The United Nations report on North Korean human rights should impel the international community to action and engagement.

Drawing the sustained interest of the international community to the human rights situation in North Korea has been no easy task. For over a decade, a transnational campaign has worked in the areas of advocacy and analysis to bring about change. Underfunded and often maligned, activists have worked tirelessly at uncovering the human rights situation inside North Korea and at improving the legitimacy, veracity and quantity of data.

The report released this week by the UN Commission of Inquiry — chaired by former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby — represents the culmination of these efforts. The definitive findings that the COI was able to report — that the violations amount to crimes against humanity — owes much to the work of these activists. The level and nature of the atrocities render the report difficult reading. and it will be perhaps our first impulse to act on our outrage. A close reading of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, however, reveals that it counsels a nuanced and practical approach.

The international community has long known that the human rights situation in North Korea is dire, yet it has been two decades since we saw the first trickle of information start to come out of this formerly tightly sealed state. Why has this report been so long in the making?

Remarks made by Kirby hold a clue: in interviews, he has reiterated that he is a “dispassionate” party, and it is for this reason that he was able to complete the report successfully. On the surface this may seem a strange emphasis: surely an inquiry into human rights is able to uncover definitive rights and wrongs, not subject to the usual political wrangling or ideological bias? Unfortunately, when it comes to North Korean human rights, nothing could be further from the truth.

The balanced tone in which the report is written, and the fair and carefully considered recommendations provided, are a testament to the efforts of the COI to understand the high level of politicisation that this issue has been subjected to, and to take on board any testimony that hinted at ideological propaganda.

The international media in turn has done a commendable job of summarising and highlighting the report’s key findings and its central recommendation: that the violations amount to crimes against humanity and that those most responsible must be held to account, possibly through referral to the International Criminal Court. Less widely reported are some of the more nuanced recommendations found in the report.

Alongside the central recommendation that urgent accountability measures are required are a series of well thought-out guidelines for how the international community — from states to civil society groups — should proceed. The answer is not to stand up on our bandwagons and shout “democracy now!” or send in the troops, Iraq style. Nor, argues the report, will broad sanctions, targeted against the economy as a whole, serve the human rights of the North Korean people. Indeed, they will only cause further harm

So what is next? The report is clear: engage with the country productively and proactively. The quest for accountability must be “combined with a reinforced human rights dialogue, the promotion of incremental change through more people to people contact and an inter-Korean agenda for reconciliation”. The report also counsels against the broad application of sanctions, recommending that the provision of essential humanitarian aid should not be restricted for political reasons, but should be delivered in strict accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles, ensuring monitoring and the application of the principle of non-discrimination.

Some of the more moderate voices on North Korean human rights have been advocating for an approach that is aimed at transformative social change — “opening through engagement” — for some time now. And, as a recent testimony to the US Helsinki Committee describes, successful and sustainable engagement projects with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do have precedents.

Further isolating the regime will, the COI report notes, only serve to strengthen the DPRK’s worldview, in which human rights violations are justified by a hostile regional environment. That is not to shift the blame away from the terrible injustices perpetrated by the North Korean regime but rather to understand better the context in which these abuses take place.

Taking on board the recommendations in their entirety is now the task of the international community, and it is important that we do not allow those who wish to further politicise this issue and bring about the speedy downfall of the North Korean regime through immediate action and intervention to use this report to their own political advantage.

*Danielle Chubb is lecturer in international relations at Deakin University. She has recently published a book that examines the politicisation of the North Korean human rights issue and the role that political activists have played in helping shape inter-Korean relations policy — Contentious activism and inter-Korean relations — published by Columbia University Press.

Peter Fray

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