North Korea has ever been the subject of journalistic inquiry, but in the past couple of years things seem to have hit a kind of new high point. Likewise, public consciousness in the US and Western Europe of the importance of Pyongyang’s relationship with China seems also to have taken a major leap forward. So what happens when a United Nations special report on North Korean human rights emerges, and China is implicated heavily in the document? Journalists need to seek comment from experts, or at least perceived experts. Since some of my work is cited in the UN report (in a discussion of Kim Jong-un’s newly generated holiday, the “Day of Songun”), it seems I became fair game.
The history of the impact of the UN Commission of Inquiry report is still being written, so I thought it might be appropriate at this point to share some of my initial responses, which I also discussed in a 6 March event at the University of York. The questions below were generated by a reporter for a major daily in Western Europe, who was so impressed with my answers that none of them made it into print — such is life, but that is also why scholars these days keep weblogs:
1.- What effect do you think the report will have on North Korea? Is it likely to produce any change in the country?
While the authors of the report clearly hope to create some spark of recognition for their work among the people of the DPRK, the state is likely to depict the report as highly instrumentalized, serving as another implement in a broader US-led drive to overthrow the regime and besmirch the “supreme dignity” of their leader personally. The notion of a letter addressed to Kim Jong-un, while logical in any number of other contexts, is likely to ignite a scramble within the DPRK propaganda and media organs for a competition to see who can most vehemently denounce the Western methods.
We also have to keep in mind that while the DPRK has been a member of the United Nations since 1992, the country has had a very adversarial relationship with the UN dating of course back to the Korean War, when the UN sent troops led by Douglas MacArthur precisely to roll back the gains of their violent revolution. This does not mean that the North Koreans would reject any initative from the UN or the international community more broadly – in fact they are rather receptive when it comes to areas of capacity building in areas like medicine and agriculture, and they are looking of course for foreign aid to solve the food problem, but this report seems to run counter to anything that the North Koreans would remotely accept.
2.- What is so special about this report? Haven’t these abuses been reported in the past?
What is special about the report is the recommendation to the General Assembly that the North Korean regime be referred to the International Criminal Court. It suggests that North Korea is becoming more isolated internationally under Kim Jong-un’s leadership – and the execution of Jang Song-taek, which is referenced in the report, would seem to indicate this. China will be defending the DPRK in the Security Council but this is no guarantee that the country will not be referred to the ICC.
The abuses chronicled in the report are well known, but this report packs a kind of cumulative effect and it has served to update the literature while energizing the loose yet broad coalition that exists attempting to enact change in North Korea. Of course the North Korean regime puts forward a much different conception of rights and human rights, which emphasizes the role of anti-colonial sovereignty and the right, more or less, to remain outside of the global economic system and to continue with their weapons programs and leader veneration.
3.- The UN calls for the international community to impose sanctions against the Korean Leadership? Can’t this be a way of destabilizing the region? Can this sort of mechanism be effective?
Sanctions on DPRK have been tightening since their first nuclear test in 2006, but I don’t think this report will itself result in economic sanctions. The regime is definitely feeling the pain from the ban on luxury goods, and again, the Chinese element is the one to watch. China certainly does not want to see North Korea destabilized, and is not at all receptive to the critiques offered by the UN, for various reasons. North Korea stands up for China on the Tibet issue (where the PRC has few friends and many critics) and China stands up for North Korea in the international critiques of its human rights. However, the Jang Song-taek execution seems to have upset Chinese leaders and the report’s critique of the Jang execution has already been echoed, if faintly, by the Chinese media.