North Korea has a justifiable reputation as one of the world’s worst human rights violators. In pretty much every ranking, whether it be for freedom of the press, freedom of religion, or freedom of speech, Pyongyang’s government is named as a serial offender.
But five years on from the death of Kim Jong Il, is there any indication things may have started to improve under Kim Jong Un? And is there any sign that international pressure on human rights from either the United Nations or its individual member states could be yielding results?
To find out, NK News spoke to Judge Michael Kirby, the former lead on the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK, which in 2014 published a significant report on the current state of human rights in the North.
But while Kirby said he had observed some minor steps in the right direction since the publication of the report, overall he had seen little evidence to suggest there had been a major improvement in human rights conditions in North Korea in the past few years. As a result of changes in the international political situation, he argued, the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous.
In your opinion, has the human rights situation in North Korea improved or worsened since Kim Jong Un took power? Why?
I have not seen any evidence that there has been an improvement in human rights of the people of North Korea in DPRK in recent years.
There have been some very minor steps in the right direction. These have included some participation in the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the UN Human Rights Council; some apparent support in the position of disabled people who are reportedly being seen on the streets of Pyongyang for the first time in many years; and some suggestions of rationalization of the detention centers used for the detention of political and similar detainees and their families.
However, the last mentioned may simply be an economic rationalization of the use of facilities and not a sign of change for the better. The installation of stronger border protection in the North of the country has made it more difficult for refugees (defectors) to leave the DPRK and begin the dangerous and risky journey elsewhere.
On the whole, the position portrayed in the report of the COI apparently remains unchanged.
North Korea should respond favorably to the request by the COI to permit the United Nations to send its representatives into the DPRK to check the state of human rights and to report to the world on what they find. The members of the COI repeatedly offered to visit the DPRK, to answer questions and to correct mistakes (if any) in the COI report. Such requests have been repeatedly refused.
On the whole, the position portrayed in the report of the COI apparently remains unchanged
What’s your assessment of the international community’s response to the human rights situation since the death of Kim Jong Il? What more can be done?
The international community gave very strong support to the report of the COI on the DPRK. Very few such human rights reports for the United Nations have achieved such high levels of support and approbation in the Human Rights Council.
These issues are typically controversial because countries (especially those fearful of criticism of their own bad human rights records) tend to oppose country specific inquiries.
Notwithstanding this, the follow-up to the report of the DPRK COI has been remarkably strong. It has led on three occasions to the issues being placed before the Security Council. This is itself unusual.
The most recent unanimous resolution of the UN Security Council, imposing increased economic sanctions on the DPRK, indicates that China and the Russian Federation are deeply concerned about the nuclear armament program of the DPRK.
Not only is this a risk to regional and international peace and security, it is also a risk and a danger to universal human rights in the region and the world. The engagement of the UN Security Council is reassuring.
However, so far, the UN Security Council has not taken up the recommendation of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly that the situation of human rights in the DPRK should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The uncertainties in the political situation in a number of important countries at the beginning of 2017 make this a time of danger
A Group of Experts has been established by UNHCR to give further consideration to ways and means of achieving accountability for human rights breaches (especially crimes against humanity) found to have been committed by the DPRK.
How much, as far as you know, have attitudes towards the leadership shifted inside the country since Kim Jong Un took power? Do you think there is a higher chance of popular dissent as there was five years ago?
Because North Korea is effectively a closed society, it is not possible to measure precisely levels of dissent – as would be possible in more open societies.
However, it is possible to assess the access that is being gained to broadcasting from outside the DPRK and the increased availability of mobile phones, including some with internet access.
Time is not on the side of the efforts of the government of the DPRK to close off indefinitely access to information concerning the outside world and the views held by the outside world about the conditions of life in the country. Very high levels of the population have had access to radio broadcasts and popular television DVDs from the Republic of Korea.
The BBC has recently decided to reopen a Korea radio program. This is to be welcomed because of the high reputation of that service for reliability and accuracy.
The harsh controls reported in the COI report, presumably, continue to deny the people in the DPRK opportunities of ordinary self-expression and political expression. The lack of accountability and of the checks and balances of a modern government make the DPRK an even greater danger because of its development of nuclear warheads; intercontinental ballistic missiles; and submarine delivery systems.
The uncertainties in the political situation in a number of important countries at the beginning of 2017 make this a time of danger and of renewed focus on both security issues and those affecting fundamental human rights.
Featured Image: Michael Kirby, Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK by US Mission Geneva on 2014-03-17 12:40:51