SEOUL – The U.N. human rights chief declared recently that it was time for a “long overdue” investigation into what she called unparalleled rights abuses in North Korea. The probe, unprecedented in scope, could help establish whether Pyongyang’s leaders are committing crimes against humanity.
Navi Pillay’s January proposal has already drawn support from the United States. But the decision has proved sensitive in still-undecided South Korea, where leaders remain divided over whether to confront the North or try to somehow reduce tensions with it, even after Pyongyang last week detonated an underground nuclear device.
Relations between the two countries appeared to deteriorate further Feb. 19, when a North Korean diplomat threatened the South with “total destruction” during a U.N. disarmament conference in Geneva.
South Korea’s support for the human rights investigation is critical, because farther-removed countries view Seoul as the leader on North Korea policy issues.
The decision on the Commission of Inquiry (COI), comes at a particularly delicate time for the South, where a conservative new president, Park Geun Hye, takes office later this month having vowed to both re-engage with North Korea and “improve living conditions” for its 24 million citizens. The looming decision on the investigation highlights a fundamental South Korean quandary: Those two goals, though both reasonable, are often at odds.
Other countries “should understand the sensitivities faced by South Korea” when speaking out about human rights, said Song Min Soon, South Korea’s foreign minister from 2006 until 2008. “Those countries, they don’t have a real need to sit down with North Korea. We do. The new South Korean government has a plan to talk with the North Koreans about denuclearization, economic issues. But if we lead efforts on the COI, that won’t happen.”
Park has blasted the North for conducting the much-anticipated nuclear test. But her incoming administration, according to analysts, is uneasy about scrapping any hope of civil ties with Pyongyang even before she takes office. The nuclear test has only made South Korea’s decision on the U.N. investigation “more sensitive,” said one South Korean government official.
North Korea views any discussion of its human rights as a “grave provocation,” something Park is likely to hear from Pyongyang if she backs the investigation, which could be voted on at the next U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in March. But if she opposes it, she will heighten frustration among activists and thousands of defectors in her country who often accuse Seoul of being more concerned about the North’s weapons than its populace.
Since Pillay requested the investigation in January, South Korea has taken no official position on the proposal.
U.N. officials and human rights advocates, as well as one of Park’s advisers, said they are cautiously optimistic that South Korea will ultimately back the inquiry. “I think we will quietly support it,” said Ha Tae Keung, a National Assembly member.
Other advocates say the nuclear test, coupled with the U.S. support, announced Thursday by the State Department, has caused a momentum shift among members of the Human Rights Council, increasing the odds that South Korea ultimately will sign on.
South Korea, experts say, has paid more attention to human rights during the five-year term of outgoing President Lee Myung Bak — also, like Park, a conservative — than under Lee’s predecessors. Under Lee, the government increased funding for Seoul-based human rights groups, and the country’s U.N. representatives began voting in support of resolutions condemning mass-scale atrocities in the North, rather than abstaining.
But during Lee’s tenure, the South also faced consequences from its relatively hardline stance, with North Korea not only testing two nuclear devices, but also launching three rockets and staging two fatal military attacks on its southern neighbor.
In the two decades of serious advocacy for human rights in North Korea — which began when defectors first started fleeing the country and telling their stories — little has changed inside the repressive police state, according to activist and government reports. It remains a crime in the North to criticize the government, watch a South Korean television show or leave dust on founder Kim Il Sung’s portrait. Those found guilty of grave crimes are sent, often along with their parents and children, to prison camps in isolated mountain areas where they almost always stay for life.
Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people, according to multiple human rights reports, are locked up in these camps, the deepest secrets of a highly secretive country. The North asserts it is impossible for such rights violations to occur under its socialist system.
Rights advocates say the United Nations has waited too long to address the problems seriously. Until January, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights — a position established 19 years ago — had never issued a statement devoted to North Korea.
The investigation would represent the most direct attempt yet to detail abuses, establishing a team of experts who would produce a “definitive take, or description, of what is taking place in that country,” said Darusman, who has come out strongly in favor of the investigation.
The commission would not lead directly to criminal charges, but the panel could, in its report, recommend ways for the global community to respond, including the establishment of a tribunal, as happened after similar commissions on Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Until recently, Pillay, a South African, had shown no particular interest in pursuing abuses in North Korea. That changed after a December meeting with two prison camp survivors, whose stories Pillay, in her statement calling for the investigation, described as “harrowing.”
So far, Japan has also signaled its support for the inquiry. But the other 46 current member nations of the U.N. Human Rights Council, including many in Europe, are wavering, voicing concern either about the cost or about interrupting their own minor programs of engagement with the North.
If the investigation comes to a vote — something that will happen only if enough countries signal support during ongoing, behind-the-scenes discussions — it would need majority backing.
Before the nuclear test, many involved in the negotiations were convinced that South Korea would play the deciding role in influencing others. But Washington’s decision to support the effort could prove just as important, prompting other countries, “especially those on the fence, to come forward in support of the initiative,” said Robert Cohen, cochair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
More than a half-dozen human rights groups in Seoul have spent weeks trying to sway Park’s incoming government.
One advocate, An Myeong Chul, secretary general of the Free NK Gulag group, says he is compiling documents about a few individuals in the North’s prison camps, based on information from relatives who have escaped to the South. The documents are simple: They detail the names of those in the camps, when they were taken and by whom.
He filled out one document of his own, giving information about his mother and two siblings, who were sent to a gulag in 1994, An said, paying for the crimes of his father, who had been stealing rice.
An believes his family members are still in a camp, but he isn’t sure. He calls the commission of inquiry a “necessity.”
“If Park Geun Hye wants to open dialogue with North Korea, accepting the COI might give the North an excuse to get upset,” he said. “But South Korea should be aware: There are prisoners in there, and there are survivors here.”