Emerging Markets, Frontier Markets

North Korea: Hell On Earth Revisited – OpEd

Not much different from an imaginary dystopia in popular culture, North Korea has been one of the greatest mysteries of international relations since its establishment 67 years ago. But over the last two decades in particular it has stolen the spotlight as one of the few remaining communist regimes, and indeed the most “genuine” one.

North Korea Propaganda

By Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu

Hysteric tears shed collectively by hundreds of thousands of people gathering at Pyongyang’s central square after the death of the former national leader, Kim Jong-il, who also happens to be the son of the “legendary” founder of the nation and the father of its current supreme leader, hit the headlines worldwide. It cannot be denied that massive and exaggerated military parades, inflated and medieval-sounding threats facilely dished out by top officials, leader-worshipping rituals, compulsory haircuts that must bear similarity to that of the leader for all men, and satellite photos showing a blanket of darkness covering the country at night in the world of the 21st century all sound interesting and even ridiculously amusing from a great distance. But a harsh truth lies at the core of the cloud of absurdity we are presented with: 24 million people are struggling to survive under dire circumstances and at the mercy of an utterly ruthless and frighteningly irrational regime.

Human rights

In this respect, it was somewhat comforting to see the United Nations Security Council discuss the human rights record of North Korea on December 22, 2014, for the first time in the Council’s history. The subject was finally brought to the agenda of the Council after a nearly two-year process of investigation and elaboration by the United Nations. Following the third nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang in February 2013, a resolution envisaging the establishment of a commission to investigate the human rights situation in North Korea was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was set up in March 2013, and published a 372-page, all-encompassing report on February 17, 2014, based on public hearings with 80 escapees and defectors in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington D.C., confidential interviews with 240 other witnesses and victims, and eighty miscellaneous formal submissions from all over the world. Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge who chaired the three-strong panel in question, drafted the third part of the report which is comprised of a letter directly addressing Kim Jong-un, warning the North Korean dictator that even he can be held to account, together with all other top military and civilian figures of the regime, under international criminal law for the “systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” revealed by the investigation.[1]

Top UN officials were shocked as they were confronted with an overall picture not much different from that witnessed in the past under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia or the Nazi regime in Germany, “without parallel in the contemporary world”.[2] The existence of a vast network of political concentration camps, with the so-called kwanliso, first and foremost, was once again confirmed by ex-inmates providing first-hand testimonies to the panel. Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are believed to be imprisoned in these facilities, while a total of 150,000 – 200,000 convicts are thought to be imprisoned in other forms of short and long term detention centers scattered throughout the country. The findings of the report suggest the convicts, mostly imprisoned without due process, formal trials, or sentences are subjected to horrific abuses in these facilities, including extermination, enslavement, forced labor, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, forced abortions, and torture. Other than this, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, abductions, forcible relocation of masses, and deliberate starvation of large segments of the society deemed “expendable” were recorded by the report.

Moreover, it was noted that there is an almost absolute denial of the freedoms of expression, conscience, religion, information, association, and assembly, in addition to a lack of freedom of movement, both within and outside the country, for North Korean nationals. Even rights to food and healthcare have been denied for millions of people since the early 1990s according to the findings of the report. The report also touched upon the so-called songbun system, a discriminatory and totalitarian social hierarchy imposed on grounds of religion, family, birthplace, and political convictions. Here, where people would work, where they would study, the amount of food rations they would be delivered, and even with whom they would marry are determined in accordance with this system by the state. Furthermore, the extended families of convicts, including newborn babies and their mothers, may also be arbitrarily detained in labor camps under the pretext of “guilt by association”, which thusly prevented many escapees from participating in the COI’s public hearings due to the fear of retribution by North Korean authorities against their families back home.

Multilateral measures

Listing all the disturbing features of the North Korean political system openly in the report, the three members of the COI formulated a comprehensive diagnosis of the situation and a concrete roadmap for the international community. The report was drafted in a blunt tone, going beyond usual rhetoric. It classified the ongoing abuses in North Korea not as mere excesses of an incapable regime but as deliberate crimes against humanity, calling for the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague or another ad hoc international tribunal, and further urging the imposition of targeted sanctions against North Korean officials by the UN Security Council. It envisaged the establishment of a field-presence by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights somewhere close to North Korea (probably in Seoul), in order to monitor relevant developments in the country.

The international community’s right to protect (R2P) the people of North Korea was also underlined by the COI, which qualified its final report as one of the most assertive and intense documents drafted by the UN after those published on genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Furthermore, it addressed China’s responsibility and neglectfulness as well, accusing Beijing of violating the principal of non-refoulement under international refugee law by sending back North Korean refugees knowing well that they would be subjected to forced-abortion, rape, and torture while in detention in their home country. All in all, the document seems to be powerful enough to give North Korea as well as China a serious headache in the years to come even if no concrete measures can be put into effect in the short-run by the UN Security Council, as China and Russia, the traditional benefactors of the North Korean regime, will possibly use their veto power.

Even though a military operation in North Korea is still out of the question; as Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea said, forcing the hand of Pyongyang to disband the labor camps that hold tens of thousands of political convicts is the primary objective of the international community at this juncture before pressure on Russia and China grows further and allows for more serious steps to be taken. Thanks to the efforts of Japan and the EU, which jointly introduced a resolution endorsing the report first in the UN Human Rights Council and then circulated and pushed for it in the UN General Assembly’s Third (Human Rights) Committee, a resolution urging the Security Council to consider the human rights situation in North Korea was finally adopted on December 18 at the UN General Assembly with an overwhelming majority of 111 in favor, and only 19 against. As a result, putting an end to the nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs of North Korea will inevitably be linked with countering human rights violations by Pyongyang in UN Security Council meetings. If the international community can be convinced to handle the two subjects as inter-related policy goals, as Sydney Seiler, the new U.S. special envoy for the Six-Party Talks, suggests,[3] a great opportunity will emerge to make a change through international pressure by winning at least China’s covert support.

Towards a reset

The North Korean regime is already feeling compelled to make historical concessions with regard to its traditional policy of ignoring all UN mechanisms, as seen in its unprecedented actions last year, including its willingness to accept recommendations at the universal periodic review in May, its signing of two new protocols on human rights in May and July, the dispatching of its foreign minister to a meeting at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly for the first time in 14 years in September, and the authorization that allowed its ambassador to the UN to meet the UN Special Rapporteur in December. Under harsh international sanctions, internationally condemned due to the cyber-attack it sponsored against Sony Pictures late last year, and finally hit by the “politically-motivated human rights racket” targeting its so-called “social system”,[4] Pyongyang feels that it has its back against the wall at a time when one of its main economic sponsors, Russia, is facing economic bankruptcy, and the other, China, is more hesitant than ever to continue providing it with unconditional assistance.

Against such a backdrop, it is no far-cry to expect Pyongyang to restart the negotiations with Seoul that were stalled with the collapse of the Six-Party Talks after it left the negotiating table in response to the UN’s condemnation of its ICBM test in April 2009. We are already seeing signs of a softening in the statements made by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her North Korean counterpart regarding the idea of restarting bilateral talks. Hopefully, a tectonic shift will take place in the near future among the upper echelons of North Korean politics that will be characterized by a renewed offensive of moderates against the hardline faction in Pyongyang in response to the deterioration of the international context for the Kim family. But until then, the Democratic People’s Republic will remain a true hell on earth under the cult of personality surrounding its dictatorial leader, as has been demonstrated by the UN’s mind-blowing report.

[1] Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 2014. A/HRC/25/63. Geneva: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/Documents.aspx.

[2] World Report 2015: North Korea. 2015. New York: Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/north-korea

[3] Lee, Kwang-ho. “Pyongyang’s Release of Human Rights Report.” Vantage Point 37, no. 10 (2014): 16-19.

[4] Choe, Sang-hun. “North Korea Uses Defector’s Partial Retraction to Lash Out at Washington.” The New York Times, January 20, 2015. Accessed February 11, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/21/world/asia/north-korea-uses-defectors-partial-retraction-to-lash-out-at-washington.html?_r=0

The statements, views, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of EMerging Equity.

Courtesy of JTW

JTW – The Journal of Turkish Weekly – is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).  For more information, please visit  http://www.turkishweekly.net/

About ETFalpha

Chief ETF Strategist & Co-Founder at EMerging Equity


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