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Human rights in the Hermit Kingdom - North Korea

In October, Michael Kirby, chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, delivered the keynote address at the launch of the IBA’s translation of the Korean Bar Association’s own report, hosted by Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. The following is an abridged version of his address, calling for action now that the scale of the country’s human rights crisis is known.

Most keynote addresses are given up on the platform, with a little elevation. Well, I spent 34 years as a judge. I was always up on a little platform. And that’s over. I’m down here with you to symbolise the fact that we’re all in this together. North Korea presents a challenge to all of us. It is a challenge to the world. This is an occasion for humility, not elevation.

The first thing to say is that my mandate is over. I have finished my mandate for the United Nations on North Korea. The report we were commissioned to prepare was delivered on time, unanimously, and within budget. When it was delivered, it was given to the international news media first, as happens immediately when it’s ready in the language in which it is written. Then a month later it was given formally to the Council on Human Rights.

From there, after a very strong vote of the Council on Human Rights, it went to the General Assembly Third Committee. From there, after another very strong vote, it went to the plenary of the General Assembly, where the vote was even stronger. From there, as you know, it went to the Security Council – a most unusual step to take in relation to a human rights report. The vote was 11–2. Eleven states in the Security Council voted in favour of placing the report on the agenda of the Security Council. So it is there for the next three years. It can be raised on one day’s notice as a matter of business in the order of business of the Security Council, of the United Nations, of the world.

That was also a very strong vote. On a show of hands, two states voted against the procedural motion – China and the Russian Federation. Two states abstained – Chad (which at the time held the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council) and Nigeria. Rwanda, another African state, which was a member of the Security Council, with its own experience of grave crimes against humanity and genocide, voted in favour of the motion. Eleven votes was a very strong vote.

One response to the Commission of Inquiry report that is intolerable and unacceptable is to look away… There is no excuse

But there it has stood ever since in the Security Council. It has not come back to the Security Council since that day. From December [2015], the United States will have the presidency of the Security Council. I’m hoping that, during December, the report of the Commission of Inquiry will come back into the Security Council for discussion [which it did on 10December]. And hopefully some action.

This is the report. It’s actually a very readable report. Every word of the report was weighed and balanced by me, a native English speaker, even though with a strange accent from the Antipodes. Every word is what we
intended to say.

So there it is. It should be translated into Chinese. We’ve tried to get it translated into Chinese. China is the key to effective action on North Korea. And if the people of China, with their greatness, including their great self-achievement of economic progress in the last 20 or 30 years, had this report, I think it would work into the minds of the people of China. They would ask themselves, as many blogs have begun to ask, why are we supporting a country like North Korea as described in this report? Why is our government supporting such a land?

If anyone has ideas about such publication let me know. It should be at every airport. It is readable. Put a few photographs in it, a very handsome photograph of the presiding officer of the Commission of Inquiry on the cover and it would get a Pulitzer Prize! It should be in the public marketplace of ideas. That is something which we have to work on.

Bringing the world’s attention to North Korea

I thank Johns Hopkins University, not only for the dialogue today, but for what was done two years ago today when we sat on the stage here as a Commission and we heard the public hearings in the United States, in this very room. That became a foundation for our report.

Now, since that time and indeed since the report was accepted by the procedural motion of the Security Council, a lot has happened in our world. Much of it has been focused on what we call the Middle East. The terrible events that have been unfolding in the Middle East, and in the Arab lands, are naturally the focus of the international news media. The international news media sets the agenda of the action and attention of the international leaders. It’s natural that this should be so in free countries with free media. But the result is that North Korea has definitely gone off the main attention of the news media and the political leaders of the world. What can we do?

We know how important this issue is. This, after all, is a land with at least 20 nuclear warheads; with an increasingly sophisticated missile delivery system; with increasing attention being paid by North Korea to submarine technology; and with the potential, with the miniaturisation of the 20 nuclear warheads on submarines, of harassing and troubling countries in the Pacific and in our world, including the United States. If this doesn’t endanger the United States today, very soon it will do, with the technology upon which North Korea is spending its wealth to the exclusion of the survival and life of its people. It will be a real trouble and harassment to this country. And to many others.

So, the problem which we face is keeping up attention to North Korea. I think it is fair to say that, although Islamic State and Syria and Libya and Iran and all the other countries that grab our leaders’ attention around the world, although they are proper matters of concern, North Korea must not go off the agenda because of the peril that it presents to itself, to its own people, to the Korean Peninsula and to the world.

So, the one response to the Commission of Inquiry report that is intolerable and unacceptable is to look away, again, tolook away, because what we didn’t know, what the international community did not know, what I did not know, before the Commission of Inquiry did its work, we now know. There
is no excuse.

It is as if in the 1930s, somebody with authority had gone into the Nazi and fascist lands and reported on what was happening. And then we had turned away. That would have been totally unacceptable. And it’s totally unacceptable today.

Therefore, we have to grab again the attention of our leaders and of the international community. We have to make sure that something is done to follow up the report of the Commission of Inquiry.

Hearing Korean voices

I think it would be a good thing if more UN inquiries were headed by judges and ex-judges. One thing you learn as a judge is a discipline in your life and also you get a dispassion and a sense of due process, and of the obligation, even to North Korea, to make sure that you don’t overreach. A UN Commission of Inquiry isn’t a political action. It is dispassionate. It reports with dispassion and with due process. That is what we did.

One of the first things you learn in due process is that you must listen to the voice of those whom you are criticising. So, although we don’t have North Korea here today, let me read you [a]passage that will give you the voice of North Korea. [This is] the voice of the diplomats who responded in the Human Rights Council to the report of the Commission of Inquiry.

This is a land with at least 20 nuclear warheads; with an increasingly sophisticated missile delivery system… If this doesn’t endanger the United States today, very soon it will do

‘My delegation categorically and resolutely rejects what is being said. Such a manoeuvre is no more than a knockabout plot that has no value to consider. However, we are compelled to state our principled position since this plot, which is based on all sorts of despicable means, is going beyond the dangerous level. First, the United States and its followers, including Japan, have constantly been attempting to undermine the ideology of the DPRK and eliminate its social system, throughout years and centuries of its existence, by resorting to all sorts of plot and fabrications and are using human rights as one of the tools to achieve this objective. 

Worse, the United States and other hostile forces have been more and more arbitrary in their endeavours to create an international oppressive system aimed at interfering at the internal affairs of DPRK.

Second, the United States, Japan and the EU are not qualified to refer to the human rights situation of others. Those countries in question committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the past by carrying out invasion, plundering, genocide against other countries and nations, and are now behaving as human rights judges that politically name and shame the independent states they dislike, trying to cover up their bloody history. It is particularly preposterous in the case of Japan.

In the DPRK we have a proverb saying “mind your own business”, which means that one needs to see his or her face in the mirror and check how nasty it is before talking about others.’

The report and the statement of the ambassador to the UN in Geneva following the Commission report goes on in similar vein to denounce particularly the United States, Japan and the EU.

Discount some of the artificiality of language. Still, it is important to note the very strong and deeply felt hostility of North Korea to the United States. If you read the Washington Post a few days ago, there was a lengthy article about the surprise that President Reagan had felt when he learned, in 1983, that the Soviet Union, under Mr Andropov, a successor to Khrushchev in the post-Stalin era, actually thought the United States intended to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union as a pre-emptive strike and Mr Reagan felt that the United States, through history, had always been a moral country and had always acted in a democratic way. So this belief surprised him, that they actually thought that this was going to happen. But we now know from the archives that they did actually think that the United States was going to attack them. Therefore, when we listen to the voice of the representatives of DPRK we must ask ourselves how they are seeing the issues that have been discussed today. What are they thinking about the issues that we are considering?

We have to put ourselves into their heads in order to understand them. We may think and say that much of what they are thinking is simply the protection of the self-interest of a ruling elite. But the repetition of their strong belief in their social philosophy and in their kind government may indeed be a reality for them. So it’s very important that we, trying to understand their perspective, are conscious of how they are approaching the matter.

The IBA/KBA report on DPRK

Secondly, this was made still clearer to me today when I read my copy of the report that has been prepared by the International Bar Association. It is one of the sponsors of this symposium, indeed the lead sponsor of this event here today at Johns Hopkins.

This IBA report on human rights in North Korea is not a document prepared by occidentals, or even by an international organisation of people of different cultural backgrounds. It is a document prepared on the Korean Peninsula by the Korean Bar Association, which is established in the Republic of South Korea. So it is prepared by a group of Korean lawyers who have gathered together their perspective, a Korean perspective, on human rights in North Korea.

It is as if in the 1930s, somebody with authority had gone into the Nazi and fascist lands and reported on what was happening. And then we had turned away. That would have been totally unacceptable. And it’s totally unacceptable today

If we’re seeking to put our minds into the space of those whom we are seeking to address and to influence, it is self-evidently important that we should try to get our minds around a Korean perspective, in this case not a North Korean perspective, but a perspective of lawyers of the Korean Bar Association in South Korea. So when one looks at this report and just concentrates for the moment on the conclusion, what do we find?

The conclusion, written by a lawyer, Lee Sock Bum, who was delegated by the Korean Bar Association in South Korea, says that the four principles for improving rights in North Korea include, first, compliance with international human rights principles. Secondly, balancing human rights with peace. Well, human rights have their own dignity and peace and human rights are two of the three great objectives of the United Nations. So I suppose you could say there is a balance of some kind to be achieved. The third principle relates to substantive improvement in human rights. Perhaps this Korean document is not addressed to high issues of sanctions and international human rights principles and so on. It concerns how we can actually improve human rights for our cousins and our uncles and all the people out there who are distant from us, but are really part of ourselves.

The fourth principle is the cooperative improvement of human rights and the focus of this document is on cooperation. So, in their methodology they say the North Korean government must play the principal role in improving human rights. That’s the first methodological principle.

Their second is that we who are suggesting improvements must suggest effective measures to be taken. We should be concentrating on the practical. Thirdly, we should avoid confrontation and we should look for cooperation. Fourthly, reformers must cooperate insofar as they can to secure improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea. And, fifthly, human rights should be improved in concert with other universal values: the harmonious pursuit of universal values shared by the international community.

The KBA report traces these back through the UN Charter, the Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and so on. But the last paragraph is worth reading to you because this, I remind you, is a Korean perspective – of lawyers in South Korea:

‘The current situation in which South Korea and North Korea have different political and economic systems, and are opposed ideologically and militarily, imposes a double hardship. South Korea should take an active role in improving human rights in North Korea without raising human rights issues solely as a means of putting political pressure on North Korea. We would like to point out that pressurising and isolating North Korea, or using human rights issues as a means to do so, will not bring about a positive outcome.’

So this is the conclusion of the Korean Bar Association, addressing the issues which are occupying us in this conference. If we are seeking to hear both sides and hear different perspectives then we have to attend to what the [North Korean] diplomat said and make allowances for the old-fashioned communist ideological language. And consider that there may be some elements that are speaking to us that we should try to understand. Certainly we should try to look at the KBA opinion.

You can get it online. The IBA paid for this to be translated from the Korean so that it would be available to us. It is important that we attend to it.  


The full-length film of Michael Kirby’s address and a webcast interview with him can be viewed on the IBA website at ibanet.org