and North Korea are facing seem to be particularly daunting.  Flooding from monsoon rains and two typhoons have drenched North Korea in the last five weeks.  The Monsoon rains of early August caused landslides and floods which damaged 100,000 acres of farmland (151 sq. miles), some 16,000 households were affected, and the reported death toll was 22.  As that disaster ended Typhoon Bavi (No. 8 in North Korea’s typhoon numbering system), struck western North Korea on August 26.  On Kim Jong-un’s inspection tour following Bavi, he announced that there was minimal damage—flooded fields, damaged corn and beanstalks, washed out roads and damaged power lines, but not as bad as it might have been.  (It was a category 1 hurricane equivalent when it made landfall.)  But on top of the serious monsoon rains, it was certainly not welcomed.  The first week of September things got worse, typhoon Maysak (No. 9) hammered the Korean Peninsula, producing additional heavy rains in the North. Wonsan on North Korea’s southeast coast faced a deluge of over 5 inches of rain (132 mm) in only three hours.  Kim Jong-un was there a few days later inspecting the damage, apparently including “dozens of casualties.”  Again in the search for scapegoats, he fired the provincial party leader in the hardest hit area and ordered twelve thousand core party members to join the recovery effort and promised “grave punishment” of local officials.  The problems may not be over yet, however, as another typhoon (Haishen—Typhoon No. 10) is headed up the Korean Peninsula with another round of heavy rains.

Then, of course there is the plague—the COVID-19 virus.  North Korean officials continue to claim that the country is totally COVID-free, but little testing and government policy to cover up any cases that might have occurred may well be the explanation.  The extent of official concern is reflected in the harsh effort to quarantine immediately any individuals with potential cases of the virus.  The “re-defection” of a North Korean defector who illegally fled to South Korea but three years later illegally crossed the border returning to the North led to the total quarantine of the city of Kaesong which lasted over a month.  The scope and zeal of the enforced quarantine in Kaesong indicates the intensity of the North Korean effort to deal with the COVID pandemic.  The poorly-funded and under-staffed medical infrastructure in the North is heavily dependent on World Health Organization programs and non-government humanitarian assistance to deal with many of its most troubling medical problems.  If the COVID pandemic gets out of control, the consequences in the North could be massive and tragic.

The third challenge currently facing the North is the impact of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs which are seen as a threat to international peace and security.  Those sanctions have the support of China and Russia, as well as the United States and other Security Council member countries, and all UN member countries are obligated to follow them.  The COVID pandemic has heightened the impact of the sanctions.  Because of the concern for the spread of the pandemic, North Korea has tightened its border with China to prevent illegal border crossing and illegal importation of goods because of the fear that this will bring the dreaded virus into the North. Though, some state sanctioned smuggling is still allowed. Earlier when the border with China was more porous, sanctioned goods from China were illegally smuggled into the North and that eased the economic impact of UN sanctions.  Now that the border on both sides is more tightly guarded to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the sanctions are much more effective.

In a Party Central Committee session held in mid-August, the North Korean leadership confirmed that plans to improve the national economy have been “seriously delayed” by “severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges.”  A party congress has been scheduled for January to deal with the consequences of the flooding, the pandemic and the economic consequences of the sanctions.  Party congresses are infrequent events and they have taken place in the past only when there was some urgent need.  That last Congress held in 2016 confirmed the succession of Kim Jong-un, and the Congress before that was held 26 years earlier.

Media Coverage of Typhoon Bavi Showed Major Changes

As Pyongyang has attempted to deal with these increasingly complex challenges, a particularly significant change in the format of media reporting (particularly television) took place.  As Typhoon Bavi approached North Korea’s west coast, the principal official Korean Central Television (KCTV) channel took the unprecedented action of broadcasting through the night.  Martyn Williams with the Stimson Center notes that this was the first time KCTV broadcast around the clock for a full uninterrupted 24 hours.

The standard KCTV schedule begins in the afternoon and ends in the late evening, and follows a rigid predictable schedule.  Broadcasting begins with the national anthem, followed by hymns of praise to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.  The presenter then gives the program schedule.  Any news relating to Kim Jong-un comes next followed by other news and then entertainment programming.  On Thursday, August 26, as Typhoon Bavi approached the North Korean coast, even before the program schedule was given, a report from the weather service gave information about the impending landfall of the typhoon.

The other unusual change in television programming that day was on-the-scene reporting on the typhoon.  North Korean TV seldom broadcasts live reports from journalists in the field.  On August 26 several weather updates were broadcast from a reporter at the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration and other live reports were broadcast with journalists sheltering under umbrellas and standing in front of damaged buildings and uprooted trees.  Previously the format for North Korea’s main television news program has been a mature woman in a traditional hanbok (the traditional Korean dress for formal occasions) with the image of Mount Paektu in the background.

The Kim family has paid particular attention to managing the media, and there is every reason to believe that this noteworthy change in television format was done at the direction of Kim Jong-un.  It is not clear whether this was a “one-off” format change, or whether this is a new inclusion of journalists reporting on the spot will be used again in similar unusual circumstances, which would bring North Korean media more in line with other international news media practice.  The day immediately after the unusual programming began in connection with Typhoon Bavi, Korean television reverted to the standard format, apparently with no comment about the dramatic change in the look and feel of the news reports the previous day.  Just a few days later, however, when typhoon Maysak dumped heavy rains on Wonsan, local television again aired live footage of damage.

Why the Change?

North Korean leaders are acutely aware of the technology and programming practices of news media elsewhere in the world because foreign radio and some television broadcasts do reach the North.  It is illegal for North Koreans to watch any foreign news or entertainment—even the brotherly Korean-language broadcasts in China which can be heard and seen in North Korean areas near the Chinese border.  North Koreans want information from beyond their border, and they access foreign broadcasts and other foreign media even though it is difficult to get and carries a significant risk of punishment if North Koreans are caught viewing or listening to foreign media.

Along the border with China, North Koreans can watch Chinese Television in the Korean language.  These broadcasts are produced for the Korean-speaking population in China, so they are not specifically directed at the North, but Chinese television is better technically and programmatically than North Korean media.  Furthermore, South Korean media, including popular K-pop and soap opera entertainment, is available in the North on the black market on USB drives.

With this competition from more attractive programming from abroad, the Kim government is anxious to make its domestic news and entertainment media better.  It is in competition with illegal foreign media.  If the official approved media is technically better and programming is more interesting, keeping viewers focused on approved North Korean media is much easier.  The official media is not the only game in town, and competition is pushing North Korean television to be better.

A second reason the media may be shifting its programming is to highlight the external forces that are making life more difficult in North Korea.  With flooding, the COVID pandemic, and economic sanctions it is much more difficult for Kim Jong-un to create the “heaven on earth” that North Korea’s ideology promises.

That is particularly difficult because the Kim family leaders are played up in laudatory propaganda as superhuman miracle workers, and Kim Jong-un is certainly part of that mythology.  In December 2017, for example, national video broadcasts show Kim high on Mount Paektu, North Korea’s sacred mountain which plays an important role in the mythology of the Korean people.  In the video, the 9,000 foot mountain was swathed in snow, wind and cold.  In the words of the official film of the event, it suddenly became a “marvelous scene with glee at the reappearance of its great master.”  The mountain showed “fine weather unprecedented” in December.  The KCNA report on Kim’s climb up the mountain said, “His eyes reflected the strong beams of the gifted great person seeing in the majestic spirit of Mount Paektu the appearance of a powerful socialist nation which dynamically advances full of vigor without vacillation at any raving dirty wind on the planet.”

The problem of boasting about supernatural powers is that when things get tough, people may expect the Supreme Leader magically to solve the country’s problems.  It may well be that with flooding, the COVID pandemic, and sanctions to deal with, the leader is using greater honesty in the media to downplay his supernatural powers.  By showing on-the-spot news reports of the impact of the flooding and typhoons, it gives the North Korean people a better sense of the reality and significance of the problems the country is facing.  This may ease expectations for the chief miracle worker.

Further indications that the Leader is concerned about the seriousness of the problems is the fact that the head of the government, Prime Minister, Kim Jae-ryong, was fired at the Politburo meeting on August 13.  The Prime Minister is focused primarily on management of the economy, and his replacement was an obvious indication of dissatisfaction about the economic problems facing the country.  The prime minister was a convenient scapegoat.  Another villain to blame was found in Wonsan after Typhoon Maysak dropped heavy rain on the southeast—the local party leader was fired.

Kim Jong-un announced at the August 13th Politburo meeting that North Korea would not accept flood or COVID pandemic assistance.  Fears that foreign aid workers might bring COVID virus infection was behind the rejection.  Another reason for this strong statement of North Korea’s self-reliance, however, might be that for the sake of appearances it is better preemptively to reject assistance when such help may not be given if it were requested.  South Korea is one of the few possible donors for the North.  The Moon Jae-in government appears to be interested in aid as a way to improve the strained North-South relationship.  On the other hand, the South has been treated poorly by Pyongyang for the last several months, including the overly dramatic blowing-up of the North-South liaison office in Kaesong just a few weeks ago.  There is little chance the United States would offer aid, the World Health Organization is inundated with requests for COVID help from many of the poorest countries in the world, and the pandemic-induced economic downturn throughout the world makes this a very difficult time to be seeking help.

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 Wikimedia Commons.  

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Shifting Blame: Why North Korea is Claiming “Redefector” from South is Infected with Coronavirus

By Robert R. King

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called an emergency meeting of the Worker’s Party Politburo on Saturday, July 25 to deal with “an emergency event” in Kaesong City “where a runaway who went to the South three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line.”  The Korea Central News Agency (via KCNAwatch.org) reported that “despite the intense preventive anti-epidemic measures” taken throughout the country during the previous six months, “there happened a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country” according to the Supreme Leader, who conducted the meeting.

The seriousness was underlined by the announcement that as a “preemptive measure” Kaesong City was totally isolated and districts within the city were also being isolated.  At the emergency meeting, the Politburo adopted a decision “shifting from the state emergency anti-epidemic system” to the “maximum emergency system.”

Another ominous tone was sounded when the meeting “sternly took up the issue of loose guard performance” in the frontier area where the “runaway to the south” had illegally crossed back into the North.  Military officials were directed to undertake “an intensive investigation of the military unit responsible” and “administer a severe punishment.”

Infected with the Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

The KCNA report on the Politburo meeting was quite explicit that the coronavirus had entered the North with the return of the defector who had been in South Korea for the previous three years.  The North Korean Minister of Public Health said in a television interview that “Despite the efforts, it appears that a dangerous crisis has occurred in which the virus may have entered our borders.”

South Korean officials acknowledged that the 24-year-old man who had defected to the South in 2017 had illegally returned to the North.  He was not identified other than by his family name—Kim.  According to South Korean officials, he apparently crossed under a barbed wire fence by crawling through a drainage duct in order to evade South Korean border guards, and he then swam about a mile from Ganghwa Island in the estuary of the Han River to North Korean territory near the city of Kaesong on the west coast.  Yonhap news agency reported that South Korean border guards were able to identify his route because they found a bag which they believe belonged to him on Ganghwa Island.

Although the North Korean media, quoting the North Korean health minister, were quite specific in saying that the “redefector” was infected with the coronavirus, South Korean officials were equally emphatic in affirming that he was not infected.  A senior South Korean health official said that the young man was not registered as having tested positive for the coronavirus, and he had not been in contact with any South Koreans who are registered as being infected.  Two individuals who had been in close contact with the “redefector” were tested and neither were infected with the coronavirus.  South Korean public health officials have done a particularly good job in tracing and containing the virus, and current health figures indicate only about 50 individuals per day in a total South Korean population of some 50 million people are testing positive for coronavirus, and these are principally individuals who have recently arrived from abroad.

The number of defectors who return to North Korea has traditionally been very small.  The South Korean Ministry of Unification reported that over the last five years only eleven defectors have returned to the North after resettling in South Korea.  The decision to return to the North came after Mr. Kim was accused of raping another defector, and a warrant for his arrest was issued by South Korean police authorities.  He also recently lost his job.  North Korean media reports on the case have not mentioned the pending rape charge.

Why is the North Claiming the “Redefector” is COVID-19 Positive?

North Korea has repeatedly claimed that there are no cases whatsoever of the coronavirus in the country.  Kim Jong-un announced in July that North Korea was a “shining success” in avoiding any cases of infection in the pandemic.  Every country in Asia except North Korea has reported cases, but North Korea officially notified the United Nations that it had identified no cases, although only 922 individuals were tested for the virus according to the report to the UN, and all of them tested negative.

North Korean officials have not provided details of how they determined the “redefector” was positive for the coronavirus.  There was no statement that he was tested, and South Korean officials have been explicit on how they concluded that he had not been infected.  Why, then, did the Politburo hold an emergency meeting, and why did the North take steps indicating that the “redefector” was COVID-19 positive?

It could be that Kim Jong-un is simply following the same playbook as his friend U.S. President Donald Trump.  Although the two have not been in contact recently, Kim keeps an eye on the occupant of the White House.  Trump has consistently identified COVID-19 as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.”  He continues to use that phrase, most recently at his White House press conference on July 30.  The U.S. President began the press briefing with a short comment about the death of former U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain, who “passed away from the thing called the China virus.”  The President’s acolytes in Congress follow his lead.  When Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert announced a few days ago that he had tested positive for COVID-19, he called it “the Wuhan Virus.”  (He blamed the infection on his recent use of a face mask, although none of his colleagues in Congress have seen him wearing a face mask).  Repeatedly and consistently branding the virus as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus” is a conscious effort by the President to distance himself from association with the pandemic and its consequences in the United States.  The message is that this is a foreign disease—nothing to do with the President.

Kim Jong-un seems to be doing something very similar in the case of the supposedly infected defector returning to the North.  By linking the very first admitted case of the coronavirus in North Korea to a returning defector, Kim Jong-un is identifying South Korea as the source of the infection.  It did not come from within North Korea.  Whether the defector actually has the CIVID-19 virus is irrelevant.  The source has been identified as coming from South Korea.  Claiming that the defector acquired the coronavirus in the South also reinforces the Kim regime’s message that life in South Korea for defectors from the North is difficult and dangerous.

Another reason for announcing a coronavirus infection in North Korea is that it justifies the argument that difficult times are the result of the pandemic, the result of external forces not the policies of the Kim regime.  Even before the pandemic, North Korea was facing economic hardship because of tightened UN economic sanctions related to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.  Tightening controls on movement because of COVID-19 has made the economic situation even more difficult.  North Korea’s trade with China, which had declined because of UN Security Council sanctions, came to a near halt as Pyongyang put in place border restrictions to stem the follow of COVID-19. Trade bottomed out in March when North Korean exports to China fell 96 percent to a mere $616,000 and imports from China declined 91 percent to $18 million. Year-to-date North Korean exports to China are down nearly 75 percent from 2019, while imports from China are down 67 percent.

It is convenient and helpful to blame a defector returning from South Korea for the first admitted case of coronavirus in North Korea.  The government’s policies are justified, and continued vigilance is required.  Furthermore, the hard times are the result of conditions beyond the border—not the fault of the Supreme Leader or his policies.

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 Konrad Karlsson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Is Behind North Korea’s Latest Broadside Against Balloons?

By Robert R. King

In a tough statement, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, issued a particularly vicious attack on North Korean defectors, particularly those who send leaflets across the border from the South. She referred to the refugees in the South as “human scum, hardly worth their value as human beings” and “human scum, little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland, are engrossed in such unbecoming acts to imitate men. They are sure to be called mongrel dogs as they bark in where they should not.” [The quoted text is from the official English translation of the statement; the Republic of Korea is always referred to as “south Korea” without a capital “S”.]

The statement also includes a threat: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the south Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the ruggish-like mongrel dogs who took no scrupple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”

The repetition of vicious phrases such as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” seems to go beyond the usual vituperation and venom that is reserved by the North for defectors who have illegally fled the paradise that is North Korea in order to live in the South.

Why has one of the most senior North Korean officials, the sister of the Supreme Leader, issued such a blistering denunciation of refugees from the North now in the South?

Are Leaflets Really Having an Impact in North Korea?

The statement begins with reference to sending “hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into the areas of our side from the frontline area.” Sending leaflets across the DMZ via balloons or other means of physically delivering the papers has been done for decades. In recent years this has been a publicized effort of some human rights and defector organizations in the South for publicity and fund-raising. The effort is visible and photo-worthy. It irritates officials in the North, and the media blasts from the North are used by human rights groups in the South as evidence of their effectiveness. (See, for example, the North Korean threats against the South in 2016 when tens of thousands of leaflets were sent across the border by balloon.)

Leaflets sent by balloon, however, have limited impact. They usually land not far from the DMZ border and seldom if ever reach Pyongyang, and soldiers are ordered to pick up and destroy such propaganda materials. Far more significant information is reaching North Korea via radio—government-sponsored and religious broadcasts from South Korea, U.S. radio from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in Korean, and Korean-language broadcasts from Chinese border areas intended for the Korean population in Northeast China, but with a significant listenership in North Korea. In Cold War Europe in the 1950s, the United States conducted major sophisticated balloon drops of leaflets directed toward Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Central Europe, but such efforts were abandoned in 1956 in large part because they were less effective than radio in reaching these areas.

Uncertainty in the North and Defector Influence in the South

Another factor that may have motivated Kim Yo-jong to release her broadside against North Korean defectors in South Korea is because there is growing uncertainty in the North. Kim Jong-un was missing from the public eye for three weeks before he made a public appearance for the grand opening of a fertilizer factory, then he was out of sight again for a notable period of time. The Supreme Leader smokes too much, is overweight, and he had health problems—not a healthy prognosis for someone in his 30s. The recent promotion of the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong to alternate membership in the Politburo and her recent prominence in making important public statements, such as this recent blast against defector leaflets, may be a further indication of uncertainty about the future.

Another factor that may be raising concerns in the North is what appears to be the growing influence of defectors in South Korea. In elections six weeks ago, two prominent defectors were elected to the National Assembly. Although both are members of the minority party in the Assembly, it shows the growing credibility, acceptability, and influence of defectors in the South. Defectors traditionally have taken the toughest position against the North in South Korea’s political discourse. In the past defectors have been on the margins of South Korean society, but now two prominent defectors sit in the National Assembly.

Pressing South Korea for Progress on Rapprochement

Another explanation for the “nastygram” from Kim Yo-jong is that Pyongyang is getting impatient with the slow progress by President Moon Jae-in for improving relations between the North and South. Moon just marked the third full year of his five-year term in office, and under the South Korean constitution, a president can serve only a single term. Time is running out to redefine the relationship with the North under Moon Jae-in. Furthermore, Moon’s Democratic Party just won some 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. If he wants to make progress with the North, he now has the votes in the Assembly to get it done. Mme. Kim’s blast may be intended to encourage President Moon to move more quickly.

The threats in the tough message from Pyongyang target initiatives that President Moon supports in the search for better relations with the North. Kim Yo-Jong referenced the upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 summit between leaders of the North and South, and their declaration marking the beginning of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” Policy which led to improved relations, divided family visits, and economic cooperation.

Kim Yo-jong’s warning to the South Korean president followed another blast of vicious invective: “The south Korean authorities must be aware of the articles of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement in the military field in which both sides agreed to ban all hostile acts including leaflet-scattering in areas along the Military Demarcation Line. . . . It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”

Mme. Kim then spelled out the threats: “south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.” If Seoul does not take steps Pyongyang is demanding “they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”

Considering the modest impact of the leaflet balloons and the vicious voice in which they are attacked, it seems quite clear that the North is simply trying to move Seoul into making important concessions now. Political uncertainty, the possible strain on the North Korean economy from United Nations sanctions, and the worldwide Covid-19 economic downturn are likely the most important factors behind the vehemence of the statement, which indicates its urgency.

Denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Defending China

Another interesting and probably related media missive was a statement released by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. The statement said that Secretary of State Pompeo “reeled off rubbish” that the U.S. would work with its partners in the West to ensure that “liberal democracy” rules in this century. It continued to note that Pompeo “said nonsense about China over the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and trade disputes,” and “he slandered the leadership of the Communist Party of China over socialism.” The statement then included another malicious comment about the Secretary of State: “Pompeo, who has been deeply engrossed in espionage and plot-breeding against other countries, has become too ignorant to discern where the sun rises and where it sets.”

The last phrase is probably the key to the blast at Pompeo. North Korea clearly has cast its lot with China and wants to make sure that Beijing will have no doubt that Pyongyang sees its future with its socialist neighbor China as relations deteriorate between the U.S. and China.

Increasingly dependent on China as its economy worsens, thanks to UN sanctions and now the Covid-19 economic downturn, North Korea appears to be increasingly concerned about its future. The blast at South Korea and the tightening embrace of China appear to show a North Korea increasingly fearful about the future in a very difficult time.

South Korea’s Immediate Response Risks Emboldening the North

In less than 24 hours after Mme. Kim Yo-jong issued her demeaning and intemperate screed against the flier balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. Mayors of some of the towns along the border reportedly called for strong government action to halt the balloon launch. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”

Defectors and human rights activists were equally adamant that they would not stop their launch activities. One rights group said it had no plans to stop sending fliers across the border, and in fact had ordered another one million leaflets. Advocates were quick to denounce the restrictions as a violation of the right of freedom of speech, and others denounced buckling under Pyongyang’s demands.

The real risk of for the Moon Jae-in government is that by responding so quickly and so publicly to the demeaning dressing down from Mme. Kim Yo-jong gives the administration the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. It looks particularly obsequious to respond so quickly and so totally to such an arrogant ultimatum from the North.

Such a response only weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North.  The quick and total capitulation by the South will only encourage Pyongyang to take a tougher position in any negotiations that may come up in the future.  There was not even a hint that the South might drive a bargain with the North to get something in return for ending the sending of fliers.

I am personally skeptical of the value of balloons. Getting information into the North is better done with radio broadcasts and thumb drives than with fliers. How Seoul is responding, however, will have a major impact on future negotiations with the North.  Unfortunately, the pattern does not bode well. The South Korean government’s immediate capitulation on balloons will only encourage the North to make unreasonable demands. The real danger is that Moon Jae-in administration will be so eager to show success in improving relations with the North in the final two years of its tenure in office that there will be an incentive to cave to demands from the North.

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.  

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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Two Prominent Defectors Elected to South Korean National Assembly

By Robert R. King

Two prominent North Korean defectors were elected to membership in South Korea’s National Assembly in elections held on April 15th.  This is the first time that two defectors will sit in the South Korean legislature.  Thae Yong-ho was elected to represent the Gangnam District of Seoul, and Ji Seong Ho was elected on the Freedom Party group list.

Both Mr. Thae and Mr. Ji are members of the opposition United Future Party group in the Assembly.  The ruling majority party group, the Democratic Party and another allied party won 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the United Future Party and a party affiliated with it won 103 seats.

The majority of Assembly members are chosen to represent a single constituency, but in addition, some Assembly members are chosen from a party list with the number of representatives for each party group determined by the proportion of the total votes cast in the entire country for that group.  The South Korean electoral system was changed before this election to give a slight advantage to smaller parties in order to encourage better representation for minority interests.  Roughly two-thirds of representatives are chosen by constituencies and about one-third from party lists.

The two former North Koreans now serving in the National Assembly both have a high profile that extends well beyond the refugee community.  Both are well known in South Korea, and both have international reputations.

Thae Yong-ho, one of the most prominent North Korean officials to defect to South Korea, was formerly the Deputy Chief of Mission at the North Korean Embassy in London when he successfully fled with his family in August 2016.  Thae was elected to represent the Gangnam district of Seoul, which is one of the most exclusive areas of the capitol city.  Gangnam has been described as the Beverly Hills of Korea, and it achieved fame well beyond Korea in 2012 when K-pop entertainer Psy released his music video “Gangnam Style” inspired by and filmed in the Gangnam District.

Thae is the most senior North Korean official to defect since Hwang Jang-yop in 1997.  As the second in command of the North Korean Embassy in London, Thae was heavily involved in North Korean efforts in Europe and its financial activities.  He was a highly regarded diplomat.  Since his defection, he has been a prominent commentator, testifying before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.  His memoir of his time as a North Korean diplomat was a best seller in South Korea and was praised by specialists.

Ji Seong Ho escaped from North Korea by illegally crossing into China in 2006, and he has been a prominent advocate for North Korean refugees in South Korea.  He grew up in the North during the devastating famine of the 1990s.  When he was stealing coal to survive during the famine era, he lost consciousness from lack of food and was run over by a rail car and critically injured.  He lost a leg and several fingers, which were amputated without anesthesia.  He later escaped into China, almost drowning when he illegally crossed the Tumen River.  He survived and crossed China with the help of brokers and religious activists.  He eventually succeeded in reaching South Korea.

Since arriving in South Korea, Ji has raised awareness about North Korea and sought to improve human rights in the North.  He established the organization Now Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), and he has supported broadcasting news and information programing to North Korea and aiding defectors.

Mr. Ji was highly visible in the United States in January 2018 when he was a guest at the first State of the Union Address of President Trump.  When the president introduced him during the speech, Ji waived his crutches above his head.  He also was with a group of North Korean defectors who met with the President in the oval office a few days later.

Significance of Electing Defectors to Parliament

Mr. Thae and Mr. Ji are the second and third North Korean defectors to serve in the National Assembly in Seoul.  Cho Myung-chul, a North Korean defector and a former professor in the North, was the first refugee to serve as a member of the Assembly from 2012 to 2016, and he was elected on the party list.  Mr. Cho was from a politically-well connected family in the North, and he taught at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.  He defected to South Korea when he was visiting China in 1994.  He held senior positions in the Ministry of Unification in the South before his election to the Assembly.

Under South Korean law, refugees from the North are entitled to citizenship in the South when they arrive.  News reports suggest that this election had a particularly high level of defector participation because of dissatisfaction with President Moon Jae-in’s policy of reconciliation with the North, which has been particularly unpopular with refugees.

The defectors were not a major factor in the election results, however.  The total number of defectors resettled in the South over the last two-and-a-half decades is less than 35,000.  Although defectors may have been motivated to participate in the election, the numbers are still small enough they were not a major factor, even in the election of members on the party list.  The defector vote had little impact on the election of Mr. Thae in the Gangnam constituency since few refugees can afford to live in that high-rent district.

Placing two individuals in favorable political position on the ballot to aid their election is a positive sign of inclusiveness on the part of South Korea’s Freedom Party.  These two individuals do not bring a large bloc of voters with them, but at a time when there has been criticism about treatment by the South of refugees from the North, the election of two defectors to the National Assembly is a positive and hopeful signal.

The Coronavirus and the Election

In assessing the significance of two defectors serving in the National Assembly and what that might mean about South Korean attitudes, it is important to keep in mind that the coronavirus is the overwhelming concern of people in most areas of the world today.  The results of the election reflect that issue more than matters involving of defectors, foreign policy or Korean unification.

The election played out over the successful handling of the pandemic in South Korea by President Moon Jae-in, not over his policies toward North Korea or even the economy.  President Moon was not on the ballot since in South Korea the presidential and parliamentary elections are on a different schedule.  The next parliamentary election will be held in four years in 2024, but the next presidential election will be held in 2022.  South Korean presidents serve only a single five-year term.

The positive handling of the coronavirus by the administration of President Moon was a major boost for Moon’s Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party and another affiliated party won 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition United Future Party and its affiliate won 103 seats.  Reports called this election a “landslide.”

The election result was particularly surprising since Moon has had problems over the last year with his effort to improve ties with North Korea while the North has resumed missile testing and played hard-to-get to Moon’s wooing.  At the same time the country was facing tough economic problems.  President Moon’s approval rating had fallen to 30 percent a year ago.

Seoul’s handling of the coronavirus was the principal factor in the turnaround, and the South did a masterful job.  As Professor Victor Cha said, South Korea’s response “has become the gold standard for flattening the curve.  The South Korean response—a blend of quick action and policy innovations coordinated by the national government—has proven enormously effective in containing the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The Moon government’s success in dealing with the coronavirus was given even greater luster when contrasted with the U.S. federal government’s limping, struggling efforts to deal with the health crisis.  The first coronavirus death in the United States and in South Korea occurred one day apart.  Since that time, South Korea per capita has tested three times as many of its citizens as the United States, and South Korea’s mortality rate is also one-third the U.S. rate.

The success of South Korea’s effort to deal with the coronavirus gave Moon a major boost.  In late January his approval rating was 41 percent, and at the time of the election this week it stood at 57 percent.  The election results reflected Moon’s approval ratings—Moon’s Democratic Party won 180 of 300 seats in the National Assembly, an increase of 60 seats over the previous Assembly.  Furthermore, turnout for the election was the largest in three decades.

North Korea policy was not a prominent issue in the National Assembly elections; nevertheless, the election of two North Korean defectors as Assembly Members is a positive sign that the refugees can participate fully in the political life of South Korea.  That is an important message for refugees who face difficulties adjusting to life in a very different culture when they arrive in the South, but also for South Koreans.  The defectors were elected with the votes of South Koreans, not other defectors.

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.  

Cover photo of National Assembly by Lig Ynnek’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Photo of Thae Yong-ho by Voice of America from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Ji Seong-ho from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea and the COVID Crisis: The Sanctions Angle

By Stephan Haggard

Humanitarian disasters in closed, authoritarian regimes pose particular challenges to the international community. Government actions can exacerbate or even create crises; this was certainly true of the great famine of the early 1990s. Yet the victims of the regime’s choices are innocents, including overstretched but dedicated doctors and health care workers. If the sanctions regime is impeding an outside humanitarian response, it needs to be adjusted–and quickly. There is evidence—outlined below—that sanctions exemptions are being granted to multilateral institutions and NGOS with greater speed. But by sheer proximity, China and South Korea are best positioned to play a role, and should exploit the discretion they are being given to act.

Where do things currently stand with respect to COVID-19 in North Korea? (The best English-language aggregator is NKPro’s, which includes a thorough timeline). There can be little question that the government moved quickly to close the border and initiate quarantine protocols on those entering or returning to the country. These restrictions began on January 21 with tourism (overwhelmingly Chinese and an important source of foreign exchange that did not fall under multilateral sanction) and within a week, the border had been closed almost altogether. The one land port of entry that remained open—across the bridge linking Dandong and Sinuiju—got snarled in the border closure and quarantine protocols on both sides, although trade resumed in April.

By the fourth week of January, state media were openly addressing the issue domestically as well and Rodong Sinmun covered domestic quarantines in several provinces as early as March 1. Yet transparency remains an issue. To date, the regime has still not announced the presence of any cases in the country, even though underground sources were reporting deaths from COVID-like symptoms across a number of provinces in early March.

As elsewhere, COVID-19 has both an economic and medical dimension. As a result of the sanctions regime, North Korea is almost completely dependent on China for external sources of supply. Although sanctions evasion is rampant, the country has almost certainly faced an external shock as a result of the border closure. Close analysis of food prices through the first week of March by Benjamin Silberstein at 38North detected an uptick that could reflect both scarcity and panic buying. Prices remain elevated in more recent data (March 20).

More damaging is the fact that the multilateral sanctions regime—while formally permitting exemptions—has proven highly cumbersome to navigate. Product bans have swept up a variety of products that are crucial both to public health generally and to management of COVID-19 in particular. A major concern is the way financial sanctions have impeded the aid effort. The UN and prominent NGOs have repeatedly complained about the difficulty of funding their North Korean operations because of banks’ skittishness in transferring funds to North Korean entities. They have been forced to resort to cash transactions as a result.

The American response to the potential humanitarian crisis in North Korea has been mixed, but broadly reasonable. In contrast to the famine era, North Korea quietly sent out feelers for aid quite early. In mid-February, the State Department issued a sober statement offering support. On March 19, Secretary Pompeo reiterated that offer—and on the Hannity show on Fox News no less—and the President himself reportedly sent one of his personal missives on the issue. But American officials—including Secretary of State Pompeo—as well as outside commenters, have also insisted that sanctions pressure should not be taken off, and North Korea has predictably bristled that aid could be a Trojan horse.

What is said may be less important than what is being done, however; Keith Luse at the National Committee on North Korea has the most granular coverage. As he notes, there has been a lot of high-level communication on the issue of adjusting sanctions in the COVID era: in the UN Secretary-General’s letter to the G20; in the High Commissioner for Human Rights statement and in a joint letter by seven countries—led by China and Russia–to the UN. The latter is rightly seen as a move in the global propaganda war, as Washington, Beijing and Moscow seek to jockey for position in the COVID-19 blame game.

However, we looked closely at the 11 requests for multilateral sanctions exemption through the so-called 1718 committee since December; the information can be found here. We calculated the number of days it took for the committee to issue exemptions to applicants. For those requests made in December and January, the average time for approval was 22 days. For those made in February and March, the time fell to 7 days. Those applying can request that their appeals not be made public, and the committee may not report rejections. Sources with knowledge of the process have told me that the 1718 committee now operates with the intent of three-day turnaround on COVID-19 exemption requests.

These actions are inferior to a wider sectoral review of whether the dual-use net is being cast too widely.  Nonetheless, it is clear that exemptions are being granted more swiftly and that the U.S.—given its effective veto power—is allowing COVID-related aid to get through.

Sanctions have a role in getting North Korea back to the table. But President Trump—despite his letters to Kim Jong-un—signaled even before the COVID crisis that he did not anticipate a major initiative on the nuclear question prior to the election. Kim Jong-un has shown his pique by resuming missile tests in 2019, and even into the COVID era. Yet that should be seen as a sign of weakness not strength, including possible domestic pushback to Kim Jong-un’s policy failures with the United States. The Trump administration has been right to play down the actual risks.

With nuclear negotiations in any case stalled out, the appropriate policy for the United States is not to promise aid directly, but to continue to waive those sanctions that are needed for any relief effort. China, the humanitarian community and particularly South Korea should take the lead. South Korea has now authorized its first, small-scale private aid effort. Giving President Moon Jae-scope for maneuver on the humanitarian front is superior to opening commercial ventures, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, that provide cash directly to the regime. It is overly hopeful to see this as an opening that will have wider effects, and as noted the North Koreans are wary. But as Secretary Pompeo himself said in his Fox interview, “it’s the right thing to do in a time of crisis.”

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Norway UN (New York)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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United Nations Questions North and South Korea on Forced Return of Fishermen to the North

By Robert R. King

On November 7, 2019, the South Korean government delivered two North Korean fishermen to North Korean officials at the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjom.  The two were part of a crew involved in illegal squid fishing in South Korean territorial waters, and they were detained after a two-day pursuit and the firing of warning shots at their vessel during the chase.  The South said that an inter-departmental investigation had determined that the two men killed 16 other North Korean crew members on the fishing boat with them.  This was the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953 that North Koreans were returned to the North by the South Korean government against their will.

A spokesman of the South Korean Unification Ministry said that the decision to return the two fishermen to the north was justified because they were “non-political, serious criminals who did not receive protection” under South Korean law and they “could pose a threat to the lives and safety of our people if accepted into our society, and as brutal criminals could not be recognized as refugees under international laws.”

Human rights organizations were critical of the decision.  “Returning these two men to North Korea was illegal under international law because of the likelihood they’ll be tortured under North Korea’s extremely brutal legal system,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.  “South Korean authorities should have thoroughly investigated the allegations against the two men and ensured they had a full opportunity to contest their being returned to North Korea.”

The speed of the decision was particularly troubling.  “South Korean authorities took only three days to issue these two men a death sentence,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea.  “The fact that two human beings can be issued a death sentence in South Korea in three days . . . sends a signal to other North Korean escapees that South Korea . . . no longer provides a safe haven for them.”

The issue is a very troubling one.  On the one hand, these two fishermen were apparently involved in the brutal murder of their shipmates.  The details of the events and the evidence or any extenuating circumstances have not been made clear.  On the other hand, returning them to North Korea means they were most likely summarily executed—if not for murder, certainly for attempting to defect to South Korea.  North Korean law enforcement is not known for unbiased investigations, and legal protections are not available for the accused.

UN Human Rights Envoys Question North and South Korea

The criticism of South Korea’s actions in the case of the fishermen was not limited to human rights organizations.  In January, both North Korea and South Korea received a letter from four special rapporteurs appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The leader of the effort among the four was Tamás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  He has played a leading role in the UN human rights effort in North Korea since his appointment in 2016.

The four all had responsibilities to report to the Council on particular human rights issues, and their titles give a clear indication of the issues of concern with regard to North Korea:  (1) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; (2) Chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; (3) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and (4) Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The fact that four UN special mandate holders raising questions is highly significant.  Both North and South Korea were challenged to explain and defend their actions.

The two letters the group sent were not identical.  South Korea was questioned about why the two fishermen were not granted asylum when they objected to being returned to North Korea.  The principle of non-refoulement under international human rights law is an issue of concern in international human rights agreements.  Return to one’s country of citizenship when there is the possibility (the certainty in the case of North Korea) is something given great weight by the UN Human Rights Council.

North Korea Challenged on Treatment of Prisoners, Ignores UN

The letter to North Korea’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva focused on areas where Pyongyang has defied international practice and explicit criticism by the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.  The letter was implicitly critical of the North, and asked for information about the two fishermen.

“We wish to urge your Excellency’s Government to inform about [the two fishermen’s] whereabouts and ensure due process and fundamental human rights for these two individuals, including the right to the presumption of innocence, the right not to be subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment and the right to a fair trial and equality before the courts, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights treaties to which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a State Party.  We would also like to refer your Excellency’s Government to the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, in particular that any act of enforced disappearance is an offence to human dignity and that no state shall practice, permit or tolerate enforced disappearance.”

There is no indication that United Nations officials have received any response from Pyongyang to their letter.  North Korea has been anxious to cite its membership in the United Nations as an indication of its international acceptance, but it has been particularly quick to denounce or to ignore the United Nations when its policies and practices have come under criticism.

In December 2019 the United Nations General Assembly again adopted its annual resolution critical of the North’s human rights.  The North Korean ambassador to the UN in New York was harshly critical of the resolution, which was adopted in the General Assembly by consensus without a recorded vote.  The North Korean ambassador said, the resolution has “nothing to do with the genuine promotion and protection of human rights, as it is an impure product of political plots by hostile forces that seek to tarnish the dignity and image of the DPRK and overthrow our social system.”

The sensitivity of Pyongyang to UN discussions of its human rights conditions was also evident in December when there was talk of the UN Security Council again taking up the human rights question in a Council meeting.  With threats and bombast, the North Korean ambassador to the UN denounced an effort to raise the issue at the Council.  In a letter to Council members, he said that taking up North Korean human rights would be an “act of conniving at and siding with the U.S.’s hostile policy, which will lead to undermining rather than helping reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and resolution of the nuclear issue.”

South Korea’s Response to the UN Human Rights Envoys

On February 28, the South Korean Mission to the United Nations agencies in Geneva sent a formal response to the UN special envoys.  The document outlined the events involving the capture and return to North Korea of the two fishermen.  It then gave the justification for not recognizing the “intention of defection,” and gave the legal grounds for repatriation of the two men.  The bottom line was that the desire of the two individuals to defect was questionable and trying the individuals in the South would be difficult on legal and substantive grounds.

A press report explained that although the two men “said they wanted to resettle in South Korea, authorities determined their intentions were insincere, considering the men were trying to flee even when the [South Korean] navy fired warning shots to capture them.”  The South Korean government considered it difficult to guarantee a fair trial because of the difficulty of gathering evidence and the lack of assistance expected from North Korea.  There was also some concern that “exercising jurisdiction on North Korean citizens could pose a danger to its own citizens.”

The issues raised in the South Korean government response to the UN are valid concerns.  At the same time, however, Seoul’s actions in the case of the two fishermen are particularly troublesome, and the response does not resolve the problems.

The “investigation” was hurried and precipitous.  The South Korean timeline in the written response to the UN special rapporteurs, indicates that the capture of the fishermen occurred on November 2.  Three days later on November 5, Seoul notified Pyongyang that it intended to expel the two, the North confirmed that it would take custody of the two fisherman the following day, and on November 7 in the afternoon the two were deported at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

The two fishermen were not given access to attorneys, they had no court hearing, and they had no chance to appeal their repatriation.  From what we know, the two were not told that they were being handed over to the North until their blindfolds were removed at the inter-Korean border.  According to South Korean National Assembly members who were briefed by officials, one of the fishermen collapsed when he realized that they were being returned to the North.

No South Korean official could believe that there was any expectation that the two would receive a fair trial in North Korea.  For Pyongyang, defecting is as serious a crime as murder.  The two likely were summarily executed without the inconvenience and delay of a trial.  Even with the limitations of access to information and the likely noncooperation from the North, a trial in the South would have been far more credible and fair than whatever “judicial” treatment they received in the North.  The UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in the DPRK reported on the lack of free, fair and open legal proceedings in the North.

Furthermore, South Korean officials attempted to cover up the repatriation.  The handover of the two fishermen at the border was only discovered shortly after it happened when an army officer at the border sent a text message reporting the handover to a senior Blue House aide, and a South Korean photographer captured the message on the aide’s smart phone.  The South Korean statement to the United Nations indicated that the government intended to raise the issue at a 4 PM press briefing after the handover had taken place at the border, but the press availability was advanced by 20 minutes when the press learned of the repatriation.

The South Korean government should be commended for its serious and lengthy response to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly in light of the North’s apparent failure even to respond.  On the other hand, Seoul’s haste, denial of access to counsel in the repatriation of these two fishermen, and attempted secrecy in the refoulement are particularly disappointing from a democratic government.  The crimes which the two are accused of committing are horrific, but that does not excuse denial of due process and failure to follow legal procedures.

Note on the Text of UN Documents.  I have not found online the exchange of letters between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the governments of North Korea and South Korea.  I have a paper copy of the letter of the four UN Special Rapporteurs to the North Korean government with a Reference indication: UA PRK 2/2019 dated 28 January 2020.  I also have a copy of the response of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea, Geneva with the reference KGV/ 49 /2020 dated Geneva, 28 February 2020.  Both documents apparently became available publicly in early April because they are discussed in The Korea Herald April, 1, 2020 and JoongAng Daily, April 2, 2020


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 UN Geneva 2’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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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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Number of North Korean Defectors Declines

By Robert R. King

North Korean “defectors” or refugees are one of the most visible and tragic consequences of the North Korean government’s abysmal policies denying its own citizens internationally acknowledged human rights, including the right of freedom of movement.  The decision to leave North Korea is not easy, and it is one that has very difficult and dangerous consequences. Since the devastating famine in North Korea in the mid-1990s some 35,000 citizens in the North have left their homes and been able to resettle in South Korea.  An additional thousand or two have settled in Europe and some 225 have been admitted to the United States.

This number is only a small portion of the numbers who have gone illegally to China.  It also does not include probably thousands of others who have attempted to leave the North, but been captured in the attempt to leave and died in prison camps.  It does not include those who have been killed trying to leave by North Korean border guards, who have orders to shoot defectors if they are discovered trying to leave.  Chinese border guards and police authorities are complicit because they routinely return to the North any escaping refugees they capture.

Figures on refugees reaching South Korea, the United States and elsewhere in the last year are significantly lower than in the recent past.  From the mid-1990s until the end of 2019, some 33,523 defectors resettled in South Korea.  The number who resettled during 2019, however, is the smallest number in the last two decades, and represents a consistent decline from a peak of 2,914 in 2009 to only 1,047 last year.

The number of defectors admitted to the United States from 2006 to 2019 has been small—218 for a decade and a half.  But the number has declined, as one journalist described it, “to a trickle,” and no North Koreans were granted asylum in 2019 for the first time since the U.S. began accepting North Korean refugees.  This is down from the peak number of defectors coming to the United States in 2008, when 38 were admitted.  While immigration to the United States is down across the board because of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration, in the case of North Korea it appears to be more a question of the numbers leaving the North have significantly declined.

North Korean Policy to Discourage Defections

The decline in defectors leaving the North is largely due to North Korean policy, which has been more aggressive since Kim Jong-un became leader in late 2011.  Penalties for North Koreans caught trying to leave the country are harsh.  The UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights reported that defectors are deemed “to have committed ‘treason against the Fatherland by defection’ under the Criminal Code,” a crime that is punished by a minimum of five years of “reform through labor.” (COI Detailed findings, paragraphs 380-492.)  North Korean border guards have orders to shoot illegal border crossers, and credible media reports clearly indicate that the border guards understand and fulfill those orders.

Refugees leaving the North almost all cross the border with China because the North Korean border with South Korea (the De-Militarized Zone or DMZ) is so heavily guarded that access from the North is particularly difficult.  A North Korean soldier who attempted to cross the DMZ between North and South in November 2017 was shot five times by fellow soldiers as he fled to the South.

In addition to aggressively seeking to prevent border crossing, Kim Jong-un has also undertaken a media campaign designed to reduce the attractiveness of life in South Korea by highlighting “re-defections”—the return to the North of a tiny number of defectors who left and resettled in the South.  They are portrayed as having become disillusioned with the South and they were warmly welcomed home by the North.

A number of widely publicized media events involving “re-defectors” have sought to portray South Korean, American, and other human rights activists who helped refugees as “deceptive, dangerous, and exploitative people.”  The events have shown misguided defectors being welcomed when they return to the North, and the media has played up the theme that they were not punished for returning home.

One returnee, who appeared on North Korean national television gives a flavor of these programs:  “When I deplaned [in Pyongyang], quieting my thumping heart, I was stunned by the cordial reception.  I felt at that time how affectionate and great the motherland is to me.  The dear respected Kim Jong-un did not blame me, who did so many wrongs in the past, but brought me under his warm care.  He showed profound loving care for me.”

The media events have also sought to show that though the South may be more affluent, North Koreas living in the South are an underclass who suffer discrimination and have a lower quality of life than the South Korean elite.  Despite this official message, however, the number of defectors who have returned to the North is small.  Official South Korean figures in 2015 indicate that less than 3 percent of defectors whereabouts were unknown, but of that number most were living in other countries and only about a dozen were known to have returned to the North.  A member of the South Korean National Assembly reported that during the four-and-a-half years from 2015 to September 2019, only 12 defectors were identified attempting to return to the North.

Conditions in the South for Defectors  

Despite South Korean government programs to provide help, resettlement is difficult in a very different and very competitive economic, social and political system.  The suicide rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea is triple the rate for South Koreans.  Nam Young-hwa, president of the Women’s Association for the Future of the Korean Peninsula, suggested that this higher suicide rate was due to the traumatic sense of isolation and financial difficulties that defectors face.

Recent Ministry of Unification data reported that Northern refugees were approaching salary and employment figures of Koreans born in the South, but there is still a gap.  In 2019 refugees earned on average the equivalent of US$1,720 per month, while Southern-born Koreans earned $2,220, a difference of about $500.  North Koreans participating in the economy last year was 62.1 percent, only slightly lower than South Korean-born citizens at 63.3 percent.  Defectors satisfaction with their quality of life in the South in 2019 increased to 74.2 percent satisfied, which was 1.7 percent above the previous year.  These figures suggest that Northerners are not at the same level as Southerners, but differences between the two groups are not huge.

An event that provoked national soul-searching on the treatment of defectors in late July of 2019 was the discovery of the bodies of a 42 year-old North Korean defector and her six-year old son in their apartment in Seoul.  No food was found in the apartment, and the woman’s bank account balance was zero.  Authorities concluded that the woman and her son had apparently died of starvation.  The woman had been trafficked as a bride to a man in rural Northeast China.  She was aided in escaping from China and resettled in South Korea, and in 2018 she returned to China, where she divorced her husband, and then returned to Seoul with her son.  A spontaneous shrine sprang up in Seoul as people who did not know the woman or her son mourned her death.

The incident highlights the difficulties of the resettlement of refugees from the North in the South.  Many have done well, others have had problems adjusting, but most miss family and friends that they left behind when they migrated to the South.

The South Korean government has been sensitive and attentive to the difficulties and problems of the refugees.  A few months after the death of the defector and her son, the Ministry of Unification announced that it will provide additional support to over 550 North Korean defectors who were found to be facing harsh living conditions.  The Ministry also said it will continue to monitor refugee living conditions to determine if specific individuals need additional support in an effort order to prevent such tragedies.

Despite the problems of adjustment in South Korea, defectors who have returned to the North are few in number.  As we noted earlier, Kim Jong-un has sought to highlight refugees who have returned to the North with media events and much hoopla.  But most defectors have heard stories of the brutal treatment of North Koreans who have been apprehended attempting to leave the country or who have been returned by Chinese police authorities after an unsuccessful effort to leave.  Reports of police brutality are likely to be found more believable than those of the leader showing “loving care.” 

North-South Rapprochement and Impact on Seoul’s Attitude toward Defectors

In the past, conservative South Korean governments used the defector issue to tarnish the reputation of the North for its human rights abuses.  The government of President Moon Jae-in since 2016 has actively pursued a policy of engagement with the North, which has undermined Seoul’s previous support for defectors. Pyongyang clearly would like to see an end to Seoul’s support for Northern defectors.

Most of the politically active refugees in the South lean to the conservative side of the political spectrum.  Highlighting the conservative political leanings of defectors is the recent announcement by Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of the most senior DPRK officials to defect to the South.  Thae said he will seek election to the National Assembly in the 2020 elections as a representative of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.

The shift in policy by the Seoul government has been evident.  In May 2019 the South Korean government devoted effort and energy to securing the release of seven defectors who fled the North and were being held in China.  The case, which Seoul was handling quietly, became public.  South Korea’s Foreign Minister did not discuss details with the press, but she expressed concern for the safety of the refugees and emphasized the delicacy of discussions with China.

Six months later in November 2019, the Seoul government expelled and returned to Pyongyang two North Korean sailors who sought to defect and who were suspected of killing sixteen shipmates.  The incident including the return of the two sailors was not made public by the South Korean government until journalists discovered and publicized a text message confirming the repatriation.  The South Korean National Assembly launched an investigation into the matter.

The decision of the Moon Administration to return the two sailors was made without granting them access to an attorney, without a court hearing on the case, and without allowing them to appeal the government’s decision to repatriate them.  This was the first time ever that North Koreans were repatriated by the South Korean government because of crimes they were alleged to have committed in the North or because their intent to defect may have been dishonest.

That same month, 11 North Korean refugees crossed into Vietnam on their on their way to South Korea.  After their arrest for illegal entry in Vietnam, it was announced that they would be returned to North Korea.  The Moon Jae-in government in Seoul was criticized for failing to use its diplomatic influence with Hanoi to press for the refugees to be allowed to continue their journey to South Korea.  Despite South Korean media giving extensive publicity to the plight of the defectors, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul only pursued the issue after European organizations became involved.

There have been other indications of a change by Seoul.  In the March 2018 the Moon government’s budget boosted funds for inter-Korean cooperation while aid for South Korean human rights efforts were significantly cut, including a 31 percent reduction in aid for defectors.  The government justified that cut because the number of new refugees has declined.  The budget funding for human rights groups focused on North Korea was significantly cut back, despite no indication of progress on human rights issues in the North.  The Ministry of Unification’s Human Rights Foundation saw its funds cut 93 percent and the budget for the database maintained by the Ministry on human rights abuses by the North was cut by 74%.

Furthermore, in November 2019, the South Korean government did not sponsor the annual UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The South sponsored every annual UN resolution from 2008 to November 2019.  A letter to President Moon from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations questioned the South Korean government’s position on human rights, in particular failing to cosponsor the UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The letter also called for the South Korean government to investigate and publish the results of the investigation into the repatriation of the two North Korean fishermen whose basic human rights were violated under South Korean law.

This criticism of South Korea was particular noteworthy because Moon Jae-in is a human rights attorney and his Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha served for over six years as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.  South Korea’s search for reconciliation and reunification with North Korea, as well as the United States’ quest for denuclearization of the North, are awkward bedfellows with a policy of actively helping and protecting North Korean refugees.

Public support in South Korea for the plight of North Korean defectors has limited how far Seoul can cut back defector support in order to achieve other goals with Pyongyang.  Despite clear indications of what the Moon government would like to do in its support for defectors, the government announced that it would provide additional support for some 553 North Korean defectors who were facing difficult living conditions just a few months after the death by starvation of a defector and her young son.  It is clear that strong public sentiment in South Korea has constrained how far the government can go in cutting back on helping defectors.


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 the PBS NewsHour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Special Rapporteur Discusses North Korea’s Engagement with the UN on Human Rights

By Robert R. King

Tomás Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), delivered his annual report to the UN General Assembly and gave an oral presentation at the end of October.  (See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, September 20, 2019.)

This was Ojea Quintana’s third year as Special Rapporteur since he was first appointed in 2016.  The topics on which he focused are the same human rights issues that have been raised since the first Special Rapporteur was appointed in 2004.  Ojea Quintana has provided the most recent information on these issues, but he gave a different twist on some themes.

North Korea and the UN Human Rights System

In the past, North Korea has generally been unwilling to engage with any of the UN Human Rights Council’s mechanisms and programs which constitute what Mr. Ojea Quintana identifies as the “UN human rights system.”  These UN mechanisms are (1) the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in an annual resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, which has been done since 2004;  (2) the creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry (2013-2014); (3)  discussions of North Korea’s human rights in the General Assembly and the adoption of a resolution critical of its actions (2005-present); (4) discussion of its human rights abuses as a threat to peace and security in the UN Security Council, which occurred annually from 2014 to 2017; and (5) the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process of self-examination on human right obligations with discussion and comments from other UN members countries.

(1)The UN Special RapporteurSince 2004, the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur, who reports annually to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.  From the very beginning, Pyongyang has refused to have any dealings with the Rapporteur.  The government has refused to invite any one of the three individuals who have served in that position in the last 15 years to visit the North.

The October 2019 Report to the General Assembly (paragraph 59) confirmed that the DPRK “continues to take a firm position that it ‘categorically rejects’ and ‘will in the future too neither accept nor recognize’ the Human Rights Council resolution and the Special Rapporteur.”  Ojea Quintana noted that in May of this year in Geneva, the DPRK delegation stated that “the Special Rapporteur is used as a political tool of the hostile forces.”

The only brief and temporary exception to North Korea’s willingness to engage the Special Rapporteur was in 2014 when DPRK diplomats offered a visit to North Korea if the Special Rapporteur would change the draft General Assembly resolution commending the Commission of Inquiry, and remove any reference to accountability for North Korea’s senior leadership calling for referral to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.  The resolution is the responsibility of UN member states, not the Special Rapporteur.  No changes were made in the resolution and no visit to the North took place.

The North Korean government did invite the UN Special Rapporteur for rights of persons with disabilities to visit North Korea in May 2017.  That was easier for the North Koreans to be accommodating.  The issue was not politically sensitive, as political prisons or access to information is.  Also, the Special Rapporteur was not singling out North Korea, since she was focused on a broad issue and visited a number of countries.

(2) UN Commission of Inquiry (2013-2014).  Pyongyang viciously denounced the Commission of Inquiry (COI) from the time it was created, and commission members were personally attacked.  A request by the Chair of the COI to meet with North Korean officials and to visit the country was ignored.  Ironically, when the COI report was publicly released, the North Koreans denounced the Commission for not coming to the North to see human rights conditions in the DPRK first-hand.

(3) UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly Resolutions and Discussions.  The Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York have adopted resolutions highly critical of DPRK human rights annually since 2004, and both organizations hold separate meetings devoted to a discussion with the Special Rapporteur annually, but North Korea has not participated in these discussions.  The DPRK has not spoken or responded during the public discussions, which certainly is its right as a member of the United Nations.

(4) UN Security Council Discussions (2014-2017).  In December 2014, several months after the COI report was released, the Security Council met to discuss human rights abuses in North Korea as a threat to peace and security.  China and Russia were adamantly opposed to the discussion, but from 2014 to 2017 the Security Council had the necessary votes to place the issue on the Council’s agenda, at which North Korea was sharply criticized for its human rights record.  North Korea refused to exercise its right to participate in the discussion, but viciously blasted the United States and other Security Council members in the media.

(5) The Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  Each member country of the UN undergoes a human rights review every five years.  The review involves a self-evaluation of as well as questions from other member countries.

Title V of the report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly is focused on cooperation—or more accurately, the lack of cooperation—between North Korea and the UN human rights system.  In the past, North Korea has been hostile to all of these UN human rights mechanisms, but Ojea Quintana was more positive about North Korea’s participation in the UPR process, and this was particularly noteworthy.

North Korea’s Robust Participation in the Universal Periodic Review

In his recent report to the General Assembly, Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana was complimentary about North Korea’s engagement with the UPR  process.  This was the only positive note about engagement with UN Human Rights mechanisms (paragraph 60):  “The Special Rapporteur takes positively the fact that the Government sent a delegation of officials, including women, from its various branches and engaged in dialogue with other States.”  He quoted the DPRK delegation as saying it “highly values the dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights, in particular the [Universal Periodic Review] mechanism.”

There are a number of reasons the DPRK has participated actively and willingly in the UPR process while it has been unwilling to engage with the Human Rights Council or other UN bodies in the case of other human rights mechanisms.

First, the process is based on self-evaluation, not evaluation by outside specialists who are not under the control of Pyongyang.  The self-evaluation in the North Korea report is effusive in its praise.  The DPRK report praised its own efforts and included the vow to “faithfully fulfill its obligations under the international human rights treaties to which it is a State party, and will make positive contributions to the international efforts for the protection and promotion of human rights by promoting international cooperation and exchanges in the field of human rights based on the principles of impartiality, objectivity and equality.”  Such a positive spin on North Korea’s human rights situation is not likely to come from any outside source.

North Korea is sensitive about its legitimacy and international acceptance.  South Korea claims sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula, and North Korea makes that same claim as well.  Any international action that raises questions or doubts about North Korea’s international status and legitimacy is a threat.

Second, the UPR is not a process focused only on North Korea, but one in which all UN member countries participate.  Each one of the 193 UN member countries are evaluated during every five-year UPR cycle.

At the beginning of August 2017, 56 special rapporteurs held mandates under the UN Human Rights Council, and of that number, 44 dealt with a thematic issue area, such as cultural rights, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, independence of judges and attorneys, migrants, religion, children, persons with disabilities, etc.  Only 12 special rapporteurs focused on a single county.  In addition to North Korea, other countries with a human rights Special Rapporteur were Belarus, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, occupied Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria.  North Korea seeks legitimacy and to be treated like other UN member countries.  The UPR process is the only human rights mechanism that involves all UN members.

Third, the UPR process does not have mechanisms for following up on the accuracy of their self-evaluation or their record of fulfilling commitments they make during the UPR process.

Recommendations to North Korea During the Universal Periodic Review

The interactive dialogue is held with the participation of other UN member states for every country’s UPR.  Countries make suggestions and recommendations that are included in the UPR record, and the country under review is expected to respond to these questions and issue.  This is the opportunity in the UPR process to raise critical issues.

At its first UPR in December 2009, North Korea received 167 recommendations from other UN member countries.  In the follow up meeting in March 2010, the North did not accept a single recommendation.  Of the recommendations, 50 “did not enjoy the support of the DPRK” because they were politically sensitive.  On the remaining 117 recommendations, the Human Rights Council report on the UPR said these “will be examined by DPRK, which will provide responses in due time.”

The second UPR cycle in 2014 took place just three months after the Commission of Inquiry presented particularly damning evidence of DPRK human right abuses to the Human Rights Council.  Because of the attention given the COI, North Korea made a serious effort to demonstrate its observance of UN human rights norms. During this second UPR cycle for North Korea, the North responded not only to recommendations made in 2014 for the second UPR cycle, but went back and reviewed again the recommendations made in 2009 for the first cycle.  North Korea wanted to demonstrate a more accommodating attitude.

This acceptance of a large number of the first and second cycle UPR recommendations earned North Korea a positive commendation from then Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman in his October 2014 presentation to the Third Committee of the General Assembly.  He noted that the North had accepted 113 of 268 recommendations, and said: “I welcome these signs of increased engagement by the DPRK with the Human Rights Council and international community, and I hope they will bear fruit.”  The accepted recommendations mainly related to economic, social and cultural rights, and the protection of women’s and children’s rights.  Darusman, however, noted that the DPRK had failed to accept any of the well-thought out recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry.

A detailed analysis of North Korea’s response to the UPR process in 2009-2010 and 2014 also concluded that the North responded positively to the UPR, unlike its response to most other UN human rights mechanisms including the Commission of Inquiry.  But the study also concluded that the North “consistently accepted weak recommendations, rejected more specific policy changes, and implemented accepted recommendations on a limited basis, allowing it to claim compliance with human rights at minimal cost.”

Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana came to the same conclusion regarding North Korea’s response to recommendations in the 2019 UPR process (Report, paragraph 60).  The North received 262 recommendations from 87 countries and agreed to review 199 of these.  The 63 recommendations rejected by North Korea were all the extremely serious rights violations:  “political prison camps, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, abductees, the songbun class system” and cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights.

Special Rapporteur Recommendations on the UPR Process with North Korea

It is noteworthy that North Korea felt it important to participate in the Human Rights Council’s UPR process.  By making even limited changes in some of its policies, it recognized the validity of the human rights criticism, and it at least accepted this human rights mechanism.  Most important, it was accepting the idea that sovereign nations who seek international legitimacy and recognition have a responsibility to observe internationally acknowledge rights.

In the report to the General Assembly and in comments made at a press conference the day after his presentation on October 22, 2019, Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana acknowledged the importance of North Korea engaging with the UPR process, while also acknowledging the limitations:  “While those 63 recommendations concerning the fundamental rights of citizens were initially rejected by the Government, talking openly about these controversial issues is an important first step to address these human rights concerns.”  He also quoted a North Korean government statement that they “highly value the dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights, in particular the [universal periodic review] mechanism.”

Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana identified three areas in connection with the UPR process where changes could improve significantly the effectiveness of the process.  The first concern is that engagement with the North needs to be more frequent than once during the five-year cycle of the UPR.  He noted (Report, paragraph 60) that the North said it had “implemented all the recommendations provided in the previous cycles.”  But at his press conference at the UN, though he expressed positive support for engagement with the North Korea in the UPR process, he also emphasized that there needs to be more frequent engagement with the North than once every five years.

The second concern is that there is no mechanism for monitoring claims made during the UPR process.  North Korea said it had implemented hundreds of recommendations it received in the three cycles of the UPR process, but there has been no objective monitoring to determine if, in fact, there has been actual progress on these identified human rights issues.

The third concern that Ojea Quintana raised is that the North has not taken advantage of expertise and technical help available through the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  In his report, the Special Rapporteur encouraged the Government to consider “accepting advice and support from external actors in the implementation of the recommendations.”

The UN human rights measures are not a magic solution and it is not quick or immediate, but as the problematic case of North Korea has shown, these procedures can be helpful.  It does, however, require continued effort and monitoring by UN members and by UN institutions.

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 the United States Mission Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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