North Korean opponents have continued to focus on the subject of human rights in the second half of 2023. Let’s say that this is a very convenient claim to make since it, on the one hand, earns support from the populace and, on the other hand, has some merit because of the regime’s idiosyncrasies and the fact that it is operating under a state of emergency that necessitates extraordinary measures.
As seen by the events in Yugoslavia, Libya, and other nations, using the concept of “human rights” to attack the regime and prepare the public for “humanitarian bombing” is effective. This is in line with Yoon Suk Yeol’s policy in South Korea, where the Ministry of Unification will now focus more on spreading propaganda and raising awareness of what is happening in North Korea, including the topic of “human rights,” rather than on promoting inter-Korean projects or coordinating cooperation. Unfortunately, this can indicate that Ministry propaganda will use further verification of information from websites like the Daily NK, whose credibility the author deems to be exceedingly low.
The United States also nominated a special envoy on North Korean human rights issues following a lengthy absence. Julie Turner, who has a somewhat unique biography, was chosen for this unique position. She was a career diplomat who spent many years working at the US Department of State, where she dealt with North Korea and East Asian human rights concerns.
Since Robert King, a Barack Obama appointee, departed in 2017, the position of human rights ambassador has been vacant for the previous six years. The position was established in 2004. The Trump administration has taken care to avoid emphasizing concerns related to human rights.
Back at her confirmation hearing, Turner stated that “the human rights situation in the DPRK is one of the most protracted human rights crises in the world,” and “as the DPRK’s human rights record has deteriorated, the connection between its widespread violations and abuses and the threat it poses to international security are clear.” For example, “the regime’s human rights violations and abuses are inextricably linked to its weapons programs, which are funded through the exploitation and abuse of the North Korean people.” Turner pledged to “work with partners and allies, including the ROK, to reenergize international efforts to promote human rights and increase access to uncensored information in the DPRK,” to protect refugees, and to work with partners and allies, including the Republic of Korea.
Not surprisingly, this provoked a sharp reaction from Pyongyang. Julie Turner is “a person ignorant of even the concept of human rights or a human rights abuser embodying the inveterate bad habit of the US, which revels in meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and slandering it.”
As a follow-up to this trend, Washington made the decision to bring this issue before the UN Security Council for the first time since 2017, hoping to buck the trend that saw Russia and China obstruct any attempts by the West to discuss North Korea in the way the West required between 2022 and 2023, resulting in neither a vote nor official statements.
Let’s recall that the UNSC had yearly public discussions on North Korea’s abuses of human rights from 2014 to 2017. That is when the infamous 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea stated that the country’s leadership should face prosecution for “supervising a state-controlled system of Nazi-style atrocities” based on what ultimately transpired to be fraudulent testimony from important witnesses like Shin Dong-hyuk.
On August 10, 2023, the ROK, the United States, Japan and Albania sought a meeting of the UN Security Council on August 17 to discuss human rights abuses in the DPRK. The subject of human rights in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula is strongly related to the question of global peace and security, according to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations. At the same time, the meeting was scheduled to be open to the public, with the hope that the accompanying publicity would limit the discussion because publicly supporting the “cannibal regime” could be problematic.
Even in this form, however, the initiative was not a success. China promptly objected, claiming that the topic of human rights falls far beyond the UN Security Council’s duty of maintaining peace and security. Holding a meeting on this subject will merely politicize it and intensify confrontation and antagonism.
The North responded similarly through the mouth of DPRK Vice Foreign Minister for International Organizations, Kim Son Gyong: “The North firmly condemns and rejects the “despicable” call for the meeting by Washington that reveals its hostility toward Pyongyang and demonstrates the dysfunction of the UNSC under the arbitrary repressiveness of the US. The US’s despicable fuss over human rights issues is a violent infringement upon our dignity and sovereignty and a serious challenge. We firmly condemn and reject the move.”
The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN also stated that Russia views the meeting of the UN Security Council that the United States organized on the subject of human rights in the DPRK as a provocation because it is utterly artificial to link the two topics.
Because each party spoke as they would have been expected to, it is not surprising that the meeting on August 17 (New York time) was, to put it mildly, non-constructive.
The DPRK was referred to be “the most oppressive and totalitarian state in the world” by the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. According to her logic and conclusion, “Kim Jong Un’s repressive, totalitarian control of society – and the systemic, widespread denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms – ensures the regime can expend inordinate public resources developing its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs, without public objection.”
To heighten the emotional factor, the meeting was attended by defector Kim Il Hyuk, who spoke about how as a young boy he worked in the fields for the military, and also criticized the actions of the DPRK authorities, who “continue to require their citizens to tighten their belts so that available resources can be used to finance nuclear and missile programs.” As it turns out, Kim was able to calculate that “the amount spent to build just one missile is enough to provide the population with food for three months.” However, given that the DPRK has a population of over 25 million, modern armament prices easily reject this figure.
The Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, Hwang Joon-kook, made the point that if the North’s issue with human rights is not resolved, there will also be no resolution to the nuclear issue because the country’s leadership is spending resources intended for its people’s welfare to create nuclear weapons.
Most of the US satellites at the meeting “condemned the current state of affairs in this area in North Korea and called for the country’s authorities to be held accountable for it.” Elizabeth Salmon, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was forced to mention in her speech that the population’s situation has become worse as a result of the extended closure of the DPRK’s borders due to international sanctions, including rising food shortages.
Dmitry Polyanskiy, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, responded by claiming that the meeting “is nothing other than a cynical and hypocritical attempt by the United States and its allies to advance their own political agenda.” He pointed out that a meeting on North Korea was not included in the work agenda the US suggested in early August and that human rights issues are not within the purview of the UN Security Council.
China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, branded the US initiative to consider the human rights situation in the DPRK irresponsible and unconstructive. It will not only not help to ease, but escalate the situation.
Although the North Korean representative wasn’t present at the meeting, a spokesman for the Korea Association for Human Rights Studies issued the following press statement on August 19, signaling “a tragic event: The UN Security Council, tasked with leading global peace, security, and international justice, has turned into a theater of human scum, yielding to the high-handed and arbitrary practices of a particular country.” It is not for the US, where human rights are violated everywhere, to discuss the situation in the DPRK and “if the UNSC truly cares about the well-being and rights of the Korean people, it must, first of all, call into question the anti-human rights and anti-peace acts of the US, which have threatened the sovereignty, security, and interests of the DPRK, regarding hostility toward the DPRK as its state policy.” The defectors who spoke were called “all the worst criminals, moral degenerates, and swindlers,” recalling the mishap of Shin Dong Hyuk, who himself was eventually forced to admit to distorting his past and making up the stories that formed the basis of Pyongyang’s accusations of “Nazi-type practices.”
Due to Moscow and Beijing’s resistance, there was no procedural vote on the meeting’s agenda, let alone a public formal condemnation statement by the UN Security Council or the approval of new penalties, which Washington had hoped for. Only approximately 50 states, including the United States, Japan, and South Korea, issued a brief joint statement calling on UN member states to actively engage in addressing the DPRK’s human rights situation.
For the author, this is a significant occasion, equivalent to the Russian-Chinese veto of the May 2022 sanctions resolution, and it is especially significant since Russia, rather than China, provided the primary response to the West this time. Although attacks on the DPRK in this sector are unlikely to stop, converting information noise into more effect did not work this time.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.