On the 17th of February, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released a 400-page document detailing “wide-ranging and ongoing crimes against humanity”[i] by the North Korean state against its population. The report consists of testimonies and interviews from victims and witnesses of crimes that include, but are by no means limited to, “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”[ii]. The Commission has called for several reactive measures in the wake of pronouncing systemic and endemic violations of human rights in North Korea. However, the obstacles that such resolutions would face may prove to be too great to overcome.
There has been an increasing awareness by the wider international community of the atrocities occurring within the North Korean state. This may be due in part to the successes of investigative journalism, and in part to the North Korean defectors who have escaped and worked with organisations, both on the government and non-governmental level, to raise awareness of the reality of the situation in North Korea today. With unparalleled state opacity, this is likely to be the only way in which outsiders obtain information. The Commission continues in the tradition of interviewing defectors, victims, and witnesses. The yearlong process that began with the Commission of Inquiry in March 2013 has resulted in a report that some consider “remarkable in the fierceness of its condemnation”[iii]. The document cites issues including the impunity of political leaders leading to the difficulties in establishing permanent policy change. Further still, the Commission has called for North Korea’s political leaders, whom they deem personally responsible, to be tried and prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. This has led to speculation that Kim Jong Un may himself be targeted by the ICC.
Unsurprisingly, North Korea has publicly condemned the report, considering it to be full of falsified information. However, perhaps more surprising has been the association drawn by the Commission between North Korea’s human rights violations and the People’s Republic of China. The Commission sent a letter to the People’s Republic of China warning that a lack of cooperation would be seen as “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity”[iv]. Following a lengthy correspondence with the Permanent Mission to the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office, permission was not granted for the Commission to access Chinese lands bordering North Korea[v]. Sino-North Korean relations have been the source of much speculation and criticism. Of particular interest here is their policy on forced repatriation –that is, any North Korean caught crossing the border to China illegally is sent back to North Korea, where they are almost certainly executed or sentenced to lengthy terms in the state’s notorious prison camps.
China has responded to the Commission’s report by “brushing it off as ‘unreasonable criticism’”[vi]. With China’s history of non-cooperation in the realm of human rights, it is thus unsurprising that there has been a lack of assistance in the North Korean context. This is of particular relevance as China has a vested interest in ensuring stable peripheral relations with the DPRK, particularly with growing hostility over territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines, to name but a few. China’s criticism of the UN report has led to growing concern that they will veto further action in the Security Council. At the time of writing, no official statement on China’s ability to veto action against North Korea has been released. This brings several questions to the fore concerning the efficacy of the United Nations Security Council and its ‘Permanent 5’ – China, Russia, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom all hold the power to veto any potential resolutions.
The permanent 5 members of the Security Council have the ability to veto resolutions in order to protect their interests as a state as well as their interests abroad. However, this may in turn lead to the prevention of resolutions that are in the interests of the greater international community ever being passed. Such fears have been expressed over China and its interests with North Korea and Syria. However, a brief glance into the history of veto use tells a somewhat different story. China has used their veto power 6 times since 1946, less than any of the other Permanent 5 members[vii]. This is not to argue that vetoing actions against North Korea are not a display of national self-interest at the expense of the protection of human rights. What it does serve to show, however, is that this is indeed a statistic demonstrating that it is not a growing trend.
Whilst the yearlong investigation conducted by the Commission has brought to the fore issues that clearly require intervention on a humanitarian level. The commission has further outlined the way in which such intervention may proceed, with the prosecution of North Korean state officials by the International Criminal Court. However, with their closest ally, China, holding a permanent seat on the Security Council, it is unlikely that the actions suggested by the Commission are ever to be realised. As a result, we must therefore question the efficacy of a system that allows stronger states to prevent humanitarian intervention when seen to be out with their national interest.