north korea human rights kirby united nations

This week the UN told us what we all already knew – that North Korea is the world's worst human rights abuser.

Specifically, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released a lengthy, well-documented report that North Korean repression, in the words of the Australian commission chair Michael Kirby (pictured), is 'strikingly similar' to that of the Nazis. This is a landmark finding, not only for its willingness to call out North Korea explicitly, but for its origins in a multilateral body channeling global public opinion. I see four elements to the fall-out from this report:

1. Because this comes from the UN, it carries the imprimatur of the international community in a way that reports from the Western states and NGOs cannot.

This is probably the report's greatest import. The findings themselves, however disturbing, are not really new. Even those who do not study Korea or Asia have known for a long time that North Korea is an Orwellian hellhole.

I had a (Korean) student who once wrote a paper claiming Nineteen Eighty-Four was the blueprint for North Korea. I recall reading back in the 1990s, when the Taliban still governed Afghanistan, that human rights groups ranked North Korea even below them (here are the North Korea pages for both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

More importantly, a robust North Korean defector/refugee literature has emerged in the last two decades. Barbara Demick's book is probably the most famous, but the more North Koreans escape and tell their stories, the harder it has become to cover up the horrors. Indeed, it is likely that the growing wave of defector literature helped push through this investigation.

Fairly or not, it is easier for reports from Western or South Korean sources, whether governmental or non-profit, to be dismissed as interventionist or 'human rights imperialism' by those, such as China, who would rather not discuss North Korea's gulags. But such claims from a UN body, complete with global membership, are far harder to dismiss. As such, I expect this report to be the new benchmark against which human rights critiques of the North are made.

2. The report's UN origins will pressure China.

China is North Korea's patron. Without the Chinese veto at the UN Security Council, North Korea would be even more isolated than it already is.

China provides it with the fuel to keep factories running and the lights on. China also looks the other way on the massive smuggling across the border. North Korea is technically under heavy sanction, but Chinese help – or at least, non-enforcement – reduces the bite of various embargoes. When I flew into Pyongyang from Beijing, there was no sanctions stop or check. Tourists loaded up on luxury goods like liquor and home appliances in duty-free and walked right onto the plane.

This is a pretty good deal for China. Chinese merchants and smugglers can charge cut-throat prices. The influx of various sanctioned goods keeps North Korea stumbling along and arguably helps forestall the country's collapse. And all this interaction gives Chinese business privileged access to the North, particularly its prized natural resources. Chinese security experts openly refer to North Korea as a 'buffer' (I’ve heard this manipulative formulation at conferences repeatedly) between China and the democracies of South Korea, Japan and the US.

But there are also a lot of 'track II' signals that China is uncomfortable with North Korea (again, I'm thinking of informal conversation on the conference circuit). The regime is so awful that the alliance with China creates genuine reputation costs. The US 'pivot to Asia' is fueled partly by China's insistence on standing by North Korea, seemingly no matter what it does.

This UN report is almost certain to be new ammunition in diplomatic efforts to pull China away from the North, and it guarantees another round of terrible press for China in both Asia and the West. This is good, as North Korea will probably not collapse until China finally pulls the plug. Normative pressure like this raises the 'audience costs' of Chinese support.

3. No sanctions relief will be forthcoming.

This report will also lock in the extraordinarily tight sanctions regime around North Korea. As a report generated from within the UN, it will carry special weight in further UN deliberations on sanctions. The UN has a Panel of Experts on the DPRK sanctions. They now have access to UN data without the politically controversial step of using information from member governments like South Korea, who have a vested interest in tougher sanctions. This will also raise pressure on China as the primary sanctions-buster.

4. Threatening prosecution at the International Criminal Court won't help.

One unanticipated outcome of the report is the notification to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he may be held personally liable for abuses and might be remanded, were it possible, to the ICC for criminal prosecution.

Human rights advocates often celebrate such threats as progress, as they signal to potential future violators that there will be punishment. This 'deterrence' may work; the political science research on it is not clear, as far as I know.

But there is a downside regarding despots already in power. To threaten them with prosecution almost certainly encourages them to dig in deeper. Bashar al-Assad is likely in such a situation. He has no exit, nowhere safe to go, so he fights all the harder to hang on. Quadhafi too signaled during the Libyan civil war that he was open to some kind of transition-for-escape deal. This never materialised, and he fought to the end. By contrast, Idi Amin was given refuge in Saudi Arabia.

In the North Korean case, it is often assumed the Kim family will run to Beijing when the regime starts to collapse. But if the Kims can find no refuge, because of efforts such as an ICC prosecution or because of South Korean extradition attempts, then they are that much more likely to fight, possibly even launching an insurgency.

But all-in-all, this was a good week for human rights and a tough one for China. That is progress.

Photo by Flickr user UN Geneva.