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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea said that efforts to fundamentally improve the regime’s human rights environment may not be possible under its current leadership’s personality cult.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Marzuki Darusman said that, while not advocating an invasion, a drastic change might nonetheless be necessary, particularly to help those trapped in the North’s political prison camps.
“It would be, I think, the first order of the day to get these 80,000 to 100,000 (political prisoners) immediately released and these camps disbanded,” Darusman told AP. “But that can only happen if this cult leadership system is completely dismantled. And the only way to do that is if the Kim family is effectively displaced, is effectively removed from the scene, and a new leadership comes into place.”
Darusman served on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, headed by Judge Michael Kirby of Australia, that authored last year’s landmark report on North Korea’s human rights environment. In the aftermath of the report, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of referring the North to the International Criminal Court, and a measure on North Korean human rights is now before the UN Security Council.
Darusman also told the AP that, prior to the General Assembly measure’s passage, North Korean diplomats attempting to remove the passage recommending ICC referral warned of “hardliners” in the North taking power.
“They said that other people will take over, and the hardliners will be taking over,” he said, adding that he took such remarks “at face value.”
A number of individuals with experience dealing with North Korea disagreed with Darusman’s statement at least to some degree.
Georgy Toloraya, who has worked as a diplomat in both Koreas, said that Darusman’s statement gives credence to North Korean arguments that human rights are another tool for undermining its system of governance.
“This is worrisome as the situation with human rights in North Korea should not be used as a card, but should be discussed with North Korea to improve it,” he said. “In fact, the more secure the regime would feel, the more likely is improvement with the human rights situation.”
Moon Chung-in, who served as chief architect for North Korea policy under South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun administration, agreed on the prioritization of freeing political prisoners in the South, but not the assumption that the North’s leadership had to be replaced.
“How can the UN or international society completely dismantle (the North Korean) leadership and replace it by new leadership?” he told NK News. “Human rights negotiators should realize the North Korean reality as it is and should seek ways to improve human rights conditions incrementally. Since Pyongyang is showing a somewhat changed attitude on the human rights issue, the UN and the U.S. should bring (North Korean) authorities to a dialogue and negotiation table.”
James Hoare, who formerly served as the UK’s chargé d’affaires to the North called it a case of “dealing with what you want rather than what is there.”
“And even if you did, what guarantee is there that a replacement system would be any better?” he said. “As we come up to a year since the Kirby report, I think there will be more of this sort of expression but it really does not take us any further.”
Even those who have been intensely critical of the North, and of past negotiations efforts with it, were not entirely supportive of Darusman’s statement.
“He is probably right, but … it would be an error to foreclose even a slim chance of a negotiated release of those prisoners by demanding the dismantling of North Korea’s political system as a precondition, just as it would be an error to grasp at any deal Pyongyang would give us,” said Joshua Stanton of the One Free Korea blog. “Instead, we should build our diplomatic leverage through financial, diplomatic and political pressure on Pyongyang, including information operations that attack this cult in the eyes of the North Korean people.
“If there is any chance that the oligarchy in Pyongyang will accept basic transparency and humanity, it will be because it believes that time is not on its side, and that the alternative is its extinction.”
Picture: UN Geneva, Flickr Creative Commons