Will North Korea improve human rights record?

Will North Korea improve human rights record?

The increasing international pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights record has raised the question of whether Pyongyang will move to change the situation or continue to deny it and criticise what it calls interference in its domestic affairs.

Analysts say that the North may seek to make some cosmetic changes to quieten the criticism, but is unlikely to fundamentally remove the deep-rooted inhumane practices that have been revealed through various surveys and statements from victims and eyewitnesses.

They also say that the efforts to bring about a substantive change in the North's human rights conditions could backfire if the issue is used politically to raise pressure on the North to give up nuclear arms.

"I think they (North Korea) will react positively and try to alleviate Western concerns. This will be done out of pragmatic motives, and also out of a certain sense of pride," said Rudiger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna.

"But don't misunderstand me, I do not believe that North Korea will fundamentally change its policy towards political opponents. Rather, it will make big efforts to calm down the worries of the international community."

Frank noted that the North has reacted aggressively to the international accusations as the socialist regime claims to have high moral standards.

"It is important to understand that like all socialist systems, North Korea, too, claims the 'moral high ground' for itself. Its own civilisation and society are regarded as being superior to those of other countries, in particular to those of other political and economic systems," he said.

The North's woeful human rights record has returned to the spotlight recently as the EU and Japan have been leading the work of drafting a UN resolution that encourages the UNSC to refer the North Korean case to the International Criminal Court.

The North has responded angrily, arguing that it was doing its best to protect human rights through its own legal framework, and that military drills in the South and international economic sanctions had hindered its endeavours to enhance the rights conditions.

Talk of the need to bring the North's autocratic ruler Kim Jong-un before the ICC has also triggered an angry reaction from the North. But observers say that it would be almost impossible to refer Kim to the ICC as China and Russia, which regard the issue of human rights as an internal affair, are likely to thwart the move.

The UN resolution on the North's human rights conditions has been published annually since 2005. This year's edition is expected to carry stronger wording in line with the UN Commission of Inquiry report released in February.

The report found evidence of torture, execution, arbitrary incarceration, deliberate starvation, enslavement and other appalling practices that it said amount to crimes against humanity. In particular, it indicated that high-level Pyongyang officials responsible for the abuses could be referred to the ICC.

Human rights violations have been prevalent in the North as the autocratic regime has resorted to a reign of terror to maintain the dynastic ruling system, experts claimed.

"The North Korean regime maintains control of its people using barbaric means, including horrendous prison camps, torture and murder, with no requirement for legal processing before implementing punishments," said Bruce Bennett, North Korea expert at the think tank RAND Corporation.

"The regime tries to use these extreme measures to dissuade its populous from even thinking thoughts or taking actions that would question the regime. The regime apparently worries that even a little dissent, if allowed to grow, could bring about its fall."

Alerted by the increasing condemnation, the North has taken some diplomatic steps. It has recently made a flurry of efforts to defend its position, promote its own rights policy and intensify its criticism of the US for "extremely politicizing" the issue.

Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies affiliated with Seoul National University, said that the North would resort to diplomatic means for the time being, but it could mobilize more provocative means to express its anger should the international community take any action to press it over its human rights.

"The North will probably continue to repudiate the accusations against it through diplomatic efforts. But if the UN resolution should carry a recommendation to refer it to the ICC or take any visible action, it may take some provocative steps such as missile and nuclear tests to show off its sovereignty and dignity," he said.

He added that in order to bring about real change in North Korea, the US and South Korea should delink the issue from political and security ones, and seek a variety of "cooperative, constructive" means to help improve human rights conditions in the North.

Professor Frank echoed Chang's view, saying that expanding economic cooperation with the North could be a way to help improve the rights conditions in the North.

"A long-term, sustainable and profound improvement is only possible if the North Korean system develops into a stakeholder of a better human rights record," he said.

"To achieve this, expanded economic cooperation is the best method, because it will improve the overall standard of living and at the same time integrate North Korea more closely into the international community and thus into our system of shared values. If you think this is naive, look at what has happened in China in the last 30 years."

Although most experts are painting a negative outlook for North Korea's human rights condition, Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said that the pressure on Kim to shore up the debilitated economy could lead him to tackle the criticism to enhance relations with the outside world.

"Kim's grandfather (Kim Il-sung) established the so-called Juche (self-reliance) ideology, thus making the North an ideologically strong nation ― as it claims ― while his father (Kim Jong-il) made the country militarily strong with the development of nuclear arms," he said.

"Now with Jong-un at the helm of the country, he is given the task of rebuilding the North as an economically strong nation. For this, Kim should expand tourism projects and special economic zones and for these projects; outside assistance is critical. On top of that, Kim, educated in Switzerland, understands what human rights ― by Western standards ― mean."

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