30.01.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

A New Round in the ‘Struggle for Human Rights’ in the DPRK

24234213231On December 19, 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution regarding Human Rights in the DPRK. The Resolution on this subject was adopted for the twelfth year in a row; and it was recommended that the UN Security Council consider “referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court” and provide for punishment for the North Korean leader who is responsible for human rights violations, for the third consecutive year. Like last year, the Draft was prepared by Japan and the EU, and it was revised by 70 countries – more than a third of the UN members.

The Resolution stated that in the North of the Korean Peninsula “crimes against humanity at the highest State level” are being committed and this policy has continued ‘for decades’. Tortures in the camps, sexual violence, public executions are provided as examples of this. It is stated that human rights violations are allowed by the authorities and there is emphasis on the guilt of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for crimes against humanity.

This year for the first time the Resolution includes Articles, stating that money spent on the nuclear and missile programs might have been used to improve the people’s living conditions; and concerns are raised about the status and working conditions of North Korean workers sent by Pyongyang to earn currency abroad.

It turns out, the situation regarding North Korean workers ’causes concern’, as their working conditions are almost the same as those in labour camps. Working abroad, DPRK citizens are forced to work under strict supervision and give their salary to the state. They are deprived of the liberty of movement and this actually means slave labour.

The requirement to release foreigners kidnapped or held in North Korea is also of note.

Adoption of the new Resolution was actively lobbied by the Obama administration. As early as October 25th, 2016, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State Scott Busby stressed that the United States was working closely with governments of other countries to adopt the Resolution.

On November 15th the Draft was approved by the Third Committee of the General Assembly; and on December 19th the Resolution passed the final stage of adoption in the UN General Assembly.

Despite Pyongyang’s protests, the document was adopted without a vote. China and Russia spoke out against the Resolution, and representatives of North Korea left the General Assembly session in protest. And even earlier, Deputy Permanent Representative of the DPRK to the UN Kim In-ryong said that the Resolution “based on false witness” is “the result of plot by the United States that is trying to destroy the DPRK, hiding behind the story of human rights.”

Unfortunately, this Resolution clearly shows where the so-called “Human rights” discourse is going, the value of which, in the author’s opinion, looks set to reduce for at least two reasons. Firstly, if we analyse how and why the US representatives of different political parties have criticized the North, then we can see that the Democrats were mainly looked into human rights violations. The Republicans were more concerned with the KPNP and the military and ideological threat. The North Korean leadership was presented as an Evil Empire against which the war should be waged. Secondly, the human rights discourse has started losing its importance. The excessive use of it by politically engaged Parties has led to the situation when accusations of human rights violations have become totally unrelated to the real situation and can, therefore, be easily ignored.

For the author of the Article it’s a sad situation when the protection of rights is turned into ridicule, but there is another typical example of this. Some time ago, non-governmental organization UN Watch embarked on work to collect signatures to bring Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court for human rights abuse acts. The petition contained a scrupulous list of all horrors and clichés: murders, slavery, imprisonment, torture, sexual harassment and violence, forced abortion and forced displacement, kidnappings, starvation, persecution on political and religious grounds, nuclear tests, ignoring the needs of people, about a hundred thousand citizens in concentration camps, etc.

The specific feature of this petition was that it was actively promoted and any citizen of the world could sign-in. Ideally, it could serve as a good indicator of public interest in North Korea’s problems; however as of October 2nd, international petition on the organization’s website had only been signed by little under a thousand people and the number has still not particularly increased. Frankly speaking, petitions in favour of homeless kittens or local petitions to abolish paid parking get a lot more support in general.

This particular UN Security Council Resolution has too many clear weaknesses. Firstly, it contains definite misrepresentations, the sources of which are odious people like Shin Dong-hyuk. It is worth reminding readers that after a number of disclosures both by the North Korean side, and by defectors, even his American co-author was forced to admit that the most memorable scenes of the novel which were excitedly quoted by critics of North Korea, were simply invented by Shin Dong-hyuk. Nowadays, they try not to mention his name when compiling various lists like ‘The fifteen best-known defectors from North Korea’.

In this case, the accusations that sexual violence is a constant element of coercion turn out to be absurd: mass rape as a way to strengthen public loyalty and intimidation is in practice in very different regions and by those forces, for which there are often calls to ‘express tolerance’. Kidnapping of foreigners is an even more remarkable point. It is not at all clear what was meant. The problem of kidnapped Japanese citizens is in a complete deadlock because, from the Japanese point of view, Korea does not have satisfactory evidence that the kidnapped citizens died and the Japanese public opinion is hoping for the best (needless to say that it is a convenient long-running political trump card.) Some US and ROK citizens were given specific charges but it does not look like kidnapping at all.

Let us make separate mention about the ‘slavery-like conditions’ in which North Korean guest workers live abroad. For not only in the former Soviet Union, but also in countries like Poland where North Korean builders and workers are under much more precise public and State attention, it is known that both their living conditions and salary, which they get after deductions, do not match that of slavery. For instance, North Korean workers are very highly valued in the Far East. A single woman can hire a team of them to repair her apartment or pass by a group of northerners, even if they are tipsy, without fear – which is completely different from Central Asians. Northerners are not involved in crimes, they are transparent towards the authorities, they are easy-managed and isolated from the outside world, and that significantly reduces chances of any conflict between them and the local population. Their dormitories are clean and they do not catch local dogs and cats for food.

That is why local business is very interested in increasing the number of guest workers from North Korea and considers them a good alternative to both workers from Central Asia and China. Yes, it is very probable that some part of their salary goes to the State but even that what remains still allows the northerners to live in reasonable conditions. Anyway, returning home on the same flight as I did, North Korean seasonal workers brought a lot with them, including various household appliances for themselves or for sale.

In conclusions: the notorious Resolution is likely to be defiantly ignored by North Korea and share the fate of those that ‘were originally written to be thrown in the bin’. That is how China reacts to the attempts to restrict it with the Law of the Sea Convention. That is how Israel reacted recently in response to the UN Resolution forbidding it once again from building settlements in the occupied territories.

The author finds it is sad that the UN adopts more and more documents that are just hot air. He would like still to hope that the United Nations would devote their joint efforts to combat more serious threats.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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