North Korea has long used ballistic missile tests and underground nuclear explosions to proclaim its intentions to the world.
But fearing that the West wants to prosecute their leader, Kim Jong Un, for human rights abuses, North Korean officials are beginning to rely on soft words instead of hard power. In an appropriately bizarre new tact for the Hermit Kingdom, North Korean officials are engaging in an intensive charm offensive designed to persuade world powers to leave their "dear leader" alone.
As part of a rare PR blitz, North Korean diplomats have reached out to reporters, diplomats, and regional experts to derail any efforts to pursue prosecution of senior North Korean officials. This week, Jang Il Hun, a North Korean diplomat who oversees North Korean outreach to the United States, went to the Council on Foreign Relations to denounce a U.S.-led "plot" to overthrow his government. Earlier this month, another North Korean official, Choe Myong Nam, defended Pyongyang’s human rights record at a U.N. press conference. Although he also acknowledged the existence of "reform-through-labor" camps where wayward individuals can be "improved through their mentality and look upon their wrongdoings." And on Wednesday, Oct. 22, a delegation of North Koreans diplomats attended a U.N. panel on human rights that featured two former inhabitants of North Korea’s extensive prison network. When the session ended, a North Korean official passed out CDs to journalists that denounced efforts by "the United States and other hostile forces" to engage in childish plots to mislead public opinion in the U.N. arena with nonexistent "human rights violations" in the North Korea.
The intent of North Korea’s extraordinary charm offensive is to convince the United Nations and key governments that North Korea is prepared to allow the world unprecedented, though extremely limited, scrutiny of its human rights record. But Pyongyang has been stymied by its diplomatic estrangement from key governments with which it has no diplomatic relations, forcing it to rely on sympathetic allies such as Cuba and China to do its diplomatic bidding.
The move follows the release of a damning 372-page report in February by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, which concluded that "widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea," according to a 36-page summary of the report. The summary also concluded that such crimes have been committed "pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State." The "gravity, scale and nature" of these abuses "reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," according to the summary.
In response, the European Union and Japan have introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the "ongoing, systematic, widespread and gross violation of human rights" in North Korea. The resolution asserts that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that crimes against humanity were committed in North Korea, and it encourages the U.N. Security Council to "take appropriate action to ensure accountability," including imposing sanctions on those responsible for or who ordered such crimes and authorizing a criminal investigation by the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Never mind that General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding and the prospect of the Security Council’s adopting a resolution triggering an ICC investigation is remote, given China’s reluctance. North Korea is clearly spooked.
On Oct. 17, North Korea enlisted Cuba to reach out to the European Union on its behalf. In essence, Cuba was offering a trade: North Korea would invite the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to Pyongyang to discuss the situation in exchange for European assurances that the North Korean leader would be off-limits. China subsequently delivered the same appeal to the European Union.
"The Cubans have been doing their [the North Koreans’] diplomacy basically because they are not so skillful," said a European diplomat. "The Cubans came forward with a proposal to drop the ICC referral from our text. In exchange, they would accept a visit from the high commissioner for human rights. The reaction was very negative to such a deal. We don’t trust them — that’s for sure. But even if we trusted them, we wouldn’t trade a referral to the ICC for a visit to the country. It’s a little late for that."
Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, Jang, the North Korean diplomat, dismissed the commission’s contention that North Korea has hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in labor camps spread across the country, saying they are simply "reformatories."
He said the "major obstacle" to improving human rights in North Korea is the United States and its "hostile policy" aimed at isolating North Korea and stifling its ability to prosper. In contrast, he said, North Korea’s young leader has made a "constant effort … to improve the human rights situation of my country by improving the people’s livelihood and giving more freedom and rights to the people."
"The United States and other European countries are making very great fuss about human rights violations, as they call it, in my country," he said. This "is a political plot to demonize our system."
Asked why North Korean officials — after years of diplomatic discretion — have mounted such a public campaign, Jang said they think the resolution is directed at their leader: "We hold … our respected Martial Kim Jong Un in highest esteem," he said, employing a title North Korean officials use to highlight their leader’s supposed military prowess. "We could no longer sit idle, just watching and responding back, and we have to — we think we have to take action on our own in response to such a political plot."
But Michael Kirby, an Australian judge who led the commission of inquiry, said no one should be fooled by North Korea’s new geniality, which included the release of American Jeffrey Fowle, whom Pyongyang was holding prisoner, as well as its recent, first-ever commitment to accept a series of human rights recommendations from the U.N. Human Rights Council. "This house, the United Nations, speaks endlessly of universal human rights … and the obligation of those who are guilty of crimes against humanity to answer before justice for their crimes," Kirby said at Wednesday’s panel discussion on North Korean rights. "And the question that is before the United Nations now is, when we face such a moment of truth, will the United Nations back away because of the steps belatedly taken by North Korea?… And my hope is that the answer to that question will be ‘no. We don’t back away. We stand for the principles of the United Nations, and we expect accountability for great crimes before justice. And that is the right of the people of North Korea."