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North Korea and China’s Response to the UN Commission of Inquiry Report

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.

Wolmi Island DPRK film



Three Recent Speeches on U.S.-China Relations

Jon Huntsman, U.S. Ambassador to the PRC, delivers the Oksenberg-Barnett Lecture in Shanghai, 6 April 2011, sponsored by the NCUSCR (National Committee on U.S.-China Relations):

Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, delivers the first Richard Holbrooke Lecture at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on 15 January 2011 (speech starts in earnest at 5:30):

Joseph Biden, U.S. Vice President, opens the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue forum in Washington, D.C., 9 May 2011:

10,000 Chinese Netizens Know Curtis Melvin, Google Earth North Korea

Amid the obligatory fury at the Chinese government for restricting the flow of information into China, it’s worth noting that articles like this one are increasing in prevalence: a Tianya translation of a CNN article about Andrei Lankov, Curtis Melvin, and the wonders of mapping North Korean gulags on Google Earth.

According to statistics the article has been read over 10,000 times; let’s hope the current dispute doesn’t potentially rob all 344 million Chinese internet users of a chance to bump into this extraordinary resource and understand further about their peninsular neighbor.

See Google Earth上的“裸体”朝鲜

Chinese Foreign Ministry: Sweden’s Brazen Gambit Exposed to Interfere in China’s Internal Affairs

Sweden, a country that really knows a little something about assimilation of Turkic and Arab peoples, recently had the temerity to criticize the People’s Republic of China for executing five (5) nine (9) Uighurs who had been accused of fomenting the violence of this past July 2009.  Sweden is presently holding down the Presidency of the European Union and one of its particularly distinguished professors, Per Svastik, is a visiting professor of human rights at Beijing University.

Per Sevastik in Beijing, via Sweden's EU site

Audacious Journalist!  Qin Gang!  Step to the mic at the Foreign Ministry of the PRC press conference:

Q: On November 12, the Swedish Presidency, on behalf of the European Union, issued a statement, condemning China’s recent execution of nine criminals who participated in Urumqi July 5 Incident and asking China to abolish death penalty. Do you have any comment?

A: We express our strong dissatisfaction with the second EU statement in half a month that seriously interferers in China’s internal affairs. China is a country ruled by law, where there must be laws to go by, the laws must be observed and strictly enforced, and lawbreakers must be prosecuted. The judicial authorities of China have carried out fair and open trials of the suspects and brought to justice criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes. This is China’s judicial sovereignty which brooks no interference from any foreign parties. China strongly opposes the practice of breaking the rule of law under the pretext of rule of law, and urges the EU to earnestly abide by the principle of equality and mutual respect rather than make the same mistakes over and over again, with a view to contributing to the healthy and stable development of China-EU relations.

Sweden seems to be in the middle of everything East Asian these days — from negotiating for Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s release from Pyongyang to speaking up for the Uighurs, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Swedes.  After all, among other things they’ve got their eyes on Chinese churches and le droit de l’ours (e.g., bears’ rights) in the great Chinese north:

Courtesy MXP, the persistently documented Swedish missionaries and Christian human rights in China watch blog -- click image for link

Swedish models and Anneka Svenska "take part in a photocall to protest against China's cruel bear farms on October 6, 2003 at the Chinese Embassy, Portland Place in London." Photo courtesy Getty.

North Korea News Roundup

Almost exactly one year to the day from his election, Barack Obama now has a point man for a controversial arm of his North Korea policy.   Robert King, nominated as Obama’s Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, a position created by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, had a hearing on November 5 for Senator John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

there he is -- the harbinger!

King’s prepared statement for the committee is available here; the Daily NK spin is here; a few selections from King follow:

The United States Government has been and remains deeply concerned about the human rights conditions in North Korea and the plight of North Korean refugees. In part this is a reflection of who we are as a nation. We were founded on fundamental principles of human rights, and our support for these rights is an essential part of who the American people are. At the same time, respect for human rights by the DPRK will have a significant impact on the prospect for closer ties with the United States and will be necessary for North Korea to fully participate in the international community.

While I do not believe that we will be able to change conditions quickly or radically, I do believe that we must seek to make progress where we are able at a pace that is sustainable.

– We have made progress in expanding broadcasting into North Korea, and, if confirmed, I will continue this effort. This is important in breaking down the isolation of the North Korean people and making available independent sources of information inside the country. My first position after completing graduate school was with Radio Free Europe at a time when Central Europe was under Soviet domination, and I saw first-hand the importance of our international broadcasting in expanding human rights.

The United States also remains committed to improving conditions for those who leave the DPRK. We continue to work with international organizations and countries in the region to help North Korean asylum seekers obtain protection, including by resettling some in the United States.

Many encouraging things are present here, particularly the turning the human rights issue inside out, showing North Korea that benefits can flow from a policy of change.  Not incidentally, the French people and politicians agree heartily with the first paragraph quoted above (just substitute “French” for “American”), meaning that if France were able to open up relations with North Korea, more pressure could be applied on the human rights front.

Thus it is heartening that today’s Parisian left-wing (and wonderful) paper Liberation reports that Sarkozy emphasized the human rights angle to envoy Jack Lang, who will be starting a five-day visit to North Korea soon.  In an earlier piece, Liberation speculates that Obama’s time in Beijing will be occupied with coordination on the North Korea issue, navigating between the North’s demands for a permanent peace and its brandishing fissile material.

On the environmental front, NK Leadership Watch reports on the appointment of a new Minister of Land and Environmental Protection, all in the context of battles between citizens and the state over land use.  Forestry, the Daily NK reports, is being used to suppress the people who are trying to do patch farming.


Patch farming on a steep Tumen River ravine just east of Hyesan, Ryanggang province, DPRK; Photo by Adam Cathcart

Chinese tourism officials are in the DPRK holding talks, while the European Business Association in Pyongyang is keeping very busy.

Liberation also carries an interesting interview about the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the costs and benefits of aiding North Korea, with an ex-Unifcation minister from the ROK, Park Jae-kyu, who was in Paris on account of the Chirac Foundation.  “It’s hard to conceive of a reunification of the two Koreas,” he said, a bit paradoxically, given his previous line of work.

Although I usually spend more time looking at story comments in Chinese, a couple of comments French “netizens” on the above story caught my eye:

Kim Il Sarko et Nicolas Jong Il
C’est vrai, quel drôle de pays dictatorial et nespotique, où le président chauffe la plus haute place pour son fistounet…
À quand leur pas de deux ?

Dana Rohrabacher vs. Selig Harrison

North Korea analyst Selig Harrison, an “old North Korea hand” if there ever was one, has returned from Pyongyang bearing a few facts to share with the rest of us.  To the extent he has a primary bias, it seems to be a desire to accelerate and facilitate a process of North Korean opening up and reform.  Harrison has got decades of experience dealing with North Korea, and one can’t simply scoff it away by calling the man names.

He isn’t some Charles Lindbergh in 1940; nor is he Edgar Snow in 1970 (although, like Snow with the PRC, Harrison sometimes serves as a bearer of signals from Pyongyang).  Selig Harrison has no interest in seeing North Korea as a permanent nuclear power which threatens the national security of the United States.

Dana Rohrabacher, on the other hand, has less experience with Korean affairs.  He does, however, have a very impressive world view that emphasizes human rights and a moral outlook in U.S. foreign policy.  He is also quite taken with the issue of human rights in North Korea and speaks out powerfully about gulags in the North as well as the failings of communism more generally.


Dana Rohrabacher, far right, with the late Tom Lantos at a speech by George W. Bush dedicating the “Monument to the Victims of Communism” in Washington, D.C., in September 2007. Image via American Hungarian Federation. 


So when these two men clashed on February 12, 2009, at a House hearing, there was much to be learned.  Here are a few excerpts, with a touch of analysis.

Around page 29, Harrison is wrapping up a long discussion of the tension between diplomatic need for ambiguity with the very real imperatives of former negotiator Chris Hill for tangible progress on the nuclear issue.  An argument advanced consistently by Harrison is the existence of a group of unnamed pragmatists vs. the evident hardliners in Pyongyang:

HARRISON: So, there is an argument in Pyongyang, they got politics too, you know, there is an argument in Pyongyang for keeping the process going because we took them off the terrorist list, and at the same time the pragmatists did not win the argument that some verification compromise should be made in return for that, just what Hill wanted, of course, because Kim Jong Il had had a stroke, and the day-to-day control of all this had shifted during the months when this was going on. The stroke was in August.

And one very interesting thing, you know, Hill was trying to carry this thing forward and he got—he wanted to go to Pyongyang in the critical stage of this, and the hardliners did not want him to come, and the pragmatists worked out a compromise which was, okay, he will not come as a state guest. We will put him in the Potonggang Hotel which is one of the hotels in Pyongyang, and he will not be a state guest but he can stay in the hotel at his expense, U.S. Government’s expense, and come over to see us and talk to us. That was the internal compromise in North Korea. So he went there and did not get what he had hoped he would get.

I have given you a long answer but you have raised a very tricky question and a very raw nerve in the whole process, and I am not quite sure what Chris Hill would have said if he were sitting here, but that is the way I perceive it.

At this point, with timing befitting a Shakespearean drama, enters the man who will challenge all of this subtlety with blunt and moral force:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. The gentleman from California, Mr. Rohrabacher.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much. I am sorry I was a little late in getting here. We did have votes on the floor, and Mr. Harrison, I think that we have a different way of looking at the world.

From listening to your testimony today, it seems you are telling us that peace and progress in the world will come through accommodation with evil and tyrants and gangsters and murders and all the other scum of this world that prey upon decent people. Accommodations with them is going to make it a better world? Would not what you are proposing today would have left the Soviet Union in power had we just simply decided that we are going to have an accommodation rather than seeking change within the Soviet system? Correct me if I am wrong, that is my interpretation of what you are telling us.

How would you respond to this?  There is plenty of room to hit back, certainly, starting with the choice of oratory.  Words like “scum” and “gangster” feel good coming off the lips, but they also mirror precisely the very vitriolic rhetoric of North Korean propaganda.  We’re not likely to get very far dealing with the face-conscious North Koreans in this fashion.  In other words, you can think they are scum, go ahead, and they very well may be.  (After all, are they not promoters of a state health care system?)  But there is nothing to be gained in verbal smashdowns against straw men.  Not calling them gangsters, pygmies, or children does not by extension mean that one advocates a policy of appeasement toward the North Koreans.

But Harrison goes straight to the core of Rohrbacher’s attack: it is, more or less, a way of calling Harrison a commie.

Harrison responds (beginning on page 30 of the hearing transcript, for those of you who are packing footnotes):

Mr. HARRISON. I did not say anything, Congressman Rohrabacher, about a better world, and I do not like the North Korean regime anymore than you do. My testimony, if your voting schedule permitted you to hear it——


Mr. HARRISON [continuing]. Was that we should be capping their nuclear program rather than allowing it to grow beyond the four or five that the Bush administration’s unrealistic policies had given us because we do not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, precisely because we know that it is a regime that we have not made our peace with yet.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. I guess what I was referring——

Mr. HARRISON. So I do not think I said anything about nirvana
developing from negotiations——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. I think I was referring to your statement that in order to deal with them that they are going to have to be assured that we do not want to change their government, that we do not want to have a regime change in North Korea; that we are not going to have progress as long as they have that fear.

I believe the United States Government should put dictatorships in fear that they will be replaced by democratic government. I think that is part of our obligation as free people is to back up the people of North Korea and Burma and other type of dictatorships. Instead we have—have we not subsidized North Korea these last 10 years in terms of fuel and food? Without that, perhaps they would have collapsed on their own.
Mr. HARRISON. North Korea has changed a lot in the last 10 years. I have been going there since 1972. And when I went there in 1972, the first of my 11 visits, it was a very monolithic dictatorship. Now you have a great deal of marketization. You have people trying to make a buck. You have access of information coming in from China and from South Korea in spite of the efforts of the regime to keep it from happening.

[HARRISON]: The argument between us is not over our objective. We share the same values. I want to see this regime in North Korea evolve into something gradually closer to our concept of the way a society should operate, just as I would like to see China, and China has moved in that direction. I mean, dealing with China, I am sure you would have said the same thing back in the seventies when some of us were talking about——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. I hate to tell you this, but when I take a look at the liberalization in China, I do say the same things about China today, which is still the world’s worst human rights abuse.

Mr. HARRISON. Well, the difference between China—you have what I think, I mean, you talk in tough terms, sir, but I think you are taking a very unrealistic view of things. You do not change societies, countries of 1 billion people overnight. The process is China has changed enormously since 1972 in the direction that is desirable in terms of our values, and I think North Korea will evolve in the direction of greater human rights and more open economy, more and more congruent with that of South Korea, more and more open to foreign influences to the extent that we helped open it up and let the winds of freedom blow in, and they are not going to [31] blow in with a bunch of balloons from South Korea, or with tough rhetoric. The winds of freedom will get into North Korea to the extent that we engage them and gradually open them up as we have been doing, as we did very successfully during the Clinton administration.

I do not mean that on a partisan level. So, I think the argument is kind of circular. We do want the same end result, that I can assure you.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Well, then we do have a disagreement.

Mr. HARRISON. If your end result is——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much.

Mr. HARRISON. If your end result has to be that everything in North Korea collapses, and you have millions and millions of refugees going into South Korea and Japan in order to have the change——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. One last question. Do you think it was a good thing that the communist government in Germany, in East Germany, collapsed? Was that a good thing? And why should we not be trying to do for the people of Korea who deserve to be unified, deserve to live their lives in a modicum of decency and freedom, why should we not wish the same for them as we did for the people of Germany?

Mr. HARRISON. I think that the geopolitical factors that were at play then and the way in which Germany changed are very different from the ones in Korea.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Okay, thank you, sir.

This is such a rich exchange, encompassing a struggle between possibly misguided pragmatism and bull-headed principle, between historical analogies (is North Korea East Germany in 1988 or the PRC in 1971?), between competing visions of reality (is North Korea engaged in a process of marketization or is that completely trumped by the fact of their labor camps?) and ultimately about change.

What stimulates change in North Korea, and what is the end result?

You will notice that Rohrabacher, with the great skill of an experienced debater who is always, always, up against the clock, throws a few provocations out without expecting any response at the end of his remarks.  When Harrison calls him on it (“your end state results in huge refugee outflows, Dana” in so many words), Rohrabacher steps back from the prespice to let someone else clean up the mess.

Let us hope this is not a metaphor for a post-Kim North Korea.

In the meantime, further discussion about facilitating “the winds of freedom” among the North Koreans — which I strongly believe can be pushed forward and faster by more people-to-people exchanges through multiple and especially cultural channels — will continue.

As Rohrabacher shoots his final bolt and his conservative California colleague Edward Royce gets ready to pump Harrison with eager queries about the Pakistan connection (yet another area of Harrison’s expertise), the chair of the hearing steps in with further confirmation that Dana Rohrabacher is a man who is both comfortable with a shotgun in his hand and who has already had a very rich life experience indeed:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. I thank the gentleman from California. He and I also have some basic disagreements, but we always agree to disagree. But my good friend from California and I visited Pakistan at one time, and I had to hold a 45-revolver and he had a shotgun for fear that somebody would come and kill us, but Dana, thanks for your questions. But it is always good to have this. This is why we have a democracy like this.

Somehow I have a feeling that if we could just get Dana Rohrabacher on a shooting range with Chang Song-taek for discussion of their respective Glocks, or if Rohrabacher could realize that North Koreans believe strongly in the right to bear arms in both North Hamgyong province and Orange County, or if Selig Harrison could get the North Korean Mansudae Arts Troupe into the Orange County Arts Center auditorium to boost its faltering ticket sales figures, things would be just a little bit better for everyone.

Update: Selig Harrison died on 30 December 2016. The full text of his 12 February 2009 US House committee testimony is no longer available online, although much of his output from that year is still accessible and is likely to turn up in his papers, which are housed at Duke University


Republican Leaflet from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Casey, Steven.  Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Republican propaganda from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Steven Casey’s Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) a book which unfortunately dwells almost zero on how the Truman administration was planning to justify an ongoing US/UN occupation of North Korea in October 1950.  One answer: war crimes trials for the Kim family! a story for another post. 


Refugees Flowing Into Yunnan from Myanmar

Apropos of yesterday’s posting on James Webb and Myanmar-China relations, Chinese newspapers report that between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees have crossed the rugged border from Myanmar into China. This was an area of real instability for the PRC, not incidentally, at the same time as the Korean War was ongoing. Estimates of more than 100,000 anti-communist guerillas roamed this borderland (with U.S. aid of course) in opposition to communist rule in 1951. The campaign to crush “counterrevolutionaries” was para-military in this particular area. And now again it is full of individuals whose meaning for the central government in Beijing needs to be questioned. This event might also serve as a kind of drill or preview for the CCP in the event of instability in North Korea, although I would imagine that refugee numbers there could be much larger. A situation to keep an eye on, to be sure.

Shanghai Daily
29 Aug 2009