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View more articles by Joanna Hosaniak
Joanna Hosaniak is a deputy director general of the Seoul-based NGO, Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR)
North Korea has recently undertaken a flurry of activities with the United Nations human rights bodies in recent months. In October and November, the country submitted itself to reviews of the children and women’s rights situation in the country, something which may raise eyebrows since the country routinely resorts to non-cooperation, rejection, and denial of its grave human rights record at UN fora.
Why do they bother to engage, then? In context, these activities are in line with the North Korean concept of “engagement,” which is viewed as a strategic move and not as a fulfillment of legal obligations on the North Korean side.
The DPRK voluntarily ratified various human rights treaties even before becoming an official member state of the United Nations in 1991. The voluntary aspect should be emphasized: nobody forced North Korea to become a member of the UN, let alone to uphold universal international human rights standards, which are criticized by some states as reflecting “Western” concepts.
The move by the UN to accept both Koreas simultaneously was reportedly a South Korean proposal to resolve a stalemate despite North Korean objections, as it would sanction the independent nature of the two separate states. In contrast to North Korea however, the South Korean state did not even try to ratify major human rights instruments until the early 1990s, when it was undergoing democratic transition, likely considering that the human rights situation would be exposed by its active domestic civil society.
For North Korea, however, the ratification of core UN covenants on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights as early as 1981 brought no immediate consequences. I doubt that North Korea, given its isolation, fully understood what the scrutiny of the human rights situation would entail. The country had no independent civil society to challenge the state version of the situation on the ground, so Pyongyang must have considered such a move to be risk-free.
These activities are in line with the North Korean concept of “engagement,” which is viewed as a strategic move and not as a fulfillment of legal obligations on the North Korean side
In fact, North Korea did succeed in flying under the radar until the first scrutiny by NGOs and the UN came in 1997. North Korea immediately tried to withdraw itself from the UN Civil and Political Rights Covenant but was informed that doing so was not possible. The attempt, however, speaks volumes about North Korea’s logic of using ratifications as a strategic move.
Since withdrawal was not legally possible and scrutiny at the UN was only growing, North Korea used another method of rebellion: it stopped submitting reports and undergoing reviews by the human rights treaty bodies, even though the country had earlier accepted this obligation by ratifying human rights instruments.
But by 2014, North Korea’s image had hit the ground after a report published by the UN Commission of Inquiry. UN resolutions criticizing North Korea’s human rights record were repeatedly adopted by consensus because even North Korea’s allies were too embarrassed to publicly call for a vote, so the DPRK decided to “re-engage.”
Yet in November 2017 at a public meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), while there were dozens of non-governmental organizations and human rights institutions from other countries, only two NGOs there spoke about the situation of women in North Korea – whom were both from South Korea.
In fact, one of the North Korean delegates from the National Court asked: “What on earth is marital rape?”
There was not a single North Korean NGO, human rights commission, or ombudsman in attendance, even though the DPRK claimed in its official report and during the review that it had mass membership in a civil society organization called the Women’s Democratic Union. By this, North Korea surely meant its Women’s League, a state-operated institution with obligatory membership.
Yet what was most surprising during the review was that North Korea had not changed its strategy at all. It had simply learned nothing. As in the past, it claimed that it did not have several problems common in other countries, such as domestic violence or a single case of AIDS. In fact, one of the North Korean delegates from the National Court asked the CEDAW expert: “What on earth is marital rape?” He and other North Korean reportedly did not understand the concept.
If North Korean government officials and legal experts do not know what certain concepts even mean, how do they know such issues do not exist in North Korea? If North Koreans wanted to show their surprise because these phenomena allegedly do not occur in their country, then they chose the wrong theater. By purporting to implement the CEDAW’s convention, they should at least know relevant definitions relating to discrimination, or violence against women, addressed by the CEDAW.
Acting in this way only illustrated the ignorance of the North Korean government and its bureaucrats. These officials would have surely benefited from technical cooperation with the UN if the North Korean government had not consistently rejected it for years.
By showing up, North Korea counts on the simple fact that it will be praised for “human rights engagement” and not judged for the poor content of their official report on women’s rights, not to mention their lack of reliable statistics, failure to produce requested materials, and embarrassing responses to not one but two human rights committees. Both sets of proceedings can now be viewed online.
North Korea will surely use the fact that it submitted the reports – which were only 10 years late – to claim goodwill and engagement, as if it was doing an honor to the international community by appearing for what should be regular scrutiny by the bodies monitoring obligations that the DPRK voluntarily accepted a long time ago.
But when government officials do not even try to understand important concepts in human rights, not to mention actually implement human rights policies, it is hard to imagine that the average citizen in North Korea can understand what human rights concepts even mean, let alone monitor his or her own government for non-fulfillment of its human rights legal obligations.
Edited by Bryan Betts