The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘North Korean human rights vital to regional security’

By Joel Lee

Published : June 5, 2017 - 17:47

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As the world focuses on neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear and missile brinksmanship, equal attention should be given to grave human rights violations in the country, a former United Nations official said, stressing “there can be no security without accountability.”

For Michael Kirby, former chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the issue has been close to his heart. He grew up in postwar Australia watching newsreels of Nazi concentration camps being opened up by Allied Forces. As he later listened to the escapees’ testimonies of horrors they experienced in North Korea’s detention camps, they brought back flashes of his earlier memories, he recalled.

“In the understandable concern about peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and region, don’t forget the obligations to human rights in North Korea,” Kirby said in an interview with The Korea Herald arranged through the Australian Embassy in Seoul.

“It’s easy to focus undivided attention on that very serious issue of terrible weapons of mass destruction being developed there. But there will be no security whilst there is gross lack of human rights. Peace and security and universal human rights are both in the preamble to the UN Charter, and are both interrelated.”

Michael Kirby, former chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald) Michael Kirby, former chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

In the absence of protection and accountability, he added, the dream of peace and security in and around the peninsula remains illusory.

Explaining why the two issues are critically inseparable, the 78-year-old former Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009 asserted that a country that does not respect basic rights of its citizens “inherently creates a potentially explosive environment” where people cannot live stably for a long period of time.

As North Korea is a UN member, the international community has every right to insist that it conforms to the UN charter and treaties regarding human rights, most of which Pyongyang has ratified, according to Kirby.

While advising the new administration of President Moon Jae-in to foster inter-Korean ties and offer humanitarian assistance, the Australian maintained that the conciliatory initiatives should not come at the price of advocating the end of heinous crimes in North Korea.

Kirby drafted the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK in 2014, which was designed to investigate “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the country. The report brought to light the regime’s denial of access to food, detention of people in prison camps, torture and inhumane treatment, discrimination, enforced disappearances, as well as violations of right to life and freedom of expression and movement. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo)

The document was delivered to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2014 and led to a resolution sponsored by the European Union and Japan, which was then passed at the General Assembly. It was eventually sent to the Security Council to consider referring the North Korean regime, including leader Kim Jong-un, to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for their crimes against humanity.

The report remains on the standing agenda of the council awaiting a reference to the international court. It has been blocked by Russia and China for “political reasons” -- both with veto-wielding powers as the council’s permanent members.

Most experts see the UN-led measure as a symbolic initiative to increase political pressure on Pyongyang to improve its human rights record. The council also urged Pyongyang to ensure “full, rapid and unimpeded” access of humanitarian assistance to the people and cooperate fully with the commission and the special rapporteur.

“In this report, we pointed out that the situation in North Korea is virtually unique in the entire world,” Kirby emphasized, adding that although virtually all countries have problems of human rights to varying degrees, the “intensity, variety and duration of violations in the North are so severe that they call out for actions by the international community.”

“After more than 70 years, it’s still a challenge for the world,” he added. 
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo)

The document, written with testimonies of North Korean witnesses, reported that 120,000 men, women and children were forcibly detained in prison camps across the country and subject to torture, rape, abduction, forced labor and abortion, infanticide, summary execution and starvation.

Responding to some arguments that the world should not stir up the debate for the sake of enhancing political ties, Kirby countered by saying “there is no evidence that North Korea responds to gentleness or sweetness of diplomacy.”

“Only after the commission published the report did the regime finally begin to take the issue very seriously,” he continued, saying Pyongyang engaged in what he called the “charm offensive” of releasing three detained US citizens and declaring that it is open to nuclear and reunification talks.

On the possibility of having to offer impunity to offenders for moving forward a prospective mechanism of transitional justice, as happened in Colombia with guerilla organization FARC, the retired Australian judge said “crimes against humanity is a special species that demands accountability.” He also underscored that the UN had “never traded human rights for security interests.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AP/Yonhap Photo)

Kirby expressed his support for strengthening North Korea’s economy, but elucidated that human rights is “the other side of the coin of economic development” and demands for improvement should not be pigeonholed.

“I agree with the argument (of supporting the North’s economic development) insofar as the country’s isolation is a serious impediment to its development, and that in turn makes it difficult to secure the necessary human rights levels,” he explained. “North Korea has enormous potential with minerals and other natural resources, but it’s cut off from the rest of the world and spending all its energy and capacity on nuclear development. It has thereby deliberately chosen a course of isolation and impoverishment.”

As a practical solution, the Australian suggested restarting the six-party talks or forging some other form of a diplomatic mechanism, such as a peace treaty with North Korea. Such options have been outlined in the report, he said.

By Joel Lee (