Earlier this week, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea issued its final report on the matter. (Spoiler alert: North Korea has a lot of human rights abuses.)
The report’s release raises some important questions. Are North Korean human-rights abuses news to anyone? Since when has the UN paid any attention to human rights in North Korea? Does it matter if the UN has a comprehensive report on the train wreck that is North Korea’s record on human rights? (Spoiler alert: Yes, it might actually matter.)
The report doesn’t cover a lot of fresh ground for people who monitor the Hermit Kingdom. When the UN commission released a preliminary draft of its report in February, Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean history at Columbia University, remarked to VICE News, “Although the detail of the report is new, nothing in it is particularly surprising for those who know North Korea well.” The place is a horror show, and pretty much everyone knows that.
As for the question of when the UN began caring about human rights in North Korea, the answer is since January 14, 2013. That was when Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, surprised the people that follow this sort of thing by calling for a thorough investigation of human rights offenses in the country.
While people have been more or less aware of the situation in North Korea, very little has actually been done about it. This is because North Korea’s willingness to listen to anybody about anything is pretty much nonexistent, as is the international community’s willingness to do something drastic enough to make North Korea listen. Consequently, the typical response to revelations of North Korean injustices is to throw up one’s hands, loudly announce that it is beyond hope, and solemnly intone, “Sorry, bro.”
So the fact that the UN seemed interested in moving beyond the usual strategy of picking an easier issue to address garnered positive attention. Granted, this was primarily among folks who care what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights thinks, but it was positive attention nonetheless.
That leaves us wondering whether this is something that actually matters. Is it just another exercise in self-indulgent moral preening to be followed by a cocktail reception?
It’s easy to criticize the UN for lack of progress on this front, but it’s possible that the latest report might just lead to something.
For starters, the release of a report by an authoritative body gives news reporters and experts an excuse to remind everyone that North Korea does plenty of bad things beyond being crazier than a sack full of meth-cooking wombats and renting out its citizens as labor. Advocacy groups can send out press releases and rouse their supporters. Intellectuals can write editorials and conduct interviews. All of these things put the spotlight back on the issue, at least for a while.
Doing so creates an opportunity for people like Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He recently co-wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that argued that the sanctions and restrictions on North Korea are nowhere near as serious as they could be.
The piece points out that the banking and money laundering restrictions on North Korea are way weaker than they are on the other countries on the United States shit list. In fact, the one time that the US Treasury Department started to effectively put the squeeze on North Korea’s finances, the senior leadership over there lost its cool. Unfortunately, the Treasury Department’s pressure didn’t last.
In an interview with VICE News, Professor Lee suggested that the diplomatic community has perhaps made a mistake in being “maybe a little too respectful,” and noted that there are plenty of non-violent methods of forcing action. Lee outlined a scenario in which the global financial community freezes North Korean money, cutting into the flow of the luxury goods and swag that keep the country’s elite happy. Frozen funds would be released in installments if North Korea were able to demonstrate that a substantial portion of each installment was paying for things like medicine and food to be distributed to its citizens.
That kind of outcome may not be earth-shattering to anyone who isn’t a sick or starving North Korean, but using the UN commission's report as a basis for passing legislation that would force the country to take better care of its people would be a lot more effective than the existing state of affairs.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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