The arrival of this resolution, which is being voted on today in New York, should come as no surprise to the North Korean government. The language being considered for General Assembly adoption mirrors language which the Human Rights Council has been advocating for the last couple of years. Recently lobbying in Europe, and via North Korea’s Cold War ally Cuba, has not succeeded in watering down the language.
The resolution actually praises the North Korean government in no small detail for its cooperation and engagements in recent months on some of the human rights issues raised at the UN. But that is obviously insufficient for the task at hand; the UN wants unfettered access to the North Korean labor camps. This request, even if successful, will take months to arrange, which means the DPRK still can look forward to a period of time in which they could quietly close the camps down.
Part of what has clearly alarmed North Korea is the inclusion of their leader in specific language about responsibility for the abuses. It’s problematic for them, because it means that Kim Jong-un would be held responsible for the crimes committed by his predecessors. Naturally the young leader has aligned himself at literally every turn with his father and his dead grandfather, meaning that (even though he was not even born when the camps were set up in the 1950s) he is essentially the custodian of this system of repression, just as he is the custodian of the system of social benefits for North Koreans in cities like Pyongyang who follow the party’s every order and whose songbun can be assured.
The North Koreans did themselves no favors in their own Association for Human Rights Studies report, when they said that the National Defense Commission, of which Kim Jong-un is chairman, was one of the top human rights protecting organizations in the country. So they themselves have managed to admit that responsibility for human rights oversight in their uniquely centralized and personalist Leninist Party-state goes the top. I very much doubt that the country has a deep bench of international lawyers who would be able to tangle with more experienced judges or barristers about the applicability to Kim Jong-un of the 1907 Hague conventions’ doctrine of command responsibility, but if China refuses to help them out (unlikely but always possible!) that is what they will be left with.
Since China is implicated in the refoulement of refugees to North Korea, and, thus, in a limited sense, under the spotlight itself, it is unthinkable that they would let the Security Council refer the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. But it has been surprising how relatively open the Chinese news media has been in recent months about North Korean human rights abuses, the refugee issue generally, and the possibility that Kim Jong-un could be in serious trouble. In other words, there is still a huge gap between China and the rest of the world in terms of how it views North Korea’s shortcomings, but that gap is narrowing — another cause for concern in Pyongyang.
Finally, the UN is in this for the long game. The General Assembly already has this issue on the calendar again for September 2015. The purpose of the COI was never to destroy the North Korean state, and the UN more broadly also wants to see reform rather than collapse. Waiting for North Korea to fall apart, or choking it until it does, seems not to be the working assumption for the way forward — although more sanctions might yet be levied, an eventuality for which the North Korean state is likely also preparing. If a year from now, the DPRK is still standing, we ought to hope that it remains engaged in the human rights process, rather than having slammed the door with an atomic blast.