|NKHR advocates at the UN General Assembly as the General Assembly considers resolution seeking referral of North Korea to the ICC|
For NGOs like NKHR, organizing side events and individual advocacy meetings with government representatives from various countries are necessary elements of a successful advocacy strategy.
Over the summer, as the United Nations General Assembly began gearing up to consider a resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation following the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report, NKHR reached out to our close partner, Human Rights Watch, to co-organize a side meeting on North Korean human rights at the United Nations in New York during the General Assembly session that fall. The goal of the side meeting was to garner support from UN member States for a strong resolution that would, for the first time, call on the UN Security Council to consider the human rights situation in North Korea, and possibly refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court. Because of this strong wording, NGOs including NKHR worried that many States would abstain or vote against the resolution. It was thus imperative for NKHR to highlight the need for such strong action against North Korea. In conjunction with the side meeting, NKHR and Human Rights Watch organized 10 individual meetings with representatives from member States from Asia and Africa in order to further emphasize their critical role in achieving improved human rights conditions and accountability.
NKHR’s delegation travelled with two victims of North Korean abuse, Hye Sook Kim, who spent 28 years in Political Prison Camp No. 18, and Hyuk Kim, who lived as a street child (kkotjebi) and then, at the age of 16, was sent to a kyohwaso (long-term detention center). Hye Sook Kim spoke about her experiences at the side meeting, and both Hye Sook Kim and Hyuk Kim spoke directly to representatives from member States during individual meetings.
Towards the end of the meeting, a tense debate unfolded between members of the North Korean delegation and Justice Kirby. North Korean Counselor Kim Song questioned the validity of COI report, including the Commission’s reliance on interviews with North Korean defectors and accusing the Commission of unfairly shaping testimony through leading questions. Justice Kirby, however, assured the delegation that all testimonies received by the Commission were obtained fairly—having spent thirty-four years as a judge, Justice Kirby explained, he knew the difference between leading questions and non-leading questions. He also implored the North Korean delegation to withdraw their statement that the North Korean victims who testified are “human scum.”
The North Korean delegation also inquired about the crimes against humanity found by the Commission, and how it would be possible for the regime in Pyongyang to be held accountable. In response, Justice Kirby pointed to several areas in which crimes against humanity had been committed, such as the purposeful starving of the population, political prison camps that used torture and extermination, infanticide, violations of the right to freedom of belief and opinion, and the abduction of foreign nationals. He also stressed that in a totalitarian country such as North Korea, where a supreme leader controls all agencies, the chain of command leads ultimately to the top. Given that structure, it would be impossible for a supreme leader to lack both awareness of the decisions made and the ability to intervene and stop the policies responsible for such human rights violations.
A few days after our side meeting, the North Korean delegation met with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in North Korea, Mr. Marzuki Darusman. Mr. Darusman had travelled to New York to give an official briefing before the UN General Assembly. In an attempt to water down the pending resolution, North Korea offered to finally provide the Special Rapporteur with permission to investigate within North Korea’s borders on the condition that the language calling for accountability and referral of the situation to the ICC be removed from the resolution. The condition was rightfully rejected.
Despite appearing to finally engage in discussions about its human rights record, North Korea has yet to take any action that will translate into real improvement of the human rights situation on the ground. The international community should not base its actions toward North Korea on future hopes and promises, but on the present situation. Sacrificing accountability would be a mistake, particularly since the possibility of accountability has created more political leverage with North Korea than ever before.
The successful vote at the UN Third Committee—a committee within the General Assembly—on November 18 proved that North Korea’s engagement strategy, or its so-called “charm-offensive,” was unsuccessful in convincing many States to vote against the resolution. The resolution passed with overwhelming support, with 111 States in favor of, 55 abstaining, and only 19 against the resolution. A vote will be held soon at the full UN General Assembly, the results of which are expected to be similar, possibly followed by an official discussion at the UN Security Council. Even though Russia and China are likely to veto any referral of North Korea to the ICC, a veto will not be the end of the road, as there are other strategies that NKHR and other NGOs can and will pursue.
NGOs such as NKHR, which played key roles in the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry, are now finally seeing the fruits of their labor. The possibility that North Korea could be held responsible for international crimes has been more effective in bringing North Korea to the human rights discussion table than anything in the past. As suggested by the Special Rapporteur, perhaps a “two-track” approach of simultaneously pursuing both accountability and engaging is feasible, but the North Korean leadership must be made aware that it cannot elude responsibility for committing crimes against humanity. Sooner or later, the day when the victims demand justice will come.
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