Wanted Policy Change Toward North Korea

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

blog.ezinemark.comBy Katsuhro Asagiri
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

TOKYO (IDN) - While the 'Pyongyangologists' are studying the emerging power equations in North Korea and the mainstream media has been reporting the elaborate state funeral of Kim Jong Il, scant attention has been paid to the abysmal human rights situation in the country, which inevitably calls for constructive intervention.

The dilemma of Pyongyangologists and foreign intelligence agencies was characterised by the fact that they failed to detect Kim Jong-Il's death, underlining just how little is known about the ongoings behind the North Korean iron curtain.


"All countries including China, North Korea's primary ally, appeared to have been in the dark until a tearful television presenter made the announcement, on Monday (December 19), two days after the 69-year-old 'Dear Leader' was said to have died," reported the Bangkok Times.

Subsequently, North Korea's neighbours and the United States, which is treaty-bound to defend South Korea and Japan, are watching warily as the impoverished, isolated and heavily armed nation comes under the rule of his young son Kim Jong-Un, the newspaper reported.

Kim family rule, starting with his father, Kim Il-Sung in 1948, will apparently continue with Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un in his late 20s, who attended the English-language International School of Bern, Switzerland, until 1998 under a pseudonym.

Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on Korea to former president George W. Bush, said that virtually nothing was known about Kim Jong-Un and that any U.S. effort to reach out to him came with the risk of undermining him.

"It's like a fishbowl. We're all kind of looking in and we're trying to figure out how things are happening," the Bangkok Times quoted him saying. "But no one dares stick their finger in there because you have no idea what it's going to create," said Cha, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University.

As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, points out, the deceased Kim Jong-Il exercised total control for 17 years over one of the world's most closed and repressive governments. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of North Koreans through widespread preventable starvation, horrendous prisons and forced labour camps, and public executions.

"North Korea under Kim Jong-Il has been a human rights hell on earth," says Roth. "Kim Jong-Il ruled through fear generated by systematic and pervasive human rights abuses including arbitrary executions, torture, forced labor and strict limits on freedom of speech and association."

Kim Jong-Il’s legacy includes the fate of the tens of thousands who have died in the kwanliso (political concentration) camps for alleged enemies of the state, where today an estimated 200,000 North Koreans continue to work and die in conditions of near starvation and brutal abuse, adds Roth.

In that system, the sins of one member of the family condemn an entire generation to imprisonment. A steady stream of former prisoners who escaped North Korea have testified to Human Rights Watch and other organizations how even children born inside such camps grow up to inherit their parents' prisoner status.

Leaving the country without official permission is considered an act of treason, punishable by torture and imprisonment, yet tens of thousands have fled in the last two decades, and thousands more continue to risk their lives every year to escape, writes Roth.

In his final report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, rightly classified the human rights situation in the country as "horrific and harrowing". There have been growing calls from governments and civil society organizations for the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to examine whether crimes against humanity have been committed in North Korea.

Roth advises the international community to take "the transitory period of power" in North Korea to press for the country's new leader to steer it in a new direction and cease repression of its citizens.

"Pressing North Korea to comply with human rights demands contained in the latest UN General Assembly resolution on North Korea, and allowing the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea to visit the country would be a good start," he adds.

Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski writes, Kim Jong-Il's victims, "like those of his father before him, are so many, in lives ended and lives stunted, that they become faceless and formless in our minds, like those tens of thousands of dancers in the mass performances Kim liked to stage."

He adds: "An Egyptian protester beaten, a Burmese dissident imprisoned, a Chinese blogger censored – such singular injustices are easier to grasp, and thus more likely to make us angry, and to spur us to act. The North Korean regime has been protected by the sheer enormity of its crimes, which discrete images cannot easily capture.

"Of course, picturing life and death in North Korea is also hard because the government isolated the country from the outside world, forbidding its people from leaving, or from speaking to the tiny handful of foreigners who were allowed in. But in recent years, life for North Koreans has gotten so miserable that many have risked torture and execution to escape the country. And they have brought their stories with them."

Malinowski says the view held in the 1990s that economic failure and famine would force the North Korean regime's collapse was wrong. "If anything, hunger strengthens repressive states' hold on their subjects. It saps people's strength, forces them to focus on day to day survival, and makes them dependent upon their leaders, who control the distribution of food, and thus even more helpless before them;" says Malinowski.

He adds: "This is one reason, beyond the obvious humanitarian imperative, why withholding food aid from North Korea has always been unhelpful in improving respect for human rights (though we should obviously monitor how that aid is distributed)."

Malinowski believes that the more the West engages the North Korean government the better. Because North Korea's self-isolation has been a deliberate defence mechanism against a political awakening by its people. "Anything that brings information to them – whether radio broadcasts from the outside, or getting diplomats, aid workers, and journalists inside – anything, in other words, that helps to bring North Korea out of solitary confinement, can only help."

This view appears to be shared by Yoon Young Kwan, South Korea's foreign minister in 2003-2004. In an article carried by the Japan Times, he says: "In the early stages of this precarious succession, China has behaved as expected, trying to prop up the regime in order to ensure stability in its nuclear-armed neighbor. China's foreign ministry sent a strong message of support for Kim Jong Un, and encouraged North Koreans to unite under the new leader."

But the key external factor in ensuring a peaceful succession will be the policies of South Korea and the U.S., which must decide whether they can work with the North in the post-Kim Jong Il era, writes the former South Korean foreign minister, currently a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

He pleads for better coordination not only between South Korea, the U.S. and China but also with Japan and Russia to pre-empt "confusion, misunderstanding and overreaction" if things go wrong and North Korea implodes. "A chaotic, imploding North Korea is in no one's interest," he says. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 28, 2011]

2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: Kim Jong Un | Credit:

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: