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North Korea: elite shame, world test



28 February 2014

The United Nations report on conditions in North Korea published on 18 February 2014 is a monument to frustration as well as concentration. In over 300 pages of forensic detail, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) builds a compelling case against the rulers of the DPRK. The government in Pyongyang has signed many UN conventions and protocols in recent years, but it doesn't even start to observe the rights enshrined in them. In Confucian philosophy, the basic responsibility of any government which can be regarded as righteous and ethical is to look after its people. This might be regarded as paternalistic, but at least it demands of those in power a sense of obligation to those they rule. Harming your own people is categorically not right: a violation of your own codes.

The UN report, chaired by the Australian judge Michael Kirby, makes this violation abundantly clear. The testimony assembled since the commission was established on 21 March 2013 shows both that the culpability of power-holders in North Korea is massive, and - crucially - that it goes right to the top of the DPRK system. The abuses reported by refugees and other witnesses are so systematic and widespread that the idea they can occur without the central government's knowledge is untenable. This report is therefore an indictment. It is not surprising that the North Korean authorities had no confidence to engage with it during its research, and condemned it out of hand once it had appeared. For the DPRK, attack is not just the best form of defence, it is the only one.

The report is shameful for the DPRK. Its accusation is that even on its own terms the regime now headed by Kim Jong-Un has betrayed its people. In political terms the accusation is deadly. The DPRK has no legitimacy; its sole strategy has been to blame the rest of the world, and in particular the United States, to deflect attention from its own failures. The report notes how much of the educational material available to young North Koreans portrays Japanese and Americans as enemies, liars and oppressors. This material is so virulent it constitutes race-hate material. But for the Kim regime, hatred of the outsider is one of the few cards it has.

China's little brother

It is clear that under the new supreme leader Kim Jong-Un, North Korea has entered a period in which its behaviour is even more capricious than under Kim Jong-Il. One day, the new Kim is entertaining the troubled American basketball player Dennis Rodman; the next he is executing someone once judged to be his chief advisor and "control-tower", Jang Song Thaek. He may be filmed escorting his glamorous wife around Pyongyang, where signs of limited mobile and internet use mingle with the green shoots of a local market; but this does nothing to limit aggressive rhetoric over nuclear weapons or threats against South Korea.

It is telling that Kim has so far failed to visit China. It is also instructive that the Chinese former senior leader who seemed closest to the DPRK regime, Zhou Yongkang, is now reportedly under house-arrest, and that his networks are being targeted. There seems little emotional bond between Pyongyang and Beijing these days. The sole unifying objective is to keep the US out, and on this matter the DPRK serves a useful purpose. Kim Jong-Il, the father of Kim Jong-Un, reputedly told his allies in Beijing that North Korea was China's own frontline, for otherwise China might find that the US's reach extended to its very border. To protect itself, Kim's logic went, China had to protect its "little brother". Such dexterous blackmail has, so far, worked well - though Xi Jinping is untested on the DPRK issue, and Kim Jong-Un lacks the authority of his father and predecessor.

Stark issues, hard answers

The UN report has authority in abundance. The international panel behind it has no vested interest in attacking the DPRK regime, yet its findings remove from Pyongyang's elite every shred of moral credibility. The state as it exists in the DPRK lives on violence, oppression, and greed. It is the tool of a small group whose members are willing to see their country go up in flames rather than compromise, largely because they see compromise as the prelude to the same fate as Romania's Ceausescu or Libya's Qaddafi. Better to concentrate every effort on surviving today than contemplate a tomorrow where they could end up executed or imprisoned.

But for the world, the report offers everything needed to take a position on the DPRK regime's internal situation. North Korea's people continue to suffer great brutality; they are the ultimate victims. The question of what to do to improve their lot is ever more vital. Yet if the country raises stark issues for the international community, it also resists easy answers.

A military intervention would be catastrophic. Political and economic engagement has been tried and proven near impossible thanks to Pyongyang's official mindset. Many forms of sanctions and pressure are already in place. Yet amid all this, the UN report is a milestone. It speaks to the world's conscience. It presents the global community with the starkest possible portrait of a people under subjugation. It cannot be ignored. The search for a humane and practical response is urgent.