The North Korean Paper Trail

A portrait of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. By Gabriel Britto.

By Leslie Vinjamuri

A portrait of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. By Gabriel Britto.
A portrait of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. By Gabriel Britto.

Last Tuesday, a United Nations General Assembly committee condemned North Korea for its appalling human rights record and urged the Security Council to refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court.  The resolution, which passed 111 to 19 (with 55 abstentions), marks a high point in a campaign to name and shame North Korea.  This campaign took on new life last February when a UN Commission chaired by Michael Kirby released a scathing report.

But what exactly will this push achieve? Human rights experts say it already has made an impact in Pyongyang. Shortly after the UN released its findings, North Korea countered with its own report, which denied the existence of prison camps.  Economic hardships, it said, were not the product of government abuse, but a consequence of North Korea’s status as a “transition society”.  North Korea described its human rights system as “advantageous”. “That they have taken this step suggests to me that bad publicity is taking its toll on the regime and the international pressure is working,” argued Ken Kato, director of Human Rights in Asia.

North Korea has taken other steps as well.  It initiated a dialogue with the UN human rights expert on North Korea.  It invited the UN Special Rapporteur for North Korea to visit. The highlight came just before the recent APEC summit and in the run-up to last Tuesday’s vote in the General Assembly, when North Korea released American detainees Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. On the bilateral level–and likely as a defensive move–North Korea accelerated efforts to court Russia, announcing it would send a high level envoy to Russia.

The UN vote has altered the relatively conciliatory mood. North Korea immediately threatened additional nuclear tests. “Our war deterrent will be strengthened infinitely in the face of the United States’ plot for armed interference and invasion,” an official statement promised.

A key question now is whether the United Nations can gain any additional leverage over North Korea by continuing to play the human rights card. The most recent outbursts suggest that despite its merits, this week’s General Assembly Resolution will not be cost free. The threat to push forward with a Security Council resolution may still be useful, but an actual vote could backfire. China and Russia would almost certainly veto any referral. That outcome would shame China and Russia for yet again opposing international accountability. The marginal utility of shaming China would be undermined if it discouraged further cooperation on nuclear talks. A Security Council vote is also unlikely to induce Pyongyang to reform its human rights practices in the short term. Even if a referral somehow emerged from the Council, it would likely push North Korea into an even more adversarial posture, with little benefit on the ground and some potentially important negative consequences for regional security.

The UN Commission’s report documented horrendous abuses and registered strong moral condemnation of the North Korean regime. The General Assembly resolution adds legitimacy and breadth to this condemnation, and it does this without locking anyone into a fixed position. Even if the campaign goes no further, it has done the valuable work of creating a paper trail to return to when the timing for dealing with human rights in North Korea is more propitious.

This post was originally posted at Points of Order.

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