My Lowy Essay on that New Report on North Korean Human Rights: It won’t Change the North – but It will Pressure China


This is a re-up of a short piece I wrote for the Lowy Institute’s blog on that recent North Korea human rights report from the UN. The more I think about it, the more I think its big impact will be to raise the moral pressure on China to either rein in North Korea or start cutting it off. NK is an embarrassment to China. My Chinese grad students get flustered and sheepish whenever I mention this. I think this moral embarrassment is the best way to push China on this. And once China finally cuts off NK, then we’ll see real change at last. I also thought this analysis piece from Foreign Policy was pretty good.

“This month the United Nations (UN) told us what we all already knew – that North Korea is the world’s worst human rights abuser. Specifically, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the formal name of North Korea) of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a lengthy, well-documented report that North Korean repression, in the words of the Australian chair of the Commission, Michael Kirby, is “strikingly similar” to that of the Nazis. This is a landmark finding, not only for its willingness to call out North Korea explicitly, but for its origin in a multilateral body channeling global public opinion. I see four elements in the coming fall-out from this:


1. Because this comes from the UN, it carries the imprimatur of the international community in a way that reports from the western states and NGOs cannot.

This is probably the report’s greatest import. The findings themselves, however disturbing, are not really new. Even those who do not study Korea or Asia have known for a long time that North Korea is an orwellian hellhole. I had a (Korean) student who once wrote a paper claiming 1984 was the blueprint for North Korea. I recall reading once back in the 1990s, when the Taliban still governed Afghanistan, that human rights groups ranked North Korea even below them. (Here are the North Korea pages for both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.) More importantly, a robust North Korean defector/refugee literature has emerged in the last two decades. Barbara Demick’s book is probably the most famous, but the more North Koreans escape and tell their stories, the harder it has become to cover-up or deny the horrors.

Indeed, it is likely that this growing wave of defector literature helped push this investigation through from a major multilateral body with global credibility. Fairly or not, it is easier for reports from western or South Korean sources, whether governmental or non-profit, to be dismissed as ‘human rights imperialism’ or interventionist by those, such as China, who would rather not discuss North Korea’s gulags. But such claims from a UN body, complete with global membership, are far harder to dismiss. As such, I expect this report to be the new benchmark against which human rights critiques of the North are made.

2. The report’s origin with the UN will pressure China.

China is North Korea’s patron. Without the Chinese veto at the UN Security Council, North Korea would be even more isolated than it already is. China provides it with the fuel to keep factories running and the lights on. China also looks the other way on the massive smuggling taking place across the border. North Korea is technically under heavy sanction, but Chinese help – or at least, non-enforcement – reduces the bite of various embargoes. Certainly in my own experience, when I flew into Pyongyang from Beijing, there was no sanctions stop or check. Tourists loaded up on luxury goods like liquor and home appliances in duty-free and walked right onto the plane.

This is a pretty good deal for China. Chinese merchants and smugglers can charge cut-throat prices. The influx of various sanctioned goods keeps North Korea stumbling along and arguably helps forestall the country’s collapse. And all this interaction gives Chinese business privileged access to the North, particularly its prized natural resources. Chinese security experts openly refer to North Korea as a ‘buffer’ (I’ve heard this manipulative formulation at conferences repeatedly) between China and the democracies of South Korea, Japan and the United States.

But there are also a lot of ‘track II’ signals that China is uncomfortable with North Korea (again, I’m thinking of informal conversation on the conference circuit). The regime is so awful, that the alliance with China creates genuine reputation costs. The US ‘pivot to Asia’ is fuelled partially by China’s insistence on standing by North Korea, seemingly no matter what it does. This UN report is almost certain to be new ammunition in diplomatic efforts to pull China away from the North, and it guarantees another round of terrible press for China in both Asia and the West. This is good, as North Korea will probably not collapse until China finally pulls the plug. Normative pressure like this raises the ‘audience costs’ of Chinese support.

3. No sanctions relief will be forthcoming.

This report will also lock-in the extraordinarily tight sanctions regime around North Korea. As a report generated from within the UN, it will carry special weight in further UN deliberations on sanctions. The UN has a ‘Panel of Experts’ on the DPRK sanctions. They now have access to UN data without the politically controversial step of using information from member governments like South Korea with a vested interest in tougher sanctions. This will also raise pressure on China as the primary sanctions-buster.

4. Threatening prosecution at the International Criminal Court won’t help.

One unanticipated outcome of the report is the personal notification to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he may be held personally liable for the abuses and might be remanded, were it possible, to the ICC for criminal prosecution.

Human rights advocates often celebrate such threats as progress in human rights maintenance. They signal to potential future violators that there will be punishment and, hopefully, pre-emptively discourage violations. This ‘deterrence’ may work; the political science research on it is not clear as far as I know.

But there is a downside regarding despots already in power. To threaten them with prosecution almost certainly encourages to dig in deeper, to not give an inch. Bashar al-Assad is likely in such a situation. He has no exit, nowhere to go where he would be safe, so he fights all the harder to hang on. Kaddafi too signaled during the Libyan civil war that he was open to some kind of transition-for-escape deal. This never materialized, and he fought to the end. By contrast, Idi Amin was given refuge in Saudi Arabia.

In the North Korean case, it is often assumed the Kim family will run to Beijing when the regime starts to collapse. But if the Kims can find no refuge, because of efforts such as an ICC prosecution, or South Korean efforts to extradite them, then they are that much more likely to fight, possibly even launching an insurgency.

But all-in-all, this was a good day for human rights and tough one for China. That is progress.”

20 thoughts on “My Lowy Essay on that New Report on North Korean Human Rights: It won’t Change the North – but It will Pressure China

  1. The pressure will increase, for a while, but there is little indication that this sort of human rights brand image matters much to China. China itself is human rights abuser; China itself abuses N. Koreans through its refugee policy. I am sorry to say but states discount human rights too much for this report to be a fire bell in the night for China. South Africa withstood the worst pillorying of a state in modern times and it continued with apartheid until the security situation changed (Gorbachev’s ending support for revolutionary communism in Africa and the eschewing of nationalism by the ANC). Israel has continued a very harsh Palestinian policy and likely will continue until its perception of security improves. China is unlikely to let a human rights report or bad press affect its NK policy unless China concludes that N. Korea can be jettisoned without damaging China’s security (and the U.S. pivot may reinforce that concern not provide a rational for China distancing itself from NK as I think you suggest).

    Even with the U.S., the human rights issue regarding NK gets bollixed up with security. Security concerns use up all the oxygen devoted to NK. Witness the near invisibility of the 1990s N. Korean famine in US press and with policy-makers – almost all the talk then was on the NK nuclear program and there was an apparent tit-for-tat on US aid for NK security concessions.

    Finally, it is hard to believe that there will be much global hue and cry against NK over human rights behavior that the world has tolerated for decades, despite the UN imprimatur on this new report. And, this is especially so, since the one country which should be leading that moral crusade, is more concerned about human rights abuses which occurred 70 years ago in Japan. If South Koreans don’t talk that much about N. Korean HR abuses — if South Koreans are not willing to pay an economic or diplomatic price by standing up to China on its refugee policy/NK support — the rest of the world may ask why should it?


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