North Korea: nuclear threat and human rights present urgent challenge

Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia Journalist

With tensions over North Korea’s nuclear threat escalating, international law and diplomacy is now at a critical juncture, Michael Kirby, Vice-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute Council, has warned.

Speaking exclusively to Global Insight, Kirby says the international community has a legal obligation to address ‘two apparently inconsistent necessities’: human rights violations and the development of nuclear weapons under the rule of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

‘We have to address the danger of not focusing on the problem that confronts us. That is what the charter of the United Nations requires and therefore we don't make our situation better by lamenting the difficulty of the challenge and hoping it will go away. It won't,’ said Kirby.

Concern over North Korea’s nuclear programme has increased in the last few months, after a missile test in May signalled its advancing technology, followed by the country launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile in July.

In response to the recent tests, the United Nations Security Council expanded its sanctions against North Korea with approval from China as well as the United States – the two most powerful players in the Korean Peninsula. Jim Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, has called North Korea the ‘most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security’.

Commenting on discussions between the US and Russia during the recent G8 summit in Hamburg, Kirby said: ‘It may be that the discussions between President Putin and President Trump will reveal suggestions for a more peaceful approach that will yield greater dividends and take fewer risks.’

He added that a military response is not the solution. ‘The one course which is not really available in the current state of the weaponry and of the vulnerability of populations in the region is the use of a military option. What has to be done is to consider what options short of military are available. The protection of people in South Korea but also in North Korea and Japan make it imperative that military talk should be avoided.

Michael Kirby

Michael Kirby

‘I believe that the wise and experienced diplomats in the US will be so warning the President, and that the President will follow that warning.

‘I think if the objective is to encourage North Korea to take steps to improve its human rights record and to reduce the temperature of the security risk then the path to that objective lies along the route of conversation, discussion and compromise.’

Kirby also sees a glimmer of hope in the strategy pursued by the new President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. The former human rights lawyer assumed his post in May and he has taken a different approach to North Korea than his predecessor, calling for engagement with their neighbours rather than isolation. 

‘‘It would be a tragedy if the world went down the path of sleep walking into a serious military conflict on the Korean Peninsula ’

Michael Kirby
Vice-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute Council

‘It is a good thing that he is aware of the desirability of reaching out. It would be a tragedy if the world went down the path of sleepwalking into a serious military conflict on the Korean Peninsula,’ said Kirby.

He holds back in assigning to China the leverage it is said to have over North Korea through its trade with the country. Earlier this year, North Korea’s state media lashed out at China after that government’s mouthpiece called for harsher sanctions in the event of another nuclear test.

‘At least potentially and theoretically, China could turn off the electricity supply in most of North Korea. What that would do and how that country would respond is a matter of uncertainty,’ added Kirby.

Kirby – who chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) that found clear evidence of ongoing crimes against humanity in North Korea when it reported in 2014 – also discussed the extreme difficulties of demanding accountability for grave human rights violations in the country at a time of heightened nuclear tensions.

‘If we are to get accountability for the crimes against humanity found by the COI, that will demand accountability on the part of the leaders, including Kim Jong-un and the elite around him.

In its 2014 report, the COI found many instances of human rights violations in North Korea, some of them crimes against humanity, for which the perpetrators should be held responsible. ‘If accountability is not given by the country concerned, the UN has adopted the principle that the international community must give accountability for crimes against humanity,’ said Kirby.

‘If it is to comply with international law, the international community must achieve at the one moment the surrender of nuclear capability and the defence of universal human rights of the citizens of [North Korea]. This is effectively requiring the international community to square the circle. This is difficult but it must be attempted. It is not admissible in international law, if there have been crimes against humanity, simply to turn away and to forget them or overlook them in the hope of getting a deal that will end the extremely dangerous situation presented by its nuclear capabilities.’