North Korean Human Rights: The Road Ahead

Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman at the CSIS Conference, “North Korean Human Rights: the Road Ahead,” commemorating the one year anniversary of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report 

I want to take part of my time today to thank the three Commissioners for their historic report, which has brought the issue of human rights in North Korea to the attention of the entire world. Michael Kirby led the Commission with judiciousness and wisdom, and his immense dedication is evident in the way he is now trying to mobilize support for the Commission’s recommendations, which constitute a comprehensive agenda for action by the international community in the period ahead.  

Marzuki Darusman, in his capacity as the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea, played an essential role leading to the creation of the Commission and brought extremely valuable expertise to the inquiry on the workings of the North Korean system. Of course he remains the Special Rapporteur, and his role will be enormously important in implementing the recommendations.  

Finally, Sonja Biserko is a very old friend who was a founding member in 1991 of the Center for Anti-War Action in Belgrade, the first and most important peace initiative in Serbia that opposed Milosevic’s nationalist agenda.  She has been a frequent target of threats and even physical attacks, but she has never backed down, as when she as when she testified in 2013 to the International Court of Justice in support of Croatia’s charge of genocide against Serbia.  She’s a woman of courage and valor and a tremendous asset for the cause of human rights in North Korea. 

It’s something of an understatement to say that the Commission’s recommendations, which open with a call upon the DPRK to “undertake profound political and institutional reforms without delay,” are ambitious.  It’s good to set the bar high, but we all know how difficult any transition in North Korea will be.  

I just finished reviewing Blaine Harden’s new book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, that uses portraits of two figures – Kim Il Sung and No Kum Sok, the young Lieutenant who flew his MiG to freedom shortly after the end of the Korean War – to explain how the monstrous political system of North Korea, with all the grotesque features described in the Commission’s report, came into being. Nothing has really changed in the system that Kim built in the aftermath of the devastation he brought on his country, and it’s possible to conclude that nothing can change.  But I don’t think that’s true for three reasons. The stunning success of South Korea is an existential rebuke to the North and shows that its system has no future; the isolation of the society and control system in the North are beginning to break down; and the world – informed by the Commission’s report, satellite photographs of the camps, and many other reports, books, and films — is more aware than ever before of the terrible abuses taking place, leading to new pressures for change that will only grow.

The Commission’s report has many recommendations, and I want to take the few minutes I have left to focus on three of them.  The first is the recommendation to form a contact group of donors and other countries with friendly ties to North Korea who would raise human-rights concerns in their on-going bilateral relations. Scandinavian and other Western countries are obvious candidates for such a group, and they’re doing it already.  I think the main idea is to involve countries from the Global South – Africa, South Southeast Asia, and Latin America – to show that human rights is not just the concern of the advanced democracies of the West.  One place to begin would be to encourage global democracy networks like the non-governmental World Movement for Democracy or the inter-governmental Community of Democracies to raise the issue of North Korean human rights with their members and participants.  Countries like Indonesia and Mongolia are natural candidates for such a group, but there are many other countries that could be involved, and the growing interest of the U.N. in the issue will help. The contact group might start by focusing on less politically sensitive issues like better access to educational opportunities for young North Koreans, access to immunization and better health care, and adequate nutrition for pregnant women and children.

The second is the recommendation that states in the region should initiate something like a Helsinki Process. The idea of developing a collective security system for Northeast Asia that, like Helsinki, would include broad provisions for cooperation in humanitarian and other fields and also freer movement of people and information, has been around for some time.  Had the Six-Party Talks succeeded, such a process might have evolved out of one of the working groups.

South Korea has now proposed the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, or NAPCI, which is a framework for multilateral security cooperation. It is still at a very early stage, and a realistic next step might be trilateral consultations among the South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, involving both government officials and policy specialists, to consider the feasibility of a collective security system that would have a Basket-Three human rights dimension.  It is useful to remember that the initial agenda for the Helsinki Process began with discussions among NATO allies over the course of three years. Such a process might also offer a way to make progress on other recommendations of the Commission, such as getting China to respect the principle of non-refoulement and stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees; and fostering both Inter-Korean dialogue and people-people dialogue between North Korea and other countries.

Finally, there is the recommendation to establish a structure to ensure that those most responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable for their actions.  Transitional justice is a central issue in every transition.  It consists of measures both judicial and non-judicial, including criminal prosecutions and truth commissions, to redress the legacy of massive human rights abuses – to punish those most guilty, to give a truthful and comprehensive accounting of the abuses, and to recognize the rights of the victims.  The hope is that by striving for accountability and truth, a society can find a way to rebuild civic trust and the rule of law.  Inevitably there will be punishment for crimes committed.  But retribution is not enough.  There must also be reconciliation.

The abuses in North Korea have been so massive that it is hard to imagine what a process of transitional justice would look like. That, of course, is for the future. For now, there are two immediate tasks. First, because the North Korean regime is aware of the growing international concern about the crimes it has committed and may seek to destroy evidence, it is necessary to collect as much evidence and document as many crimes as possible.  And second, I think it is important for those involved in the cause of North Korean human rights to begin studying the issue of transitional justice and to examine how it has been dealt with in post-communist and other countries that have experienced transitions over the last three decades.

I cannot think of two better people to provide guidance on how to undertake such an examination than Marzuki Darusman and Sonja Biserko, each of whom has played a pivotal role in dealing with issues of transitional justice in their own respective countries.  Such an examination will help people concerned about a better future for North Korea to start thinking through a complex issue that will have to be addressed in the future if there is an opening.  It would also be useful, I think, to find a way to communicate a nuanced and informed understanding of transitional justice to elites in North Korea, among whom there must be people who realize that the current system is doomed but who can’t imagine how they could survive a process of transition.