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[NEWS ANALYSIS] U.N. human rights office ups pressure on Pyongyang

Experts advise mixing pressure with humanitarian assistance

The U.N. opened a field office in Seoul on Tuesday to systematically monitor and record North Korea’s human rights situation, in a culmination of the international efforts to shed light on the North’s deep-seated inhumane practices and stop them.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, Seoul’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo and other high-profile officials and politicians joined the opening event at the Seoul Global Center building in central Seoul.

A member of a college student group for North Korean human rights wears a mask that looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally in front of the U.N. field office to monitor the communist state’s human rights situation in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
A member of a college student group for North Korean human rights wears a mask that looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally in front of the U.N. field office to monitor the communist state’s human rights situation in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Noting that his institution is striving to be as close to the “victims” as possible, the U.N. human rights chief said that the office would do its utmost to improve the North’s woeful rights record.

“We firmly believe this will help lay the basis for future accountability,” he said during a ceremony to launch the office.

“The Seoul Office also has a mandate for technical cooperation with member states, national institutions and civil society, and will work in partnership with you to strengthen our collective efforts to change human rights in the DPRK (North Korea).”

The establishment of the office is expected to further anger the communist regime, which has accused South Korea, the U.S. and other supporters of the office of seeking to overthrow the regime by politicizing human rights issues and meddling in its domestic affairs.

Analysts said the presence of the office would serve as a constant reminder for the North that its human rights abuses were being monitored, would not go unnoticed and could potentially trigger international intervention.

They also noted that excessive pressure could be counterproductive given that it could lead the North to further tighten control over its people and cut itself off from the international community -- moves that would exacerbate the suffering of North Koreans.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should realize that there is now a team of dedicated professional investigators working full time to add to the factual record that will ultimately see him and his top officials brought before an international court,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of the activist group Human Rights Watch.

Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the U.S.-based think tank RAND Corp., expressed hopes that the office would help North Koreans gradually awaken to the regime’s rights abuses.

“The human rights office will continue to raise the human rights issue, which will not make the North Korean regime happy. But as this information seeps into North Korea, more North Koreans will learn about international opposition to the abuses by the regime,” he said.

“Ultimately, over the years, the credibility of the North Korean regime will be questioned by more of the North Korean population. This would indeed be a change in the North, and a change that the regime really does not want to let happen. It is also a change that would, over time, help to destabilize the regime,” he added.

The Seoul human rights office was launched based on a recommendation by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in February 2014 to address what it thinks amounts to “crimes against humanity.”

The COI report that came after its yearlong study found evidence of torture, execution, arbitrary incarceration, deliberate starvation, enslavement and other appalling practices. In particular, it indicated that high-level Pyongyang officials responsible for the abuses could be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The report went on to say that the international community should accept its “responsibility to protect” the North Korean people as the regime in Pyongyang had “manifestly failed” to protect its people.

Experts say that to bring about real change in the North, the international community should mix pressure with humanitarian assistance rather than focus wholly on pressuring the reclusive regime. They also said that the international community should show the North that what it strives to do is to improve the human rights of North Koreans, not bring down the regime.

“We can think of human rights in political terms, but we can also think about human rights from a pure humanitarian perspective. For example, the international community can increase its humanitarian aid to enhance the well-being of North Koreans,” said a North Korea expert, who refused to be identified.

“Thus, we need to mix pressure with humanitarian aid to make the North Korean regime believe that the international community is sincere about changing North Korean policy to ensure human rights of its people, and has no intention of overthrowing the regime.”

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, cautioned against applying too much pressure on Pyongyang, pointing out that the international community should think about how to lead the North to become a responsible member.

“Human rights is of course a universal value now. But the concept of human rights is different in a democracy featuring individualism and a socialist society focusing on collectivism,” he said. “With this difference and complexity of the issue in mind, we need to adopt a cautious approach to deal with North Korea’s human rights issue rather than increasing pressure on it.”

Bennett of RAND Corp. painted a negative outlook of North Korea’s human rights conditions, noting that the emphasis on the human rights would increase the possibility of a “sudden change” in the North.

“I don’t think that the North Korean regime will actually stop its abusive behavior; indeed, it may only get worse,” he said.

“Instead, a focus on North Korean human rights abuses likely increases the probability that the regime will eventually fail and fall. So Seoul and Washington need to prepare for such a sudden change.”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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