This year, there was much international spotlight on North Korea. The country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, had gone missing from the media in September only to appear with a cane six weeks later, they have shut down their borders to any foreign tourists due to fear of Ebola, and a UN Human Rights investigator was invited for a visit for the first time in ten years.
The increased focus on North Korea began earlier this year when the UN released a Commission of Inquiry report outlining North Korea’s human rights abuses such as state-sponsored political prison camps of up to 120,000 detainees, abductions, rape, starvation and mass executions. Although their dismal human rights record is not something new, this report has instigated a diplomatic urge for International Criminal Court (ICC) referral of North Korea’s harsh human rights violations. The report, submitted by Marzuki Darusman, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, recommends a court referral of the country’s human rights cases and prosecution of “any relevant individuals [should they] fall under the State’s jurisdiction.”
The country’s officials are undoubtedly sensitive to their Supreme Leader being put on trial and facing charges of human rights abuses in front of what is considered to be a western court. Kim Jong Un is more than a face of North Korea; the young and relatively new leader embodies the unchallenged, dictatorial control the three-generation long Kim dynasty has been exercising, and his court referral – an international humiliation – will severely defame the already rumored-to-be a weakening regime.
Although known for its dismissiveness, North Korea, has been on defensive ever since, and has become increasingly interactive with the international community. In the past month, Pyongyang released three American men who had been imprisoned in their prisons, initiated investigation with Japan on abducted Japanese citizens, and decided to accept a significant number of recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review under the Human Rights Council. North Korea also reached out to Darusman, whom they had previously refused to meet, to bring up the possibility of his visit. A North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said they are looking for a “new and objective report”, because Darusman’s previous reports were allegedly based on false testimonies and did not reflect the true status quo.
Despite their effort, on November 18th United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of “target sanctions” against North Korea for their abusive human rights record and referring them to the ICC for crimes against humanity. The General Assembly, however, does not have the authority to refer a country to the ICC; the UN Security Council does. Therefore, the 111-19 motion with 55 abstentions serves primarily as an act of formality until the Security Council responds accordingly. Among the abstentions are North Korea’s long-time allies China and Russia, who hold veto power within the Security Council. Following the vote, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the court referral “won’t help improve the human rights condition in a country”, and according to a South Korean news agency, Kim Jong Un has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to put a halt to his country’s human rights issues being raised in the United Nations. After the visit from a North Korean envoy, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proclaimed that it may be “counterproductive to make some loud statements through confrontational resolutions.”
Meanwhile, North has denied its charges, saying the resolution was founded by “fabricated testimonies” of North Korean defectors and is a “gravel political provocation” led by the US. A Pyongyang spokesperson stated, “The outrageous and unreasonable human rights campaign staged by the United States and its followers in their attempts to eliminate the state and social system of (North Korea) is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests.” North Korea has conducted nuclear tests three times in history, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.
Although deemed highly unlikely that North Korea will follow up in its actions, recent satellite images indicate steam-rising and truck activity, which according to US-Korea Institute might be signs of North Korea preparing to restart their laboratory in Yongbyon. This was shortly ensued by an official announcement on their official news channel, in which they referred to the recent resolution as a “declaration of war”. According to Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea Studies at Dongguk University in South Korea, it is not surprising that Pyongyang is responding with hostile language but not military action. Historically, the North is known to have increased activity around their nuclear reactors in Yongbyon in cases of international sanctions and criticisms.
Yes, the resolution is not binding thus theoretically unenforceable. However, the UN has never openly addressed North Korea’s gross maltreatment of their citizens, and this year it has undoubtedly laid the groundwork for bringing this nuclear-armed yet poverty stricken country to face its fitting charges.