North Korea has made a number of intriguing gestures recently on human rights. At the United Nations, its Foreign Minister announced his country’s readiness to hold a “human rights dialogue with countries not hostile to it.” The North Korean Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) International Affairs Secretary, on a visit to Brussels, offered a human rights dialogue to the European Union (EU). Even earlier, a North Korean official told a United Nations meeting that his government would accept some of the recommendations put forward by states in the Universal Periodic Review (a UN process that evaluates all countries’ human rights records). And a Foreign Ministry official admitted to the press the existence of “reform through labor detention centers” in North Korea.
Should these apparent openings be dismissed? Or should efforts be made to engage North Korea in human right talks?
To answer the question we must first examine the dialogues offered by DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong and WPK Secretary Kang Sok Ju in context. The initiatives come on the eve of the introduction by the European Union and Japan of a resolution on North Korea’s human rights situation into the General Assembly. To be voted upon in November, the resolution is expected to mirror one adopted in March by the 47-member Human Rights Council which acknowledged for the first time the conduct of “crimes against humanity” in North Korea and called for both a Security Council referral of the situation to an “international criminal justice mechanism” and the adoption of “targeted sanctions” against the ones “most responsible.” Initially, North Korea denounced the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) upon which the resolution was based and made inflammatory personal attacks against its chair, Australian justice Michael Kirby. Now it offers dialogue, seemingly with the aim of weakening the text of the resolution and encouraging “no” votes or abstentions in the 193-member General Assembly.
Although the DPRK is often said to be impervious to outside criticism, the resolution’s focus on accountability for “officials at the highest level of the state” seems to have caught the attention of the leadership. No North Korean Foreign Minister had been sent to the General Assembly for 15 years and presumably one of Ri’s purposes in September was to head off the resolution. Soon thereafter, the North’s UN Ambassador sent out a letter to all UN Missions proposing an alternative resolution that would exclude reference to an international criminal justice mechanism and promote instead “dialogue and negotiations.”
This sudden interest rings hollow for many because for more than a decade, North Korea refused any dialogue and ignored annual UN resolutions requesting talks. The DPRK also broke off its human rights dialogue with the EU in 2003 after the Europeans, finding the dialogue unproductive, introduced a resolution on North Korea’s human rights at the UN.
North Korea also has other reasons for offering dialogue. Pyongyang could hardly have failed to notice that its human rights record has begun to have impact on an array of governments it might need politically or for foreign investment and aid. In 2013, Mongolia’s President made the news by stating during a visit to Pyongyang that “no tyranny lasts forever” and arguing for linking the nature of “tyrannous governance to prospects for economic development.” Japan has been holding up further economic concessions to North Korea until information is forthcoming about the fate of abducted Japanese citizens. At a meeting of Security Council members in 2014, the Ambassador of France declared that his government did not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and didn’t intend to given the COI report, while the southern African state of Botswana terminated its relations with North Korea over the COI’s findings. The world’s leading industrialized nations in the Group of 8 (now 7) for the first time urged North Korea to address international concerns about its human rights violations, while the United States has made clear that overall relations with North Korea will not fundamentally improve without some change in human rights practices, including closing the prison labor camps. And President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has agreed that her country will host the UN office to be established in order to continue the monitoring done by the COI into human rights in North Korea with a view to promote accountability.
Humanitarian aid has also been affected. The sharp decline in international contributions to the World Food Program for North Korea can be explained by many reasons, including the DPRK’s extravagant military and luxury expenditures, but also its widely publicized human rights record. The COI report documented how the DPRK distributes food primarily to persons crucial to the regime, favors certain parts of the country, ignores the needs of the most vulnerable and avoids agricultural reforms for political reasons. These findings no doubt contributed in some measure to the loss of food aid and to North Korea’s promise at the Universal Periodic Review to improve food distribution. The COI report also may have prompted North Korea’s singling out women’s rights, children’s rights and disability rights as areas it is ready to work on. Its purported show of cooperation in May (in the past North Korea rejected all UPR recommendations) might also be linked to the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, 30 to 6, endorsing the COI report. The countries that voted for the report and an international criminal justice mechanism included 12 African and Asian states plus 6 Latin American states—not only the purportedly ‘hostile’ states from the West.
But whatever the reasons for the change in North Korea’s position, no opportunity to promote the human rights of the North Korea’s people should be neglected. Dialogue should be pursued, but some caveats are in order.
- Holding a dialogue should not be a point of barter. Dialogue must be viewed as a legitimate part of diplomatic discourse and not a vehicle to trade away other human rights goals—such as the wording of the General Assembly resolution, the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea or the UN office to be set up in Seoul. In the past, Pyongyang hinted at an exchange: no more UN resolutions or reports on North Korea’s human rights situation to obtain a dialogue. Governments should be expected to participate in discussions on human rights and not be rewarded for them.
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid of Jordan, and his Office should be the focal point for dialogue with North Korea in line with UN resolutions calling for dialogue adopted by consensus in the General Assembly. A dialogue should seek to establish technical assistance programs to help North Korea bring its laws into line with international standards, set up a national human rights commission, and identify the steps needed to carry out the recommendations of the UPR, the UN treaty bodies and the COI report.
- The “human rights contact group,” recommended by the COI, should be formed to promote a regionally focused longer-term dialogue. The group is supposed to be composed of “States that have historically friendly ties with the DPRK, major donors and potential donors, as well as those States already engaged with the DPRK in the framework of the six party talks.” It could become the basis for the creation of a multilateral framework for peace and security in Northeast Asia. Regional security and economic as well as human rights and humanitarian issues could be discussed under its auspices. A broader framework for negotiations might lead to more sustainable results in the long term.
- The agenda of the dialogue should begin with concepts of sovereignty. North Korea’s assertions of near absolute sovereignty are at variance with today’s international understandings of sovereignty as a form of responsibility to one’s citizens and their security and wellbeing. This responsibility also extends to the international community through compliance with the provisions of international human rights agreements.
- The human rights issues on the agenda must include those North Korea has said it is ready to make progress on, but discussions of women’s and children’s rights, food distribution and disabled people will not be sufficient. North Korea’s acknowledgement of reform through labor centers incarcerating political and non-political detainees for short terms, should be used to open a door to access these centers, followed by discussion of the political prison labor camps where an estimated 120,000 brutally treated men, women and children are held. Although in the past, reference to these camps, which are considered state secrets, was often sidestepped as too sensitive, the camps are now so widely publicized that it would be derelict not to raise them and promote their closure. The songbun political classification system—at the root of so many human rights violations—should also be discussed. North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and while it often omits being bound by this treaty, should be held to its provisions. It is time for the recommendations of all the different UN bodies to be on the table.
In a letter in January to Kim Jong Un, Michael Kirby wrote that “if it would be helpful,” COI members would be ready to travel to Pyongyang to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations “in a frank exchange of views,” followed by efforts to identify the way forward toward respect for human rights. This engagement as well as talks with the High Commissioner and the EU could make North Korea’s recent offers of cooperation more than illusory.
 “U.N. secretary general receives letter from N.K. leader,” The Korea Herald, September 28, 2014.
 “N. Korea agrees to EU human rights talks,” NKNews.org, October 20, 2014; and “N. Korea asked EU to soften resolution on human rights,” The Korea Herald, October 12, 2014.
 UN Human Rights Council, Press Release, “Council adopts outcomes of Universal Periodic Review of Dominica, the DPRK and Brunei Darussalam,” September 19, 2014.
 Associated Press, October 7, 2014.
 UN Human Rights Council, “Resolution on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/L.17, 26 March 2014.
 “N. Korea asked EU to soften resolution on human rights,” The Korea Herald, October 12, 2014.
 DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN, Letter of Ambassador Ja Song Nam to All Permanent Representatives of the Member States and Permanent Observer Representatives to the UN, October 6, 2014.
 Office of the President of Mongolia, 2013 10 30,” in Chris Green, “Mongolian President’s Speech Raises Eyebrows,” Daily NK, November 25, 2013.
 “Japan rejects planned N. Korean probe report on abductions,” Global Post, September 20, 2014.
 Republic of Botswana, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “Botswana cut ties with North Korea,” February 20, 2014.
 G8 Final Communique, Lough Erne, 2013, para. 93.
 John Kerry, Remarks at Event on Human Rights in the D.P.R.K., Waldorf-Astoria, New York, September 23, 2014.
 The Republic of Korea, Permanent Mission to the UN, Address by President Park Geun-hye at the 69th Session of the General Assembly, September 24, 2014.
 UN General Assembly, “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014, paras. 46-55 [henceforth COI Report]; and “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK,” A/HRC/25/CRP.1, February 7, 2014.
 See Note Verbale dated February 1, 2012 from the Permanent Mission of the DPRK to the UN Office at Geneva addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/19/G/1, February 14, 2012.
 COI Report, para. 94 (h).
 See Carl Gershman, Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, “Resolving Crises in East Asia through a New System of Collective Security: The Helsinki Process as Model,” Washington DC, December 1, 2013.