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North Korea: an opportunity lost is an opportunity gained

The recurring three-part drama, Unsuccessful Diplomacy-North Korean Belligerence-United Nations Sanctions, is airing on our screens once again. How do we we break the cycle - and finally get North Korea to change its behaviour?

Alexander James
8 March 2013
A stele in front of the Juche monument in Pyongyang. Demotix/Roman Kalyakin. All rights reserved.

A stele in front of the Juche monument in Pyongyang. Demotix/Roman Kalyakin. All rights reserved.

Diplomacy with North Korea is not working. Since Pyongyang walked out of the Six Party Talks - the negotiations aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear program - in April 2009, the regime has conducted two underground nuclear tests, launched a variety of missiles, sunk a South Korean vessel and shelled an inhabited South Korean island. This is not to mention its continuing human rights abuses and a raft of other illicit activities. Periodic attempts to coerce the North Korean government into dialogue, such as the much vaunted ‘Leap Day Deal’, have similarly ended in failure; whilst January and March’s United Nations Security Council resolutions look set to follow a well-trodden path to nowhere.

Stuck on repeat

The recurring three-part drama, Unsuccessful Diplomacy-North Korean Belligerence-United Nations Sanctions, is airing on our screens once again. As the same-old actors spout the same-old lines, the plotlines are beginning to look rather predictable.

Reaffirming the demands of the previous resolutions - 1718 and 1874 - January’s UN Resolution 2087 went further in its attempt to squeeze Pyongyang’s ability to generate funds and acquire components for its weapons programmes. Travel bans were handed to four prominent North Korean officials, whilst the assets of the Bank of East Land, four weapons-related corporations and North Korea’s Committee for Space Technology were all frozen. However, just three weeks after the passing of 2087, North Korea conducted its third successful nuclear test.

In spite of the failures of past sanctions, the UN has pressed on. Passing Resolution 2094 on 7 March, the latest UN sanctions look to further tighten the economic screw on North Korean individuals and entities, specifically in the realms of bulk cash transfers, banking and asset freezes.

Even though this latest episode could easily be mistaken for a repeat, one leading actor - the United States - remains outwardly optimistic, despite Pyongyang’s intimations that more nuclear tests could soon follow. Claiming on 22 January that Resolution 2087 signalled to Pyongyang the “significant consequences for its flagrant violation of its obligations under previous resolutions”, Susan Rice, US Permanent Representative to the UN, went further on 5 March when stating that the latest sanctions “will demonstrate clearly to North Korea the continued costs of its provocations”.

China’s vested interests

Many commentaries at the time of Resolution 2087 found solace in China’s support of the sanctioning regime. Moreover, China’s support for the latest round of sanctions is likely to swell optimism further still. Yet the acid test for resolutions 2087 and 2094 will surely rest upon their enforcement, rather than their rhetoric. Presciently, long-time North Korea watchers Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard recently asked: “What is Beijing really going to do about [North Korea]?”

Discounting the international community’s “whack-a-mole” approach of chasing North Korean banks and companies (who can easily change names and shift assets), Beijing remains the key player in the sanctioning regime. Sharing an 880-mile border with North Korea and accounting for 70% of the country’s imports, China could - in theory - bring North Korea economically to its knees. But as a 2010 US Congressional Research Service Report found, Beijing’s “minimalist” enforcement of sanctions over the years has not only undermined the effectiveness of economic sanctions on North Korea, it has also run contrary to the UNSC’s political aims.

Whilst suggestions that China holds the keys to Pyongyang are vastly overstated, Beijing’s readiness to let all manner of wares - from luxury goods to missile carriers - flow into Pyongyang indicates that it sees greater worth in a stable border, a stable North Korean regime and the pursuit of its own interests via its “long-range North Korea strategy”.

China’s post-nuclear test murmurings, via the official news agency Xinhua, corroborate this premise. “Dialogue and negotiations”, rather than “confrontation”, are seen by Beijing as the “optimal means to eventually solve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula”. Plainly put, China’s security and politico-economic interests remain invested in a stable North Korea and no UN sanctioning regime or resolution will unsettle this fact.

Opportunities lost, opportunities gained

The flip side of the diplomatic coin concerning North Korea is the issue of human security. Long absent from high-profile dialogue concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, recent events indicate that this one-track diplomatic policy could finally face a concerted challenge.

Following the failure of both diplomacy and sanctions to dissuade Pyongyang from conducting its third nuclear test, a new opportunity may be capitalized upon. A call from Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January for a “full-fledged international inquiry” into “the deplorable human rights situation” in the DPRK attracted far less attention that North Korea’s impending nuclear experiment. Nevertheless, the prospect of quickly re-exerting international pressure upon Pyongyang from outside the tried-and-failed diplomatic channels could ignite interest in Pillay’s proposal.

An issue that has long generated more rhetoric than action in the halls of the UN Human Rights Council, the current year-long absence of China, Russia, and Cuba - all traditional allies of North Korea - offers hope that pressure could finally be brought to bear on Pyongyang. Some states, such as the US, will undoubtedly remain apprehensive about letting the human rights genie out of the bottle, lest it disturb prospects for future nuclear negotiations. But with North Korea willing to upset the nuclear applecart time and again, sceptics may be compelled to adopt atypical tactics for the year ahead.

Redefining the referent object of security away from the state and towards the individual on the Korean peninsula will undoubtedly require a shift in mentality from all parties concerned. The security of individuals in North Korea - especially those subjected to imprisonment, torture, extrajudicial executions or famine - has rarely carried the same weight as the security of states in the minds of policymakers and the world’s media alike.

Yet crucially, momentum in the international community appears to be gathering. In a recent report, Marzuki Darusman, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, suggested that an inquiry should even “examine the issues of institutional and personal accountability”, which could pave the way for referrals of individuals to the International Criminal Court. As unlikely as this outcome may seem, even the naming of human rights violators in a UN report would go a long way in holding the North Korean regime to account and to redressing the notion of insecurity in favour of the North Korean citizen.

A shift in focus away from the security of states may also allow the voices of non-state actors to be heard. Amongst the larger NGOs that are likely to seek participation in a Commission of Inquiry, the expertise of smaller groups, such as the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights and the North Korean Human Rights Database Centre, should be engaged. It may seem obvious that North Korean refugees and those who have a stake in the Korean peninsula’s future should be a part of this process, but this has not always been the case. A recent report on the inter-Korean activities of South Korean NGOs conceded as much and argued that their “intervention in human rights issues [in North Korea] cannot be postponed further”.

Human rights: a poor man’s option?

Writing in 2011, Charles Armstrong, Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, noted that “[i]t has become apparent that a policy of isolation, sanctions, lack of dialogue, and ‘strategic patience’ has not worked to weaken North Korea or alter its behaviour, much less bring the regime down”. In 2013 this description remains unchanged.

Many state-centric hardliners or those who view security in more traditional and militaristic terms may see the route to pressuring North Korea via the UN Human Rights Council as a poor man’s option. But perhaps the time has come for us to admit that North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons, regardless of the incentives or sanctions that are proposed. Time and energy are increasingly wasted on a loose and largely ineffective sanctioning regime (although effective sanctions are possible, however unlikely their implementation may seem), whilst many North Koreans continue to suffer away from the nuclear spotlight.

It follows that different paths and new actors should be considered within a diversified strategy that seeks to build pressure on Pyongyang. A high-profile international inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea is just one tool. Admittedly, an inquiry will not solve the Korean peninsula’s woes, but a high profile UN-led Commission of Inquiry can help to reshape the global discourse on North Korea away from the dead-end nuclear issue. In doing so the Walls of Jericho are unlikely to crumble, but, importantly, North Korea would no longer be recognisable as just a nuclear proliferator or a regional troublemaker, for it would also be seen as the largest human rights violator in the world today.

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