Act Now, COI Warns Both Koreas

Yesterday, on March 21st, the UN Human Rights Council passed a fresh North Korean human rights resolution. In so doing, the 47-member council unanimously agreed to the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea, thus putting firmly beyond any doubt the seriousness with which the international community takes the human rights violations that routinely occur there.

The commission will gather evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the regime of the Kim family. The rules are outlined in Article 7 of the Rome Statute: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, deprivation of physical liberty in contravention of international law, torture, rape, sexual abuse, persecution, enforced disappearance, apartheid and/or other acts of great suffering; all qualify as crimes against humanity. In the case of North Korea, there is plenty to work with. The task will go beyond that of the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights; rather, it will provide a report with the power to initiate criminal proceedings against those North Korean elites found to have overseen crimes of this nature.

The COI will initially exist for a year, but, just like the role of the UN rapporteur, this period can be extended. The core will consist of three people, including sitting rapporteur Maruzki Darusman, but when additional researchers are added in there should be a staff of roughly ten. They will work to establish who the true masterminds of North Korea’s crimes against humanity are. This ought to give the Kim regime great pause.

Of course, there is very little chance of North Korea complying with the demands of the COI. Pyongyang has never accepted the findings of the UN rapporteur or any other human rights body, nor has it allowed rapporteurs to visit the country. The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already said it will wholly disregard the process, calling the latest resolution the kind of “political chicanery” that is “cooked up by the U.S. and its allies every year with inveterate repugnancy and hostility.” It, Pyongyang claims, “does not deserve even a passing note.”

But that is to be expected. What we do not know is the extent to which the Chinese government will be prepared to participate. Beijing remains committed to repatriating defectors to the North, and still officially regards them as economic migrants. These are not good omens for the future. However, the mood in China is a moderate one: a dash of desire for change mixed with a dose of anger and a soupcon of fatigue. All hope is not yet lost.

Nevertheless, in part due to these lingering questions over China’s willingness to take part, the role of South Korea is guaranteed to be crucial. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the South Korean government to offer full and honest cooperation across all levels, providing the COI with the most up-to-date information in the possession of all government agencies. Only then can we be sure that the COI will provide the UN and the International Criminal Court with as full a picture as possible.

Yet there is an irony here. The establishment of the COI shows with unprecedented clarity the difference between domestic South Korean and international passion for the “North Korea problem.” Even though the democratically elected entity with the greatest responsibility for improving North Korean human rights is the South Korean National Assembly, it has offered little more than rhetorical acknowledgement of that fact. The UN has been adopting North Korean human rights resolutions for almost a decade, and is now preparing to go one step further. Yet the National Assembly sleeps like a log.

Astonishingly, the 18th National Assembly turned its back on the North Korean Human Rights Act. If the 19th does the same, rejecting the call of North Korean human rights to the bitter end, there will be no way to scrub clean the dishonor of being, as it were, an “anti-human rights legislature.” There is no more time. The National Assembly must pass the act without delay, sending a very clear warning across the 38th parallel: that the human rights abuses of the Kim regime are unacceptable to everyone, everywhere, all the time.