While “The Interview” sideshow has in some ways become the main media event of the past weeks, the DPRK remains very much center stage at the United Nations. North Korean human rights were discussed last week in the UN Security Council and a vote to refer the country to the International Criminal Court, I believe, will be held next month. A huge amount of documentation has to be worked through in order to understand what is going on — not least the epic Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights that has moved this issue forward in unprecedented ways.
In the following post, I conclude my write-up of the extensive counter-report on human rights, issued by a North Korean ‘Association for Human Rights Studies’ whose composition remains somewhat opaque, but whose aims are very much those of the Korean Workers’ Party.
The document merited a mention by US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who called it ‘a sham report.’ Perhaps this could be considered a kind of back-handed victory from the DPRK perspective, as the report at least merited a diverting breath of the Ambassador’s. In her presentation, Ambassador Power was too busy to mention anything about the DPRK’s attempts to increase its engagement with the universal periodic review process in parallel with the fight-back on the COI front, nor did she muster anything more than the most vague suggestion to China that it, too, might have some responsibility with respect to the North Korean refugees whose accounts she was otherwise eager to deploy.
Power did manage to bring up the Sony hacking case during her Security Council presentation — which in my view was inadvisable, as it managed to muddy the information streams further. What might otherwise have been a climactic moment in terms of public presentation got unfortunately caught up in what Peter Hayes factually called ‘a movie showing Kim Jong-un’s head being blown off by a grenade removed from Seth Rogen’s rectum.’ The North Koreans have been less than disciplined (to put it kindly) in their response to the film, but their counterattacks on the human rights issues specifically remain rather focused, and are not going in a particularly encouraging direction — i.e., they are now also pointing heavily at Seoul.
Now that we’re up to date, let’s move on (or back, as the case may be) to these nine concluding points on North Korea’s self-assessment on the human rights front. Parts 1 and 2 of this post are available here and here, respectively. (Part 1 includes a link to the original report from the DPRK.)
10. Why does the report discuss at such length of the social benefits system through the Korean War, especially in 1952-1953?
This is a very curious part of the report, and it makes you wonder who the intended audience for the report actually is. Take, for instance, the statement on page 30 that “there was not a single case of death due to starvation or cold” in the DPRK during the Korean War, so attentive were the Korean Workers’ Party to the the people’s livelihood. Besides having little apparent relevance to the past 20 years of North Korean history, this statement obviously has no purchase in the West; nobody cares. It is interesting how time-specific the report is about legislation and decisions made by the KWP with respect caring for orphans or relieving food pressures – these are things that the Party is endlessly scrupulous about during the Korean War, but not necessarily afterwards. The report spends basically no time at all talking about famine of the 1990s; so any external questions of the Party’s ability to take care of people during times of great distress are displaced by back to the Korean War, the central early trauma of the early DPRK, but also the key moment in the Party’s self-image. It is also a convenient way to avoid talking about the hardships specific to the Kim Jong-il years (1994-2011).
11. Does the report in anyway acknowledge the total breakdown of the public distribution system for food in the mid to late 1990s, or deal substantively with the question of ongoing chronic hunger in the country?
No, it does not. In fact, on pages 98 and 99, in the section on the right to an adequate standard of living, the report states “every person in the DPR K, since birth, have a right to food and is supplied with food at a price next to nothing… People in the DPR K, thanks to its people oriented policy, or living with no worries of paying for food and housing from the moment of their birth. This fact alone proves that the socialist system of the DPRK is the land of bliss for the people.” No stunting or malnutrition here.
12. What is the point on pages 32-39 of the report’s authors going through and talking at length about the healthcare system, child labor protections, and gender equality?
If anything in the report is actually aimed at the outside, this is it. States from the global South and other members of the UN human rights committee that are more prone in the countryside to a lesser level of development, are more likely to give the DPRK some credit for having set up some of these laws far earlier than their states did. If you look at the recommendations in these areas tendered by the UNHCR, you can see that the North Koreans did, in fact, deal with some of them, such as stronger laws about child labor. Naturally implementation is the problem.
13. What role does the Kim personality cult, or Songun politics (code for Kim Jong-il deification), play in the document? Doesn’t this just reinforce the Commission of Inquiry’s assertions that Kim Jong-un is ultimately responsible for any crimes against humanity in the DPRK?
At the outset of the report, one is struck by how little of this has crept into the document, but then a striking example is reached on page 42. The report praises North Korea for having privileged the National Defense Commission after 1992 and elevating that institution. This then is twisted about, arguing that this bureaucratic change “provide[d] for the machinery of a legal guarantee which can strengthen defence capabilities against the US military maneuvers to stifle DPRK and maintain and develop the human rights law system.” Similarly, on page 66, the NDC is said to “protect and promote human rights through its guidance over the whole Armed Forces in the work of defense upbuilding.”
On the one hand, we are expected to believe that the North Korean state bureaucracy has grown hugely concerned over the human rights issues in the international arena only because now, the COI has implicated Kim Jong-un and is seeking to bring down the unique ‘social system’ with him at the core. This has been stated time and again by Western analysts of North Korea, myself included. But then this document goes ahead and clods toward precisely the COI’s point: If the NDC is ultimately responsible for human rights and all North Korean policies, and Kim Jong-un is its living co-chairman (Kim Jong-il being the eternal chairman, though he is dead), then doesn’t this make it more difficult for the state to distance Kim Jong-un from any crimes committed? Perhaps the North Koreans do not expect to have to pay this particular price, in the same way that reading DPRK state propaganda about Kim Jong-un being the pure inheritor and reincarnation of his predecessors also makes him culpable for the entire gulag system would be overreading. But it is fascinating that in their zeal to include the National Defence Commission in this report, the Association is drawing lines that the COI itself is probably rather pleased to see.
14. Does the document tell us anything about the DPRK insecurities, or in any way reveal things going wrong inside the country?
It also talks about an intense “in intensive real struggle against all sorts of hostile elements that were attempting to other people to the world of degeneration dissoluteness and crimes, and to overthrow the social system in the end” (p. 42). We also see “plotting to overthrow the government, terrorist acts, treason, sabotage and subversion, intentional murder, drug trafficking and smuggling” (page 89). There is also a section on illegal selling of blood and medical organs (p. 90), which indicates this sort of thing may be going on.
15. What is the most ridiculous part of the report?
The section on North Korea’s Road traffic laws which contribute “to protecting the peoples lives and ensuring safety in the road traffic” on page 57 has my vote for the most ridiculous section of the report. But the theme of human rights that runs to the reported some temperature ridiculous means like saying that the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League (p. 71) has as its primary function the protection of human rights protecting and promoting the rights of youth, as opposed to political obedience, was also somewhat comical.
The report veers into truly surreal territory when on page 76 and 77, it interprets the Juche idea as ‘ a true ideology defending human rights,’ meaning that any and all discussion of Kim Jong-Il, the Kims, and Juche ideology can, by official North Korean standards, be filed under ‘human rights education.’
The section on state media also deserves special mention (p. 78), along with p. 82 on the right to access and convey information — this is language which no one debating the role of KCNA and/or the AP in Pyongyang has seen fit to discuss, but which might have some minor bearing.
16. Does the report referred to North Korea’s previous reports as specific to the convention the rights of the child or interface with the other UN organizations?
The Convention for the Rights of the Child is discussed on page 68 briefly, as is also North Korea’s coordinating committee for UNESCO. The report also briefly discusses the implementation of conventions connected to reducing violence against women, but nowhere does the report it discuss when, if ever, North Korea submitted reports to the UN on these topics. This begs the question if the association writing the report event actually had access to that information – while a lack of such basic information on the part of the Association would be appalling, the possibility exists that it was not given access to Foreign Ministry records, etc., and so the Association’s ability to know basic things which we are able to gather simply by accessing UN reports online isn’t to be taken for granted.
17. Is there any reference to the Japanese abduction issue in the report?
The report contains a single reference to the abduction issue essentially dismissing it in a single line as a political fabrication by “riffraff” (p. 89), a reference which surely was not positively received in the Gaimusho. With respect to Japan, there are far more references in the document to the victims of sexual slavery of the Japanese army on page 74 and 75, for instance, which goes very much along with North Korea’s tactic since 1992: Whenever faced with the abduction issue, just come out with this type of non-reply reply.
Considering that this report came out more or less precisely when North Korea had already pledged to have finished a report of similar scope dealing earnestly and finally with the abduction issue but did done so, was surely galling to Tokyo. Adding insult to injury, the report calls “a country that negated history of slavery in Korea…even today in Japan, buying and selling of slaves, forced labor, human trafficking and child labor are rampant” (p. 92).
18. What if you want to have a demonstration or start an opposition party in the DPRK?
According to the document the DPRK fully provides the freedom of assembly and demonstration, and the right to organize a political party or social organization of a democratic character. This is great news; just follow the rules on pages 83- 85 and you can peacefully assemble to demonstrate or organize about whatever you like. Just make sure the People’s Security organ knows what you’re up to well in advance, and that you don’t “harm the security of the state, violate social stability, order, soundness of society and morality and encroach on other people’s rights and freedom,” particularly doing so without taking into account “the [very special yet never relenting] situation where the US and western countries are attempting to undermine the social system of the DPRK by creating instigating such associations,” or you might have some problems.
19. How does this report spin Juche around as a monolithic ideology of human rights that the United States is trying to take away from North Korea?
This is rather in elegantly done a page 86 and 87 but it’s also very revealing. Essentially what they say is that North Korean people unanimously have “chosen to follow the Juche idea” which is “not forced by the state or anybody else” which is further “acquired through their everyday life and experience and history.” That this assertion appears in the section on protecting freedom of belief and religion is fairly remarkable.