U.S. President Barack Obama will make a keynote speech on North Korea policy when he visits South Korea in two weeks and, according to reports, take a ‘pilgrimage’ to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ.
The White House announcement came a scuffles broke out in the UN Human Rights Council today after a North Korean diplomat violently objected to a critical report by Marzuki Darusman, the UN’s rapporteur on human rights. The report states that the human rights situation in North Korea has “continued to deteriorate” between September 2011 to January 2012.
Darusman expressed hope that the “new leadership in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will use the recent succession as an opportunity to engage with the international community and to secure global confidence.”
“The current transition may be a window of opportunity for the country to adopt a reform process and address all questions and concerns in relation to human rights,” he said.
Pyongyang called on the council not to renew Darusman’s mandate, stressing that it “roundly rejects this useless interpretation” which it claimed was “fabricated by hostile elements.” Cuba, Zimbabwe and Syria sided with the regime, denouncing the report as a Western attempt to undermine North Korea.
“With Burma now having come in from the cold to take on at least the initial trappings of democracy, that leaves the north as Asia’s last pariah nation,” writes Lee Byong-chul. But he doubts that the regime is likely to initiate a program of liberalization any time soon, despite the recent conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang.
“The North’s behavior – a sudden thaw as in the past — is nothing new to those who know about the regime,” he notes:
It is believed that the current thaw was subscripted by Kim Jong-il before he died on Dec. 17 and the succession is probably too recent to as yet affect the course of the government in Pyongyang. It is doubtful that the country has actually started its move toward openness and it is also doubtful that Jong-un, as a leader, would have the clout to order his late father’s advisors to make a dramatic change in course.
Unlike China, which abandoned the Maoist principles of isolation and self-reliance to become a driver of the global economy, the North still refuses to move toward market-driven economics, the only alternative to a hopeless future. Needless to say the nutritional aid must be ‘a modest first step’ in the right direction, as the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it.
“While the Obama administration’s limited but constructive engagement has undoubtedly brought positive changes to the Hermit Kingdom,” Lee concludes, “past experience teaches the world to be wary.”
Grounds for such wariness became evident today when North Korea rejected monitoring of humanitarian assistance from South Korean NGOs.
“The North Korean authorities only want aid that is pure,” one aid official said on condition of anonymity. “It means they won’t take it with conditions attached.”
U.S. authorities should insist on expatriate monitors and translators, unannounced site visits and frequent nutritional monitoring. If monitoring agreements are violated, shipments of food aid should be stopped. Under no circumstances should U.S. food aid go through the Public Distribution System, which is a Stalinist means for Pyongyang to control the population and triage the powerless.
“North Korea is dying. Its economic system is a wreck, and it cannot feed its people,” notes Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University and former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Washington should do nothing to prolong the agony of the long-suffering North Korean people by supporting the existing system. But perhaps we can begin to push them toward reform.”
Dozens of South Koreans today protested outside China’s Seoul embassy against Beijing’s policy of returning North Korean refugees.
“The issue of human rights of North Korean defectors is not just a matter for Korea and China. It is a global issue,” said South Korean parliamentarian Park Jin. “The international community should pay attention to this problem so that the North Korean defectors can find their freedom and come back with hope. The Korean government should do their best.”
“The North Korean refugee emergency is arguably the most urgent in the world today,” says Robert Park, a Korean-American activist detained in North Korean custody in 2010:
Yet over the past decade, as tens of thousands of refugees have been repatriated, the United Nations has done nothing to help. Stemming from an unwillingness to confront China, it has chosen to obey China’s prohibition to go to the Sino-North Korea border rather than fulfill its mandate to protect the refugees.
“Though the deal struck between the United States and North Korea that saw the North agree to a nuclear moratorium may draw attention away from their plight, writes Bryan Kay, “the momentum of a fresh source of support appears determined to drill the story into the global conscience. For at no time in recent history has the issue of China’s treatment of North Korean refugees attracted such a strong show of government and public support in the South.”
Some observers believe tensions and rivalries within the ruling family may become a catalyst for change.
“Kim Pyong-il and Kim Jong-nam are part of the same basket of outsiders, who are members of the family but currently have limited influence,” says Leonid Petrov, a lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney. “It seems that China is entertaining the possibility of Kim Jong-nam as a potential successor who could introduce China-style reforms into the country, but this is a fantasy. Once you introduce reforms into North Korea, the whole system will collapse completely.”
Others suggest Kim Pyong-il, with his close ties to the regime, Kim family name and knowledge of life abroad, might have a key role to play in any post-Communist state that springs up if and when the perverse dictatorship that his father set up ever collapses.
“When Communist regimes have fallen, many of those who were linked to the regime often remain in power,” says Korea analyst Nikolas Levi. “If the North Korean regime does fall at some point in the future, it is quite possible that Kim Pyong-il might have a role to play in a new government.”
But prospects for reform in the foreseeable future are bleak, writes Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, because the regime retains its fundamentally Stalinist characteristics:
In Kim Il-sung’s era, a North Korean could wind up in prison even for a slight lack of enthusiasm for the Great Leader himself. So one should not be surprised to hear that North Korea has an unusually high number of political prisoners, numbering in the range of 150,000 at their peak under Kim Il-sung. As far as we know, it was not common for people to be arrested just meet quotas, but there was another peculiarity: Until the 1990s, the entire family of a political prisoner would be shipped to a concentration camp. In this regard Kim was harsher than even Stalin, since the “family responsibility principle” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s was applied only to the families of the most prominent error victims.
There may be as many as 200,000 North Korean refugees hiding in China, writes Kay, their plight documented in Seoul Train (above), the 2005 film about the ‘underground railway’ that transports defectors to China and which details the Chinese authorities’ collusion in their return and subsequent execution:
Little has changed. Following the detention of the latest set of North Koreans, a foreign ministry spokesman repeated a familiar message, quoted by international media as saying that “these people are not refugees. They have illegally entered China because of economic reasons.”
Still, Seoul Train’s earlier expose of the situation ended on a somewhat happy note. Some of the defectors, after heavy international lobbying, were released by the Chinese authorities and made it to Seoul. Others, however, weren’t so fortuitous, suffering a fate which those behind Seoul Train later described as “wiped off the face of the earth.”
“It seems for now, at least, that those well-trodden trails pounded by North Koreans in flight will be more than matched by those formed by footprints pointing ominously toward what lies in wait where they came from,” Kay concludes.
The new generation of defectors has been described as a “small miracle” for raising hopes for human rights in North Korea. The defectors act as a “bridge population” between the two Koreas, said Carl Gershman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Endowment for Democracy.