North Korea is spooked. After decades of shrugging off international criticism of their country’s human rights violations, North Korean diplomats are going all out to avoid condemnation in a United Nations resolution coming up for a vote today.
Why? Because the resolution directly targets Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young leader, threatening him with prosecution for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.
“Human rights are one thing, but the Supreme Leader is another,” says John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The North Koreans are permanently hypersensitive to the prestige of their leader, and they are still in the process of consolidating his power and legitimacy.” Kim Jong-un took over the leadership of North Korea three years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in what was considered a hasty accession in the Kim family dynasty.
The UN General Assembly’s human rights committee will vote today on a motion presented by Japan and the European Union calling on the Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC. It would be the first non-African case to be prosecuted by the world court.
The resolution is based on the findings of a UN inquiry which reported earlier this year on what it called “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape” and other “unspeakable atrocities.” Most of the evidence stems from testimony of survivors or whistle blowers from the long-standing system of secret prison camps in the North often referred to as a "hidden gulag."
The commission found that “crimes against humanity are ongoing,” and that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
Pyongyang’s envoys have been extraordinarily active in recent weeks, trying to head off the resolution, or at least remove references to the ICC. As late as Monday North Korean diplomats at UN headquarters were rustling up support for a Cuban amendment that would delete the resolution’s language about the ICC.
Traditionally, North Korea has simply dismissed and ignored international criticism of its human rights record as a Western plot to discredit and undermine its government.
This time Pyongyang has taken a different tack. “We thought [the resolution] was directed at our leadership at the highest level,” North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jang Il-hun explained at an unusual event hosted recently by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York based think tank. “We could no longer sit idle, just watching; we think we have to take action on our own in response to such a political plot.”
North Korea’s diplomatic blitz has included an unprecedented suggestion that a UN human rights investigator might be allowed to visit the hermit nation for the first time; the release of three US citizens who had been arrested; resuming negotiations with Japan on the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents; and offering to start a human rights dialogue with the European Union.
Pyongyang also issued its own human rights report in order to rebut the UN Commission of Inquiry. It painted a rosy picture, declaring that North Korea enjoys “the world’s most advantageous human rights system” and condemning allegations of violations as “a racket kicked up by hostile forces.”
Though the report persuaded few observers, it did mark North Korea’s first effort to engage international critics on human rights grounds.
Should the EU-Japanese resolution pass today, it would be up to the Security Council to decide whether to refer the allegations against North Korea and its leader to the ICC. China and Russia, which both have veto power on the Council, are thought unlikely to allow the case to proceed.
North Korea’s relationship with China, however, has deteriorated in recent years, following Kim Jong-un's apparent refusal to bow to Beijing’s insistence that he should give up his country’s nuclear weapons program. In a move that looks like Mr. Kim is lining up a backstop, a top North Korean envoy, Choe Ryong-hae, arrived in Moscow Monday and was due to meet President Vladimir Putin today.
But Kim would prefer not to have to ask for diplomatic support in a pinch from the Russians or Chinese, say analysts; he would rather defeat the resolution being voted on today through his own means and resources.
To that end, says Professor Delury, “the North Koreans are exploring whether there are compromises to be made – whether they might open a dialogue or take some steps in return for leaving Kim Jong-un alone.”
Pyongyang will not win over Japan or the European Union, nor any of its Western allies, with such overtures. But North Korea’s arguments might resonate with the 100-plus members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which is traditionally wary of Western criticisms of human rights violations by developing country governments.