05.11.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Are there Human Rights Violations in North Korea?


We have previously discussed the Report on Human Rights in North Korea. Yet, it has to be reexamined with the UN to hold a meeting in order to push an anti-Kim Jong-un agenda forward which may lead to the prosecution of  DPRK’s supreme leader in the International Criminal Court or in a special tribunal, similar to the one for the former Yugoslavia.

Earlier, the UN commission reported that it had accumulated enough evidence to prosecute the government of Kim Jong-un for a long list of crimes, among which one may find mass killings, kidnappings of co-citizens from South Korea and Japan, torture, slave labor, rape and forced abortions.

The DPRK, “a rogue state where human rights are constantly violated,” has recently become the primary subject of accusations by US human rights experts. The former head of the UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea, Michael Kirby, has openly stated that Kim Jong-un’s government must be brought to justice by the UN Security Council, as “Pyongyang’s statements about the absence of human rights violations should not be trusted.” Even a number of reconciliation attempts that have been recently made by Pyongyang, including the release of Jeffrey Fowle , a US citizen that was being held in North Korea, was assessed by Kirby  as an attempt to undertake “a charm offensive” and divert public attention.

North Korea is trying to fight back – it has published its own report on the same subject, that indicates the misleading nature of the claims against the DPRK. It states that “anti-North Korean forces are using human right reports to hide their real agenda.” Pyongyang believes that conclusions of the Western researchers are ​​based on the data provided by North Korean defectors, that had “committed serious offences at home.” North Korean officials underline the fact that the DPRK is “making every effort to strengthen international cooperation in the field of human rights protection.” However, the US and its allies, “seek to politicize the human rights agenda to undermine the social system of the DPRK under the pretext of combating the alleged violations.”

At the same time, Pyongyang is willing to engage in an open dialogue about the human rights situation, giving way to foreign inspectors that would be able to assess the situation on the ground. This was stated by the North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Jang Il-hun in his interview with “Voice of America” radio​​: North Korea is open for discussion, should the dialogue be constructive. However, while speaking about camps for political prisoners, Jang Il-hun underlined that it has always been a complete hoax.

China doesn’t seem to be pleased with the recent stream of accusations against the DPRK as well. “We have always advocated dialogue and cooperation as a means of addressing human rights violations, but such means are unimaginable without the atmosphere of equality and mutual respect. At times filing a complaint to the International Criminal Court doesn’t improve the human rights situation in a certain country.”- said the representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying. It is possible that Beijing, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, will block the lawsuit against the DPRK.

This showdown is a good starting point for a discussion of today’s human rights situation around the globe. There’s little doubt that this topic is of utmost importance, therefore it’s particularly hurtful to witness how speculations on human rights manifest into the policy of double standards employed by certain powers.

But first, let’s recall a few lines. The US National Security Strategy issued on September 17, 2002 reads: “America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property. “

Sounds great, but let’s focus on two major points. First, the allegation of a violation of human rights – is a convenient,  hard to oppose argument since human rights are perceived as a universal value and in many ways they are. Thus, accusations of a systematic violation of human rights – is a good tool for the demonization of any government.

Second, if we are to compare cases of nuclear weapons development, genocide or terrorist support, human rights violations are remarkably easier to detect and to prove. In addition, no country is spotless in this area. Hence, this topic provides a perpetual source of accusations for one country to assault another. That is how the DPRK has become a “rigid violator” of human rights in the eyes of the international community. But the DPRK is not alone.

The United States is making regular reports on the alarming rate of human rights violations in Russia and China; in response those states are regularly making reports on the sorry state of human rights observance in the United States, that could easily be titled: “Look who’s talking.”

Aside from these “report wars” there’s an underlying issue: the struggle for human dignity has drastically changed the concept of state sovereignty – a case of human rights violation had previously been regarded as a purely internal affair of a country, now it has become an international issue and a probable cause for external intervention. George Bush Junior described it in the following way: “We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”

Back in the days when Clinton was in office the White House formulated three criteria for an acceptable US military intervention:

a) an intervention should be carried under the pretext of “defending a good cause” (it is clear that the struggle for human rights in this context looks fine);

b) The region should represent a strategic interest for the United States (cynical but true);

c) the benefits of military operations shall not exceed the costs of war, or lead to unexpected losses, or provoke nuclear warfare (in other words, there should be no possibility of retaliation).

Okay, but if the international community believes that a country that is violating human rights must face sanctions or any other punishment for its actions it will only be logical to develop a set of rules that could be universally applied. This “code of conduct” would demonstrate the impartial application of international law against anyone willing to “cross the line”. The only problem is that as of now international law doesn’t specify the necessary conditions for labeling a leader of a sovereign state a bloody tyrant / dictator, whose regime must be deposed.

The absence of an “international code of conduct” leaves a vast field for manipulations and abuse open. An influential US conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington described it in the following way: “Hypocrisy, double standards, and “but nots” are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians.”

Questions are to be asked at every step of the way: Why Saddam got punished, while nobody has ever tried to prosecute Pol Pot, despite all the blood on his hands?  Why blame Syria for alleged ethnic cleansing, while paying no heed to Zimbabwe, where the ongoing “silent” genocide of the white race has reached its height? Why did Serbian generals get “theirs”, while the Croatian officers were excused amid similar circumstances, on the grounds where “they had no control of the situation, and atrocities were happening against their will?”

A separate question is, who creates an environment that provides the moral justification for an intervention? It’s a known fact that the operation in Somalia began after a number of CNN reports, when the atrocities demonstrated by this news network provoked such consternation among the audience, generating a tide of public indignation, at which point something had to be done. But there are other cases in which “shocking photos” must have generated a similar public response. In other words, the media is able to manipulate the facts in order to produce a different picture of reality.

But at times, the representatives of international human rights organizations are taking a break from criticizing “authoritarian regimes” around the globe, and turn their eyes to the human rights situation in the United States. Most of them believe that America has no moral right to promote human values ​​in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world as long it fails to become a role model in this field. Otherwise we are back to George Soros with his two classes of sovereignty “the sovereignty of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations, and the sovereignty of all other states”.

There’s little doubt that certain countries don’t show the level of respect to human rights that has been achieved by a majority of international players today, and  North Korea may still be lagging behind in this field. A closed country with a now obsolete system of propaganda tries to defend its cases, but it only leads to the reinforcement of suspicions among truly independent observers that “something fishy” must be going on in the DPRK.

However, if you speak legal terms, the majority of reports on human rights violations in North Korea can not be verified by credible sources. Such reports are more often than not based on the testimony of people known for their biased position or by those “guarded” by secret investigations, hence the identity of the latter ones cannot be verified.

It’s curious to read the testimony of individuals like Shin Dong-hyuk, who (if you are to believe the South Korean propaganda) “has managed to escape the most brutal death camp in North Korea, where he was born and where he was bound to die.” However, Shin Dong-hyuk, for no apparent reason, does not speak with a North Korean accent, and the description of the “torments” he had to sustain doesn’t add up to the level of his physical health. If he had underwent everything he described he would have been crippled for life. If you choose not to believe the statements made by North Korean officials that Shin Dong-hyuk fled the DPRK to escape prosecution as a  child molester, you would still love his own statements about his willingness to risk his own mother’s life for an extra ration of food. (this fact is reflected in the “official biography” of Shin Dong-hyuk.)

Absurd stories about the DPRK are widely circulated in the Western media, without any attempts to critically examine them, which has become the basis for claims that the regime in Pyongyang has to be toppled. But let’s examine the human rights situation in a number of Muslim states that are considered “strategic allies of the US.” Unlike the situation with North Korea, in this case  human rights violations are widely recognized as credible and they are well documented.

The Muslim states allied with the US still use capital punishment, just like North Korea, and should we consider the percentage of those who faced the death penalty, the Muslim sates can easily beat the alleged North Korean death rate. In addition, there are a number of severe punishments still in place in the Muslim states, like the brutal amputations of hands. Has anybody witnessed the UN objecting to these barbaric practices?

The population of these countries is under the authority of a religious teaching that controls the day-today life of the local population. Any insult to religious dogmas or sacred symbols is a criminal offense in Muslim states, moreover – a man who has publicly burned the Koran, may be persecuted by Muslims in nearly any country he goes. In some Muslim countries religious conversion is a criminal offence. Women’s rights are better protected in the DPRK, and even the sexual minorities are feeling much more at home in North Korea since there is no criminal liability for same-sex relationships.

To prove mass starvation and genocide a prosecutor needs more than a dozen witnesses, and one can hardly find as many of them since the natural disasters in North Korea had been properly addressed by the government. Curiously enough, the average life expectancy in North Korea remains pretty high, and the ratio of the population between the North and the South (1: 2) hasn’t changed to this day. If the numbers of those perishing from hunger, presented by Western researches, were true they would have a deep demographic impact in the DPRK.

Therefore, even if the case is to be heard in the International Criminal Court, the small amount of credible evidence against the DPRK is ridiculous. Moreover, Kim Jong-un cannot be held responsible for what had happened before he came to power, and most of the events described in the report took place (if they actually did) during the times of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Meanwhile, Michael Kirby emphasizes that even if Pyongyang agrees to certain concessions, this should not affect the sanctions regime. Hence, the West is not trying to prosecute Kim Jong-un, it is trying to “prosecute” North Korea in general.

There’s yet another “icing on the cake”. To this date the United States is not recognizing the decisions of the International Criminal Court, by demanding that American citizens must be judged in accordance with  US laws.

So the media hype around North Korea, unfortunately, is not an attempt to improve the situation regarding human rights protection, it’s a mere element of the ongoing propaganda campaign to demonize North Korea in order to justify potential hostile actions against this state.

Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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