Just about everyone who doesn’t live under a rock will know by now that the mercurial and mysteriously ‘ronery’ North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, has died. Yet, while the jokes and Team America references proliferate in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, the recent history of North Korea is nothing to laugh at. It is a history of massive structural crimes and human rights violations perpetrated against innocent people while the international community watched, preserving a miserable status quo.
Interested readers will remember that some attention was paid last year when the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes committed by North Korea when it shelled Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island. Despite this blip in attention, it remains stunning how little consideration North Korea receives in the context of international criminal justice – especially for the far graver crimes against its own people. Of course, some may argue that North Korea does not receive any attention because its crimes do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court. But that seems far too weak an explanation – and far too defeatist an attitude for human rights advocates. It certainly hasn’t stopped demands, rushing forward in waves, to investigate crimes in Syria – also outside of the ICC’s jurisdiction.
While the repressive and isolated regime receives a significant share of international scrutiny, rather than putting human rights violations front and center, the attention paid to North Korea typically follows the ebb and flow of developments in its nuclear programme. The reasons for this neglect of North Korea as a potential case for international criminal justice reveal the complexities of politics in the Korean peninsula, yet they may not be all that intricate.
Many diplomats involved in dealing with North Korea understand and believe that the most costly outcome in the Korean peninsula – for them – is the collapse of the isolated, neo-Stalinist state. Since the division of Korea into North and South, the economic, social and political trajectories of the two countries could scarcely have been more divergent. Attempting to bring them together could very well be amongst the most expensive international political projects in recent memory. The refugee flows alone would be astonishing. The World Bank has argued that a reunification of the two Koreas would cost upwards of $2-3 trillion dollars, or some 5-6 times the yearly GDP of South Korea. Given past experiences in unification projects, for example East and West Germany, this is probably a low-ball estimate.
Thus, it would appear that the single, over-arching reason why North Korea has been allowed to develop nuclear arms is because the status quo – which includes the repression of millions – is better (read: less costly) than reunification or a “free” North Korea. The North Korean leadership has always understood this realpolitik treatment and has consequently engaged in remarkably successful black-mail policies: it threatens regional states and stability, receives the political attention it seeks, and key states give it concessions and aid in exchange for a return to the status quo of quiet and reclusive, but unthreatening, tyranny and repression. Sanctions have proved largely ineffective – at least insofar as human rights standards are concerned.
If there is any doubt about the above, let me put it more bluntly: the international treatment of North Korea encourages the continued existence of the North Korean regime and, by extension, reinforces the conditions in which millions of North Koreans are subjected to systematic and systemic human rights violations. It is an embarrassing diplomatic back-and-forth that leaves civilians susceptible to hardship and horror. It is also a terrible indictment of the efforts to maintain and enforce global human rights standards.
Of course, some groups and human rights advocates have worked tirelessly to highlight crimes perpetrated by the regime. The revered former Czech President, Václav Havel attempted to spur interest within the international community regarding the human rights abuses in the country in 2004:
“Today, the testimony of thousands of North Korean refugees, who have survived the miserable journey through Communist China to free South Korea, tell of the criminal nature of the North Korean dictatorship…and clearly illustrate that North Korea has a functioning system of concentration camps. The Kwan-li-so, or the political penal-labour colony, holds as many as 200,000 prisoners who are barely surviving day-to-day or are dying in the same conditions as did the millions of prisoners in the Soviet gulag system in the past…
…[Kim Jong-il] is willing to let his own people die of hunger, and uses famine to liquidate any sign of wavering loyalty to his rule.
Through blackmail, Kim Jong-il receives food and oil, which he distributes among those loyal to him (first in line being the army), while the international community has no way to ascertain who is receiving aid inside North Korea.
Innocent North Koreans are dying of hunger or are closed in concentration camps, as Kim Jong-il continues to blackmail the world.”
For years, North Korea has engaged in a catalogue of human rights violations. Name your most feared violation and North Korea almost certainly practices it. Concentration and labour camps? Check. Public executions? Check. Torture? Of course! Most dramatically, the country has gone through bouts of what amounts to government-generated famines. In the 1990s, famine in North Korea accounted for at least 2 million civilian deaths – a crime against humanity if there ever was one.
Very few events provide the possibility of doing away with the wretched status quo in North Korea, but the death of Kim Jong-il and the swirling personality cult around him, places the international community’s treatment of the impoverished Asian nation at a cross-roads: continue the status quo under the name of new leader Kim Jong-un or make a break and take seriously the words of former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates – “I don’t want to buy the same horse twice.”
Despite widespread, systematic and egregious human rights violations, North Korea is a forgotten case in international criminal justice and the enforcement of human rights standards more generally. Yet, the death of Kim Jong-il may provide the space to link together some of the worst violations of human rights with the provisions of international justice.
This week two famous leaders passed away. But only one concerned himself with the dignity of people. I leave you with the ever-prescient words of a true hero of humanity and humility, Václav Havel:
“Now is the time for the democratic countries of the world – the European Union, the United States, Japan and, last but not least, South Korea – to unify under a common position. These countries must make it perfectly clear that they will not make concessions to a totalitarian dictator.”