Tipping the scales? – not yet
20 Feb 2014|

Justice Michael Kirby has a long ‘to do’ list for Kim Jong-un.

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, chaired by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, released its report on Monday. It concludes that North Korea has committed ‘crimes against humanity’, including public executions, enforced disappearances, starvation, torture and sexual violence. Among the 19 recommendations for North Korea, the report calls upon the DPRK to undertake political and institutional reforms, dismantle political prison camps, and realign resources from the military to feed the population. It also has recommendations for China and the international community including referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A letter from Kirby to Kim Jong-un also indicated that the Supreme Leader himself may be held personally accountable for some of the crimes.

But don’t hold your breath, as the DPRK won’t act on the report. In the short term, its closest friend in the form of China won’t either. But that’s not necessarily the case in the long run—this is another example of the DPRK being a liability for China.

The report asks the Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC, but China has all but indicated it’ll veto such action. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the report ‘unreasonable criticism’ and said: ‘We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country’s human rights situation.’ The report and its findings are no doubt unwelcomed by China, which was rotated off the Human Rights Council during the year the Commission of Inquiry was approved. Unsurprisingly, North Korea also totally rejects the report’s findings.

So, if China (and possibly Russia) prevents Kim Jong-un and others from making a trip to The Hague, what impact will the report have?

The immediate worth of the report is to shine a light on human rights in North Korea when international attention has been dominated by the country’s nuclear and missile programs. These programs have attracted considerable diplomatic investment and political negotiation—leaving human rights to take a back seat—and have regrettably been linked with the provision of humanitarian aid. In some cases, sanctions imposed on North Korea to curb the weapons programs have had unintended adverse impacts on aid agencies, further compounding the humanitarian situation. So, the report is important for bringing the issue of human rights in North Korea to the fore.

Longer term, the report will place China under greater pressure and scrutiny. There are several recommendations in the report for China—which it won’t appreciate and likely not implement. But the international reaction to the report may make China revaluate its relationship with the DPRK and the regime’s worth to Beijing.

The fact that human rights atrocities are continuing under Kim Jong-un and drawing the world spotlight onto North Korea and, by default, China, will aggravate  Beijing. China will feel greater pressure from the UN and from countries in the region to do more to support North Korean refugees. ANU Professor Tessa Morris Suzuki has argued that the report should be used as the basis for ‘a careful and diplomatic campaign to persuade China to stop returning refugees to North Korea’. Professor Morris Suzuki says Australia could be part of this process by offering refugees asylum. This would be a valuable initiative of Australia and others, but be warned: China won’t be happy. The prospect of being resettled in Australia or elsewhere would encourage others to cross the border and undermine the control of the Kim regime—no doubt the reasoning behind China’s current policy of returning asylum seekers.

North Korea’s human rights violations are inextricably linked with the longevity of the totalitarian regime. Improving humanitarian conditions in the country could lead to North Koreans gaining greater wealth, mobility, and access to outside information. With greater awareness of their comparative poverty and mistreatment, dissatisfaction would grow in the population, leading to instability, and potentially regime change. Right now, it’s not in China’s national interest that regime change take place in North Korea. North Korea is still seen as a valuable buffer; Kim Jong-un’s continued rule is preventing a refugee crisis; and China still has numerous domestic reasons to uphold the principal of non-interference over upholding human rights. Until the North Korean regime loses its strategic value to China, implementing the UN report’s recommendations will be stymied.

While the UN report mightn’t compel China to act now, it may have the effect of adding pressure to Beijing that might influence a future policy shift. There are already signs that North Korea could be sacrificing its strategic value to China, by ignoring warnings against conducting nuclear and missile tests and engaging in terrorist-style tactics such as holding Chinese fishermen ransom. Hopefully, this UN report adds weight to tip the scales in favour of China recognising the North Korean regime as a strategic liability and paves the way for more meaningful action in halting the suffering of millions.

Hayley Channer is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user sunface13.