As the world adjusts to the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, renewed concerns over the handling of North Korea’s nuclear threat are soon likely to emerge. If the last 12 months are any guide, 2017 is shaping up to be dominated by news coverage of further nuclear and missile tests. But under the radar – and crucial for North Korea’s residents – is a painstaking diplomatic effort to put the regime under pressure on another front: its dismal human rights situation.
In the three years since the landmark 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry, which laid out in harrowing detail a number of North Korean crimes against humanity, there are, sadly, few discernible signs of improvement within the country. But the international community is slowly starting to step up.
The UN Security Council recently held its third annual meeting on North Korean violations of human rights. This went ahead despite a renewed Chinese attempt to block discussion of the issue on procedural grounds, which like previous such efforts failed to garner the required number of council votes. Among a litany of horrors, the latest Security Council meeting focused on the continuing separation of families and the regime’s use of forced labour overseas. In comments clearly aimed at an obstructionist minority of states sitting on the council, a number of speakers emphasised the link between Pyongyang’s internal and external behaviour.
However, the council’s members remain far from united. There was no push to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), nor any consideration of targeted sanctions against individual figures in the regime. The council is unlikely to go further any time soon, but human rights advocates are keeping up pressure on its members nonetheless.
Given that permanent council members China and Russia are the principal obstacles to full-on action, the strategy is to keep enough non-permanent members on board to at least make sure formal discussions can continue to take place. The point is to build a robust global consensus on the nature and consequences of the abuses occurring inside the country.
The cracks appear
The Security Council’s recent meeting took place not long after it adopted Resolution 2321, its response to the North Korean nuclear test of two months earlier. As well as strengthening the sanctions regime against the country, this was also the first non-proliferation resolution to include any language on human rights.
This built on a precedent set by Resolution 2270, adopted after the North’s January 2016 nuclear test, which broke new ground by referring to humanitarian concerns in its opening paragraphs. These expressed the council’s “deep concern” at the “grave hardship” faced by the population, and criticised the redirection of scarce funds away from their “unmet needs”.
Resolution 2321 reiterated these same concerns and then went further, pointedly emphasising the necessity of “respecting and ensuring the welfare and inherent dignity” of North Korea’s people. In a nod to the use of forced labour, it also called on all states to “exercise vigilance” over North Korean workers being sent overseas to earn hard currency for the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
These subtle changes to the wording of resolutions may seem trivial in the face of such appalling human rights violations, and it’s true that they certainly don’t go so far as to invoke any explicit responsibility to protect people on the part of either the North Korean government or the wider international community. But they are far from insignificant. Until 2016, this sort of language was entirely absent from North Korean non-proliferation resolutions, and the fact that it’s starting to creep in indicates that a change is really underway.
Beyond the Security Council
Similar things are also happening in the 193-member UN General Assembly, which has consistently issued non-binding annual resolutions on North Korean human rights since 2005.
By 2012, these increasingly condemnatory resolutions were being passed by consensus – but after the release of the Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the consensus broke down as a number of countries took umbrage at specific language on crimes against humanity, and at recommendations that the Security Council refer the situation to the ICC.
The General Assembly’s 2016 resolution, however, was passed by consensus again, despite even stronger language concerning both the nature of the crimes being committed and the culpability of the North Korean leadership. Remarkably, after more than a decade, that resolution was also the first of its kind to mention North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a threat to the well-being of its own people. (Similarly encouraging noises are emanating from the 47-member UN Human Rights Council.)
It would be naive to imagine that slow-bore UN diplomacy will suddenly force the Pyongyang government to change its ways. Nor will global diplomatic pressure immediately sway its increasingly frustrated Chinese patron state. But it’s now more widely accepted than ever that these across-the-board rights violations are so egregious (and so entwined with wider security threats) that the international community has to take them seriously.
And sure enough, a clearly riled Pyongyang is tactically giving way on certain incremental points, its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities being the latest example. However small these concessions are, some theorists of human rights change would suggest that they’re a vital early phase of deeper, broader reform. The argument is that if North Korea takes small steps away from outright denial and towards limited engagement, space for domestic opposition groups will perhaps begin to open up.
This is admittedly a bit of a stretch when it comes to present-day North Korea, where organised civil society is essentially non-existent and open political dissent ruthlessly crushed. But however slim a hope, it’s better than nothing.