The future of accountability in North Korea

A group of North Korea scholars and legal
experts met on June 27 at the Seoul Global Center to discuss the future of
accountability for North Korea’s human rights violations and options to pursue
such accountability. The conference, entitled “North Korean Human Rights: Shifting
Gear on Accountability,” was organized by the Yonsei Center for Human Liberty
and the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea
(ICNK). The conference also commemorated the one year anniversary of the
opening of the UN Seoul office and the launch of the Sages Group on North
Korean Human Rights.

Jung-Hoon Lee, ROK Ambassador for Human
Rights, opened the event with a call for a “global campaign on accountability”
in North Korea, stating that international cooperation would be necessary to
assign appropriate blame to perpetrators of human rights violations. He was
followed by Sang Hyun Song, former President of the International Criminal
Court (ICC), who similarly stated that countries must work together to
“strengthen the global system of accountability” as it applies to North Korea.

The conference’s first panel, “Who’s
Accountable for What?” was led by Marzuki Darusman, UN Special Rapporteur on
the DPRK. Darusman stated that the 2014 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry
on Human Rights in the DPRK determined that the ongoing human rights violations
are crimes against humanity and asked panelists to explain “what sort of
justice” they believe is necessary in North Korea.

Panelists agreed that thorough
investigative evidence in the form of photos, videos, and defector testimonies
would be necessary to assign blame to specific perpetrators and to separate the
various segments of North Korea’s system of human rights abuse. Sung-ho Jhe,
professor of law at Choong-Ang University, called for a combination of
institutional responsibility and individual responsibility, citing prison camps
as an example of an institution in which high-level officials hold
responsibility for commands just as much as for direct actions. Remko Breuker,
professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University, agreed, adding that although
international understanding of North Korea’s organizational structure has
improved in recent years, closer investigation is necessary to determine the
“architects of the system” of abuse.

Joanna Hosaniak, Deputy Director General of
the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, suggested looking at the
former communist systems of Eastern European countries in order to better
understand links between North Korea’s State Security Department and Workers’
Party that may be facilitating human rights abuses.

Young Hwan Ho, Vice President of the
Institute for National Security Strategy, offered a differing opinion,
emphasizing the responsibility of Kim Jong Un and arguing to “narrow the scope
of who’s being held responsible” in order to avoid prolonging inaction.   

The second panel, “Accountability: Feasible
Options and Instruments,” was led by Vivit Muntarbhorn, former UN Special
Rapporteur for the DPRK. Contrasting with the first panel’s urgent calls for
action, speakers cautiously noted that prosecution for human rights violators
in North Korea would be limited at best, even in the case of an ICC referral.
Christine Chung, senior advisor to the Committee for Human Rights in North
Korea, noted as a historical precedent that none of the orchestrators of Soviet
gulags were prosecuted and that the same could be the case for North Korea.

Jared Genser, founder of the NGO Freedom
Now, pointed out a often-overlooked shortcoming of discussions of North Korean
policy: that in spite of international cooperation and the important awareness
that it raises about North Korea, justice and accountability alone are not
enough to end the suffering of the North Korean people.

The conference ended with a introductory
panel by the Sages Group on North Korean Human Rights, a group of policy
experts formed provide recommendations on international policy towards North
Korea. The group consisted of Lee, Song, and Muntarbhorn; as well as Michael Kirby,
former Chair of the UN COI on the DPRK; Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for
North Korean Human Rights; and Sonja Biserko, former member of the UN Committee
of Inquiry.