The past year has seen a series of seemingly conflicting developments in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. January 2014 saw the release of a disturbing report by the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), which has had huge ramifications for North Korea throughout 2014 and into the early months of 2015. The report documented severe limitations on basic human rights and freedoms including freedom of expression and freedom of movement, horrific living and working conditions, especially in forced labour camps such as the kwan-li-so camps, as well as accounts of starvation, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and extermination. On March 28, 2014 the HRC adopted a resolution in support of the COI’s report urging the international community to hold Kim Jong-Un’s regime accountable for its human rights atrocities. The HRC has since named North Korea one of the grossest current human rights violators in the world.
North Korea carried on, business as usual, until the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in October 2014. At the talks, North Korea was harshly criticised and the UN threatened to put North Korean officials on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. Suddenly, North Korea’s tune changed and North Korean diplomats attended an unprecedented meeting with Marzuki Darusman, the HRC Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea. North Korea appears to have instituted several policy reforms as a result of this increased scrutiny. The Korean People’s Army vice-marshal Hwang Pyong So visited Seoul in October 2014–the highest-level talks between North and South Korea since 2007. The government also announced it would honour its commitments to abide by international standards on anti-money laundering and terrorist financing in mid-January 2015. Unfortunately these changes are only superficial; the past year has seen a greatly confused North Korean foreign policy.
No cases provide better examples of inconsistent foreign policy than North Korea’s dealings with South Korea and China. The two Koreas have a long, turbulent history. The 1950-1953 Korean War has a huge impact on the populations of both countries and many families were torn apart by the conflict. Technically, the two countries are still at war since the Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace agreement. South Korea appears very eager to engage in inter-Korean talks and this is a sentiment that North Korea has repeatedly taken advantage of, which has been very evident this past year.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex, located right along the North-South Korean border, is often considered an indicator of North-South relations overall. The development of the complex began in 2003, mainly financed by South Korea as a way to help the North’s troubled economy and hopefully facilitate cooperation between the North and South. The Complex mainly contains South Korean companies while the vast majority of employees are North Korean, and this is one of the few remaining forms of peaceful interaction. In 2013, North Korea launched a long-range rocket and completed an underground nuclear test, leading to the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex for five months. The closure of the complex was devastating to South Korean companies, as well as to the South Korean government who had offered political risk insurance to companies to encourage investment. However, the complex is also a major source of income for Kim Jong-Un’s regime. This past December, North Korea unilaterally increased the “wages” that the North Korean government receives from the complex without consulting with South Korea even though the complex is meant to be jointly regulated. Since the 2013 closure meant there was no increase that year, the North Korean government claims it is taking what it is owed. Despite being a mutually beneficial venture, Kaesong Industrial Complex is certainly subject to political pressures; the North Korean government uses the complex for leverage in its dealings with the South since the South wishes to avoid another closure if at all possible.
North Korea has also made attempts to exert control over the South by insisting on January 3rd of this year that South Korea lift economic sanctions it imposed on North Korea in May 2010 as a precondition for continuing inter-Korean negotiations. These assertive policies beg the question of whether Hwang Pyong So’s recent visit to Seoul was just to maintain appearances or if North Korea is at all committed to, or even interested in, achieving a North-South settlement. It would not be out of character for North Korea to participate in international diplomacy for appearances; despite the country’s long list of crimes against its people, North Korea has surprisingly ratified four key international human rights treaties including the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The country’s Socialist Constitution even contains an entire chapter dedicated to the “Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens” with Article 64 guaranteeing “genuine democratic rights and liberties as well as the material and cultural well-being of all its citizens” and Article 75 stipulating freedom of movement.
Of note, North Korea’s relationship with China, its strongest ally, seems to have hit some rocks this past year. It seems that even China has become weary and wary of some of North Korea’s policies. The Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye recently reiterated their disapproval of the North Korean nuclear weapons program in July 2014. Attempts to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have been at a standstill for years. To date, North Korea has completed three nuclear tests, and could potentially be in the process of developing long-range missiles. Reporters have also interpreted the visit as a major snub to North Korea since President Xi would normally visit the North Korean capital of Pyongyang before visiting Seoul, but this time elected to fly to Seoul first.
Mere days following these events, Pyongyang fired two short-range missiles into the ocean, marking the fourth test in a matter of weeks. The test fires may have been a warning to South Korea and China. However, even as North Korea warns of the potential consequences of these actions, the government must bear in mind it needs to tread carefully to remain on friendly terms with China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner. While China has many potential allies and trading partners as an economic heavyweight, North Korea is extremely limited in its options and faces international isolation.
On 21 March 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a step towards trilateral cooperation by meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. This is the first meeting of its kind between the three countries in almost three years. South Korea and China both have tense relationships with Japan, blaming Japan for territorial disputes and resenting Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its involvement in the Second World War. It ought to trigger alarm bells for North Korea; if China is willing to put aside its differences with Japan, this could potentially signal a more distant policy towards North Korea. North Korea is not on good terms with both South Korea and Japan, and has blamed the two countries for condemning the North Korean government for its human rights crimes.
However, in many ways the Chinese government has maintained its support of North Korea. Tight border controls continued on the North Korea-China border in 2014, making the already difficult task of fleeing North Korea and seeking refuge abroad almost impossible. For the few North Koreans who manage to escape to China, their obstacles do not stop there. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 and 2015 Reports, the Chinese government labels North Koreans in China as “illegal economic migrants” and often repatriates them. By doing so, the Chinese government completely neglects the obligations present in the 1951 Refugee Convention and accompanying 1967 protocol, to which China is a party. China is obligated to offer protection to refugees; however, the Chinese government has denied the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to North Korean nationals who have escaped to China. Upon repatriation, these North Korean citizens face certain punishment, and for the returnees suspected of partaking in religious or political activities while abroad, lengthy sentences in the kyo-hwa-so correctional, re-education camps, are generously doled out.
Refusing to recognise refugee status for North Korean escapees is definitely not the only way China has shielded North Korea from the critical eyes of the international community. China also denied commissioners from the COI who were investigating North Korea’s human rights violations access in 2013 and well into 2014. Meanwhile South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the United States, and the United Kingdom all cooperated and granted access to the commissioners.
In order to keep China as an ally, it may become necessary for North Korea to make some concessions in terms of nuclear testing. However, it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-Un’s aggressive regime will agree to abstain from further nuclear tests in the near future.
Parallel to all of these events, North Korea’s problems have been compounded by reactions to the November 2014 Sony hacking. Back in June of 2014, a spokesperson of the North Korean foreign ministry stated that the release of the Sony comedy film, The Interview, would be an “act of terrorism and war” which would lead to “merciless retaliation”. The Interview is a satire of North Korea and its central plotline involves the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) enlisting the help of a television producer and television personality for a mission to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The film was set to be released in October 2014 but after North Korea sent several threats to theatres in order to discourage them from screening the film, and several embarrassing and damaging emails were published, the release was pushed back to December 2014.
The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims to have found the North Korean government guilty of the Sony hacking but Pyongyang has suddenly backtracked, denying responsibility despite earlier threats. Nonetheless, North Korea continues to praise the attackers. It seems that North Korea’s policy is again confused; on one hand the government threatened to retaliate when the reputation of their country was at risk and applauds the attackers, yet on the other hand it is not gutsy enough to actually take ownership of the attack after the fact. In response, on January 2, 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order allowing the United States to substantially increase financial sanctions on North Korean individuals and companies, as well as people who provide economic assistance or support to certain North Korean parties.
North Korea frequently wavers between sending strong political messages- for example, its missile testing- and trying to appease the international community just enough to avoid further danger and collapse. North Korea’s foreign policy may only become more confused as it struggles to avoid further economic sanctions and possibly the International Criminal Court, all in a revised world order where the regional powers of China, Japan, and South Korea could potentially align. North Korea is having an identity crisis. As external pressures continue to mount, Kim Jong-Un’s regime will finally have to choose what kind of country it wants to lead.