North Korea’s human rights situation is a major international problem, and the United Nations has adopted resolutions criticizing the country’s treatment of its people regularly since the early 2000s.
But too often the country’s security risk trumps the human rights issue, with international criticism of Pyongyang focusing on the ballistic missiles, not on political prison camps or the severe limits it places on the personal freedoms of its citizens.
Justice Michael Kirby and the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from 2013 to 2014 hoped to change all this, with its stark concluding message that the North Korean government had committed crimes against humanity.
Building upon an interview with NK News earlier in the year, Kirby, who is in South Korea to discuss developments surrounding North Korean human rights, says he is still convinced of the importance of free information in solving the North Korean human rights problem and the role the UN can play in improving the lives of the North Korean people.
In an extended conversation with NK News, Kirby also discussed recent developments on the Korean Peninsula: the election of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month, the arrests in April and May of two employees of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a proposed ban by the U.S. Congress of American tourism to the country, and whether the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) would be help – or hinder – progress.
NK News: It’s been a few years now since the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) was completed. How would you characterize the change, if any, in North Korean human rights since then?
Michael Kirby: I don’t think we can point to any particular change. [North Korea] did agree recently to receive a mandate-holder of the Human Rights Council on the issue of disability. They had already begun making progress on the treatment of people with disabilities.
They apparently didn’t permit disabled people to be seen on the streets of Pyongyang. However, that does appear to have changed; they have signed but not ratified the Convention on Disability [editor’s note: North Korea actually ratified the convention on December 6 last year], and they did agree to a mandate-holder of the UN Rights Council on Disabled Persons to visit North Korea.
The Russian ambassador told us very early in her mandate on the COI, “when they do something good, praise them.” So I praise them for signing, but not yet ratifying, the Disabilities Convention and for apparently agreeing to allow the mandate-holder, and I hope they follow that up by allowing the other mandate-holder on human rights to come and do what they refused to allow the COI to do: mainly to check for ourselves on the complaints that we received in abundance from North Korean refugees.
“Without human rights there will be no lasting and safe peace in this peninsula and therefore in this region, and therefore on our planet.”
NK News: What do you think is stopping North Korean authorities from allowing you to make those kinds of inquiries?
Michael Kirby: Of course I no longer hold a mandate nor does the COI. The COI concluded when it presented its report to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. Since then, however, I have been invited on numerous occasions to go to conferences and to events around the world because the international community is deeply concerned about the issues in North Korea and the issue of human rights is certainly one of the most, if not the most important issue.
Since our report, the other great issue of security in North Korea and in the region has become much more pressing, much more visible. The conduct of four nuclear tests, the conduct of missile systems and the launch of missiles allegedly from submarines, and the maintenance of the third largest standing army in the world are all reasons for being deeply concerned about the perilous situation in North Korea.
But the point of my visit on this occasion is to remind Korean friends of the COI that you cannot deal effectively with security issues without dealing at the same time with human rights issues. Without human rights there will be no lasting and safe peace in this peninsula and therefore in this region, and therefore on our planet. The situation has become very dangerous and that’s why it must be addressed by people who are experts in peace and security and weapon control, but the underlying problem of human rights remains. And my job is to continue to press for attention by the international community and by North Korea to those problems.
NK News: One billion dollars is the amount it is costing to move the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system into South Korea. But if one billion dollars was spent on information going into North Korea, what kind of difference could that make?
Michael Kirby: It is true that there is a need to step up the provision of information to the people of North Korea about, for example, the United Nations report.
North Korea is a member of the United Nations, it doesn’t have to be a member of the United Nations; it signed the Charter and signing the Charter obliged it to cooperate with the sanction activities if the United Nations and yet it didn’t do so, and still doesn’t do so. It doesn’t permit access online to the report of the COI and to the public hearings which the COI conducted.
If as North Korea says the witnesses are tainted and unreliable, let the people of North Korea see them and judge for themselves. If there are no human rights problems in North Korea, they can’t now let the COI in because we have finished our mandate, but they could certainly invite members of the COI as private individuals or invite members of the COI as a group. I’m sure if they did that, the Human Rights Council would revive their mandate and send us in. I have always indicated that I would be prepared to go in, no preconditions and engage with them.
On radio, my understanding is that there is a pretty good provision of radio information to North Korea and it is available round the clock. No doubt that could be improved.
Giving information to the people of North Korea is one of the faults that we found in our report about the current administration. It denies the people of North Korea access to information; it denies the access to the internet, which is kind of basic right for young people, who we find it difficult to imagine them without the internet. It allows them access to an intranet, which is attempting to make the demand for internet, but it doesn’t permit anything like access to information.
What have they got to fear? Why are they so afraid of information? Why do they prosecute people for having South Korean soap operas in their possession? They do so because on those soap operas in the background are the signs of a vibrant economically developed and energetic Korean community, which is devastating information for the regime in North Korea.
There was a very good article in The Economist last week about the impact of the British establishment of the railway lines in India and it pointed to the fact that once you release people from a district and connect them to a nation and a world, you enormously increase their economic potential.
So this loss of information is not only a human rights issue, it is a definite economic issue which is connected with human rights. And until they open up, they are going to be an impoverished poor half of a peninsula, the southern part of which is a road ahead and is such a contrast – look at the contrast of the last few months; the contrast between a rule of law society which is, however painfully, working through the steps that are required constitutionally in affecting the highest office of the state.
Contrast that with his small self-appointed elite who deny their people human rights, and influentially do so in order to protect those people from having too much contact with their family that lives in the south. If you stop and think about it, it is above bizarre a situation and it hasn’t got better as a result of the COI report, I’m afraid.
NK News: One of the things being seriously considered in the United States right now is a travel ban by all U.S. nationals to the DPRK – because of recent events focused on arrests of U.S. visitors there. What’s your opinion of halting travel by Americans to North Korea at this time?
Michael Kirby: My opinion is the opinion of a private individual. Whenever I was asked during the course of the inquiry under the COI, ‘do you think we should stop the tourism, given that it isn’t really tourism, the answer that I previously gave was that there is an advantage in North Korean people seeing people from western countries and in particular Koreans. Because that helps to allay the fear that somehow these are foreign devils, wicked people who only want to drag down and destroy their society.
Therefore lack of familiarity, lack of contact is an environment in which you can build all kinds of fears and hatred because contact or even just seeing people and looking at the common humanity shared with the people of North Korea can be an advantage. And I remain of that view. You shouldn’t go there thinking it is tourism but just seeing and being seen is a link of some kind.
Now in the case on American citizens, it is true that there has been a series of arrests – a couple of months doesn’t go by but there is somebody else with an American passport who gets themselves into trouble. And if they don’t deliberately get themselves into trouble, they are got into trouble.
It is true that some of them have done rather foolish types of things like pulling down a poster for which huge prison sentences that are ridiculously disproportionate are imposed. So the Americans have to sort that out and work out whether the trouble that is then caused, the risks, the pressure that is then put politically on the American government to surrender ground in order to retrieve the citizens are just too much and it is better to stop American tourists. But that doesn’t stop other countries which are not quite so exposed to send their personnel.
It does seem that a number of the American people have connections with religious organizations then are a bit inclined to press the envelop a bit and that gives an excuse to North Korea to arrest them and then to put demands for their surrender. But recently, two of those who’d been seized have been teachers in the elite university that was established and North Korea may find that if they start arresting them, then they are destroying the opportunity of links to technological and other information which as a state that is hoping to develop, they need. But that, in turn, is something that the Americans in so far as the American citizens are concerned, have to work out for themselves.
NK News: U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson has made suggestions to the effect that countries should look to either part or downgrade diplomatic ties with DPRK to send a message at this time. Can this kind of thing help, in your opinion?
Michael Kirby: I’m not sure that that is a wise thing. Having opportunities for people-to-people contact was one of the themes in the COI report. It never got too much publicity in the coverage because the media likes to build up the animosities because that makes the news. But we recommended that there should be increased contact of sporting teams, increased contact of universities, increased contact between families, telephone, postal, and other contacts.
So, person-to-person contacts are the type of things that should happen. I think it is actually quite interesting to look at the advent of President Moon and his suggestions against the background of the similar arrival in Germany of Chancellor Willy Brandt with his Ostpolitik. I think that is something that should now be studied very closely because although it is not an entirely analogous situation – certainly the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was not at the time developing extremely dangerous nuclear weapons – but following the advent of Willy Brandt as Chancellor they did permit the reopening of diplomatic relations with countries which had recognized DDR.
“There is an advantage in North Korean people seeing people from western countries”
Germany, until then, had a policy that countries of the Soviet bloc except the Soviet Union who recognized DDR could not recognize the German Federal Republic. But Willy Brandt went to Warsaw, he knelt in the snow as a German to seek forgiveness for the war, he accepted the Oder–Neisse boundary which had been accepted by the DDR with the Polish government as the eastern border of Germany and then there opened up links between museums and other professional links.
I think people should be looking very closely at that chapter in German history to see what lessons it bears for the Korean situation. It won’t be exactly parallel and so far every attempt to reopen contact has been rebuffed, but I think there would be lessons in Ostpolitik.
NK News: With all of the condemnation of North Korea’s special weapons programs and the way that Kim Jong Un rules the country, despite the COI recommendations you summarized for us, there is increasing reticence from donors, universities, and institutions to engage with DPRK. How do you feel about that?
Michael Kirby: Well, I don’t feel this is news. This has been so now for some time but there is a new ingredient in the formula and that is the advent of a democratically elected president of the Republic of Korea who is minded to try something else.
Let’s be frank; we haven’t had glorious victories under the strategy that has been adopted up to now. And in our talks amongst ourselves as members of the COI, we often said we must achieve at least the closure of the detention camps; we must have something which we can achieve and say that was achieved by the COI.
We haven’t achieved it and not speaking, not talking, and not engaging has not been crowned with a lot of successes.
In the meantime, some very dangerous elements have entered into the picture and it is against the background of those very dangerous elements that we now have a new president who, whatever you or I think about it, has been elected on the mandate that indicates that he is going to explore other options. And I think it is going to be a matter of waiting and seeing what is done.
But if that is what he is minded to do, and if he can get that support through the institutional procedures of the Republic of Korea, then I think there would be lessons to be drawn from what happened in the case of the German reunification – though it is a very different situation and even there it took twenty years and then it only happened because of changes internal to the Soviet Union.
But nonetheless, there were steps taken by Germany itself and they were apt to the relationship of Germany with its neighbors other than DDR but they were taken and they were part of the chronicle that led to reunification and to freedom in Germany.
NK News: I recently interviewed the Syrian ambassador to North Korea. When I asked him about human rights and his view of the situation both in DPRK and Syria, he said he felt there was a double standard, bringing up the example of Saudi Arabia. What would your response to that line of argument be when it comes to the spotlight on human rights issues?
Michael Kirby: Not only do I no longer have a mandate for the United Nations but I never had a mandate for Syria. Previously in 1993-1996 I had a mandate for Cambodia and all I can say is that in the case both of Cambodia and of North Korea, everything that I asked the UN to do, it endeavored to do and the votes in the then Human Rights Commission –now Human Rights Council in the case of DPRK – were overwhelming in favor of the recommendations by the board, which was set up without even a vote. That was how it is the only COI that was ever established without a vote. That was the stake that the United Nations members had come to. Likewise, the votes in the General Assembly and even getting the matter on the agenda of the Security Council, an almost unheard of development in the human rights problem. All of this showed the United Nations working as it should.
I understand that you can criticize other mandates – they may be connected with geopolitical concerns and they may be subject to criticism, I don’t know. But in the case of DPRK, it is as the COI said ‘uniquely worrying’ from the point of view of human rights and now from the point of view also of peace and security. And that means that whatever our attitudes to other problems, this is a uniquely troubling point of crisis that has to be addressed by the international community because just going along with business as usual is really not an option.
It is something that requires fresh thinking and it would be a terrible thing if anybody thought you could have a nice little nuclear war in this part of the world. The modeling that has been done on nuclear conflict indicates that even if the smallest nuclear confrontation broke out, it would have devastating effects for the global food supply and millions would die.
Therefore, this is not a case where you can stumble your way into a war with lots of opportunities to draw back. This is a case which is extremely perilous and it will not be less perilous until the fundamental underlying problem is dealt with, which is of a regime that is fundamentally contemptuous of the human rights of its own people.
NK News: What’s your biggest fear right now with regards to the North Korean human rights issue?
Michael Kirby: My biggest fear is that nothing much will happen and that will lead to the situation continuing – in what must be intuitively considered a tinderbox – and that that will be negative for the Korean peninsula and its people.
Don’t forget these are all family – the North and South Korean people are the same people. Historically, they were governed for two millennia as a unit, even during the Japanese colonial period. They were never divided by decision of the Korean people, they were divided by the decision of the Allied powers in Cairo in 1943. We are now wrestling with a problem that is one of the last outcomes of the division of the world on the brink of the Cold War.
In the case of DPRK, it is, as the COI said, “uniquely worrying”
NK News: And yet here in South Korea there are human rights issues as well, the National Security Law for example, which prohibits people from viewing North Korean websites and newspapers. What more should be done in South Korea, in your opinion, when it comes to helping South Koreans understand their distant family in the North?
Michael Kirby: I think some of those laws may need to be changed. Security laws in many countries may need to be changed but in South Korea in as so far as they prevent communication and people-to-people contact such as the COI recommended, they should be modified and moderated. Because if you don’t communicate, if you don’t talk with each other, then you can’t be blamed for misunderstanding each other.
However, there are many issues in this and there are a lot of players and this is being looked at the very highest level by the most powerful political leaders of the world. And everybody understands that this is a big challenge – and not just for the North Korea component – but for what it teaches us on how we are going to handle issues of human rights and issues of peace and security in the future with other players.
That is why it is appropriate that civil society and others should be thinking very closely about it, political parties should be thinking, there should be open debate and there should be willingness to think new thoughts. You won’t get that in North Korea but you will get it in South Korea and that’s a sign of a healthy democratic country.
NK News: South Korea is currently talking about the prospects of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex which was a site, as I’m sure you know, where thousands of North Koreans were working. In the last two years the overseas laborers issue has really emerged as one of the major human rights concerns within the international community. What is the best way to deal with this issue?
Michael Kirby: From my point of view, the best way to deal with it is the human rights way to make sure that if there is a reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex; (a) that it is not done as a free kick but it is done as part of an overall accommodation of some kind between the two Koreas that ensures that there is progress on human rights in North Korea.
And (b) that the human rights of the North Korea workers are protected.
The COI didn’t examine that issue but we did raise it with a number of the delegates. We raised it with the Russian Federation because of the reports of laborers going in and clearing timber in Russia but we couldn’t get information on the subject.
“Cutting North Korea off completely is not a good way to go”
But since our report, there has been much more information about the actual arrangements under which workers worked in Kaesong and in the Gulf states where they go as laborers and that they don’t get the salaries themselves, the salaries are paid to the state.
And I understand that was the reason President Park ultimately decided to close Kaesong, because it was becoming a source of hard currency for North Korea which it was then plowing back into its weapons program.
NK News: So, peace and security trump the human rights benefits of the labor?
Michael Kirby: There is a human rights benefit; people are working with South Korean families and they are seeing the advantages, they are seeing people they respect and depend on for income and who overall treat them correctly. So there is a human rights advantage, but the question is whether that is outweighed by the disadvantages and that’s something that the ROK government is going to have to deal with. I think that is a matter for them and I don’t have the confidence and the legitimacy to be commenting on what they should do but the three things I have mentioned have to be taken into account as they approach a decision.
As in most things in life, in international affairs there are always arguments, but you just have to weigh the pros and the cons.
But cutting North Korea off completely is not a good way to go. Their strength may be their very considerable scientific and technological skill that they have been demonstrating but their weakness is a society that disrespects their citizens, that has autocratic and completely outmoded form of government and it is ignoring the international community’s near unanimous demand that they do things to deal with the unparalleled depravation of human rights that the COI revealed.
I certainly agree with one thing you said earlier that we should be doing better with communication. I have always been saying I don’t see why this report should not be at every airport. It is readable – I took really big pains to make sure every word of it is readable, there is no passive voice, it is written in short sentences and it is clear. There’s never been a UN report like it.
The UN was very good at organizing the COI and getting everything done, the airline tickets, people going, the venues, and so on. But actually getting it out and publishing it in an attractive way is not its forte.
We won’t get another review of human rights in DPRK at least for another twenty years and that’s why it would be a good thing, with all the money that is spent on armaments and all the money that is spent on propaganda, this is a neutral, factual report, the strength of which is, every second page has a quote from somebody who is giving their experience. And no person like me can ever write a report as powerful as the voice of the people who have been oppressed because their call for freedom and for justice and for human rights is tremendously powerful.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and Vincent Choi
Featured Image: NK News
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