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2008/11/27 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 31 (November 27, 2008)


UN Resolution on NK Human Rights: Significance and Effects

By Kim Soo-am (Research Fellow, the Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, Korea)

The international community is actively rallying through the UN to improve the human rights situation in North Korea. In particular, the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN General Assembly have consecutively adopted a resolution from 2003-2005 and 2005-2007 respectively, condemning North Korea's human rights record and urging for improved conditions. However, despite the UN's efforts, North Korea has continuously taken an uncooperative stance toward the issue. At the 64th UN General Assembly Session on Nov. 21, the Third Committee on social, humanitarian, and social issues approved a resolution draft concerning North Korean human rights by a vote of 95 in favor, 24 against, and 62 abstentions. The 192-member General Assembly is expected to endorse the resolution in its session next month.

   Consistent with past years, this year's resolution expresses serious concern for continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in North Korea. The resolution emphasizes the importance of inter-Korean dialogue for the improvement of human rights conditions in North Korea. It also urges North Korea to extend its full cooperation to the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights and grant humanitarian agencies unhindered access to all parts of the country.

Key Differences from the Past

This year's resolution contains some key differences from the past. For one, instead of emphasizing the normalization between North and South Korea and the Oct. 4th agreement as it did last year, this year's resolution notes the importance of inter-Korean dialogue in improving the humanitarian situation in North Korea. It also urges North Korea to cooperate with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to improve workers rights. These amendments signal that the international community will put a greater focus on the inter-Korean dialogue and workers rights in North Korea in such areas as the Kaesong industrial complex.

   North Korea has maintained its opposition to the resolution year after year, denouncing it as "a product of a political plot to forcibly change (our) system and ideology." Their declaration suggests they will continue to take an uncooperative stance on the issue by not recognizing the Special Rapporteur's position and rejecting his visits to North Korea. They will also refuse to engage in technical cooperation activities with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the grounds that the office was referenced in the resolution.

   However, for North Korea to end its isolation and receive economic aid from the international community, it must first stop approaching human rights in a politicized manner. Although the UN Resolution on North Korean human rights is not legally binding, it reflects the majority view of the UN General Assembly. It will be difficult for North Korea, which is a member of the UN and signatory to four human rights covenants, to be recognized as an actor in the international community if it continues to denounce the UN's demands as a "political plot" and sticks to its own way of opening up.

   If North Korea truly wants to come out of its isolation and find a means to survive, it needs to cooperate with the UN on human rights issues and improve human rights conditions on its own so that a resolution doesn't have to be brought to the table. First, North Korea should actively cooperate with the UN's Special Procedures and committees by allowing the Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, other Special Rapporteurs, and the Human Rights Committee members to visit North Korea. Second, it needs to engage in dialogue and technical cooperation activities with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Third, it needs to grant unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies and their activities.

North Korea's Desirable Attitude

If North Korea decides to take a more collaborative stance with the UN on human rights issues, not only will the UN resolution be taken off the table, North Korea can also develop more positive bilateral relations with the US and European Union. There is a high possibility that the incoming Obama administration will formally address North Korea's human rights situation during the US-DPRK normalization process in attempts to reach a comprehensive agreement. Thus, North Korea should realize that cooperating with the UN beforehand will be a beneficial step in preparing for the US-DPRK normalization process. The European Union (EU) has also been at the forefront of proposing the UN resolution on North Korean human rights. Therefore, gaining the EU's support and changing their views toward North Korea will also help the communist state participate as a member of the international community.

   This year, South Korea expressed a firm position on the human rights situation in North Korea during the resolution's approval process. In the past, South Korea received criticism for not being consistent in its stance on the human rights situation in North Korea, sometimes voting in favor of the resolution, and at times, abstaining from the vote altogether. Unlike previous years, President Lee Myung-bak went beyond simply voting for the resolution by co-sponsoring the draft with 50 other countries, including the EU and Japan. The Lee administration has clearly taken a strong stance on improving North Korean human rights. This issue falls under the task of "Resolving Inter-Korean Humanitarian Problems," which is a part of the Lee administration's 100-point plan for the nation. The act of co-sponsoring the resolution can be interpreted as transforming Lee's rhetoric concerning the importance of "universal human rights values" into policy.

Reactions from the North

However, South Korea's decision to co-sponsor the resolution can have negative effects on already stalemated inter-Korean relations. Using the Lee administration's decision as an opportunity to blame the South, North Korea claimed Lee is fully responsible for the current state of chilled North-South relations. The (North) Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 12 criticized South Korea's co-sponsorship of the resolution, saying, "the group of traitors had the paragraph supporting the June 15 joint declaration and Oct. 4 agreement deleted from the draft of the 'resolution'…and thus saliently revealed its true colors as confrontationist with the DPRK after completely throwing away even the mask of 'respect for the declarations.'" In a related article, Rodong Sinmun, organ of the North's ruling Workers' party, on Nov. 18 said that South Korea made "secret under the table schemes to delete the paragraph of the resolution supporting the June 15 joint declaration and the Oct. 4 agreement." The Deputy Chief of North Korea's UN delegation Pak Dok-hun called South Korea's co-sponsorship "a reckless act against Korean people and unification" as well as a "complete denial of the June 15 joint declaration and Oct. 4 agreement."

   North Korea is highly suspicious that South Korea played a key role in deleting the portion of the resolution supporting the Oct. 4th agreement. It also claims that the true motive of hostility behind South Korea's policy toward the North has been shown through the South's co-sponsorship of the resolution. South Korea will "face the dearest price" for its "treacherous act," a North Korean media source declared. When considering the North's views, human rights issues will be an obstacle in improving strained inter-Korean relations in the near future. However, human rights has the tendency of functioning as an issue of moral responsibility in bilateral relationships. Therefore, if inter-Korean relations can be improved on the political and economic level, human rights will not greatly hinder the improvement of North-South relations in the long term.

   Despite North Korea's politicization of the issue, human rights in North Korea should be approached apart from political and strategic considerations. Furthermore, the international community should separate humanitarian aid from other issues and continue to provide humanitarian support for the North Korean people's survival.

The Korean-language version of this essay is carried by the Website of the Korea Institute for National Unification, located in Seoul, in its "Online Series" (www.kinu.or.kr).