Transitional Justice & North Korea

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I’m writing a paper about the idea of holding the Kim regime accountable for mass atrocities in the event of a regime shift. Right now, my thoughts seem a little far-fetched because there’s no conflict or regime change yet, but I think it’s good to look at the future and consider a strategy for what should be done about the Kim regime should North Korea collapse.

The media has done a great job of highlighting the developments on the Korean peninsula, so I haven’t added much content to this blog lately. Also, I’ve been working on my paper. 🙂 As usual, the nuclear proliferation aspect of North Korea is getting the bulk of the attention (mixed with jokes about Kim Jong Un), but that reflects the major concern of most of the audience – potential weapons threat to other nations. However, I’d like to bring the focus back to the Korean people, if I may (similarly, check out this LiNK video). This post is just to give you an idea about my thoughts and explain a little bit about the concept of transitional justice.

Please let me know if you have thoughts about accountability in a post-Kim Korea.

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What is Transitional Justice?

Transitional justice is a response to systematic or widespread violations of human rights. It seeks recognition for victims and promotion of possibilities for peace, reconciliation and democracy. Transitional justice is not a special form of justice but justice adapted to societies transforming themselves after a period of pervasive human rights abuse. In some cases, these transformations happen suddenly; in others, they may take place over many decades.[1]

The notion of transitional justice … comprises the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation. These may include both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, with differing levels of international involvement (or none at all) and individual prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, institutional reform, vetting and dismissals, or a combination thereof.[2]

As the field has expanded and diversified, it has gained an important foundation in international law. Part of the legal basis for transitional justice is the 1988 decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Velásquez Rodríguez v. Honduras, in which the court found that all states have four fundamental obligations in the area of human rights. These are:

  1.      To take reasonable steps to prevent human rights violations;
  2.      To conduct a serious investigation of violations when they occur;
  3.      To impose suitable sanctions on those responsible for the violations; and
  4.      To ensure reparation for the victims of the violations.[3]

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Peace v. Justice Debate

“Justice reinforces peace, and the long-term peace that one is looking for.” – Kofi Annan

“In today’s transitional justice literature and debate, a central core theme concerns the relationship between peace and justice.”[4] In the last decade or so, a view towards ending impunity for gross violations of human rights has emerged among some in the international community. The manifestation of this trend can be seen in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), for example. Central to ending impunity, however, is the question of whether those who commit serious crimes should go unpunished or untouched in order to mitigate the potential for further violence. “A justice process is very much related to a social and a political process nationally, moving a country from authoritarian rule or armed conflict into a peaceful society.”[5] As a result of this discussion, interested actors continue to unpack the tensions and competing demands of peace and justice in post-conflict and transitioning environments.


Here’s my paper abstract:

North Korea commits systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights that contravene international law, and therefore the Kim regime should one day be held accountable for its actions. On a daily basis, 24 million North Koreans suffer to varying degrees because of the incredibly oppressive tactics of the Kim regime, all while its leaders continue to build up North Korea’s weapons capabilities designed for regime preservation. The regime commits mass atrocities under the shield of state sovereignty and avoids any level of accountability by striking fear throughout the international community. Although holding the Kim regime accountable under domestic or international law may not be feasible until there is a regime shift, it is worthwhile to explore potential actions that may be taken now and in the future to not only prevent future human rights violations against North Koreans but also to remedy past wrongs for the millions who have suffered under the Kim regime.

Most experts agree that the current state of North Korea is unsustainable and change will eventually arrive. Although it is difficult to predict exactly when a state will undergo a transition, it is better to expect it rather than be taken by surprise. For the purposes of this paper, the assumption is made that there will ultimately be a regime shift in North Korea. Because of this, a strategic plan should be in place for mitigating loss of life by responding to the resulting humanitarian emergency and also ensuring the Kim regime is held accountable for its actions.

This paper tackles the accountability predicament of holding the Kim regime responsible for mass atrocities given the unique factors involving North Korea. It provides a brief history of the Kim regime, the human rights abuses it has committed and continues to perpetuate, and the positive and negative aspects of different transitional justice mechanisms – such as different forms of prosecution, truth commissions, reparations, and restitution – in the aftermath of a North Korean regime collapse and subsequent reunification of the Korean peninsula. Ultimately, this paper suggests that a strategic approach to dealing with the wrongs committed in North Korea should entail a ‘knowledge commission,’ the establishment of a ‘people’s tribunal,’ and collective reparations designed to promote healing.

Care to give me feedback? I’d love to hear from you. Post a comment or email me at thebearandthetigerblog@gmail.com. Thanks!


[1] ICTJ

[2] United Nations Security Council, S/2004/616, The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies: Report of the Secretary General, 23 August 2004.

[3] International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), What is Transitional Justice?, 2, 2009.

[4] Janine Natalya Clark, Peace, Justice and the International Criminal Court, Journal of International Criminal Justice 9, 521 (2011).

[5] International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Peace versus Justice: A False Dilemma, May 9, 2011, 3:05, http://ictj.org/news/peace-versus-justice-false-dilemma.

NK Commission of Inquiry (COI)

Progress! Two days ago – March 21, 2013 – the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) voted unanimously (47 members) to establish a North Korea Commission of Inquiry (COI).[1] Although the UN has looked at NK in the past, it has mainly focused on NK’s nuclear weapons proliferations. This time, however, shows that the ‘international community’ (more specifically, the European Union and Japan, since they brought the resolution before the OHCHR) is concerned with human rights abuses in NK. The resolution, A/HRC/22/L.19, also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in NK for one year.[2]

OHCHR logo

OHCHR logo

What is a commission of inquiry?

I had to take a look. So far, here’s the basic idea based on some quick research: According to a Geneva Academy conference on commissions of inquiry, there are two different kinds, national and international.[3] (In this case, the NK COI will be an international tool used to investigate human rights situations.) A COI investigates potential violations of international human rights law and/or humanitarian law. It does not appear that there’s a standard construction to COIs, but recently a COI was established for the potential atrocities being committed in Syria. A commission is supposed to investigate alleged violations of law, gather evidence, and issue a report(s), all in a fair and unbiased manner. The NK COI is comprised of three members (but may include up to ten people later on), including UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman.[4] The COI is established for one year, but there is always the possibility of it being extended. The NK COI has to provide an “oral update to the Council at its twenty-fourth session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-eight session, and a written report to the Council at its twenty-fifth session.”[5]

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, shed some more light on COIs. He stated in a report to the UN Human Rights Council, “‘Commissions of inquiry are strong and flexible mechanisms that can yield ample benefits for governments, victim communities and the wider public, but they do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence.'”[6]

Certainly, a COI is not meant to replace NK’s duty to not violate the rights of its own people. But this assumes NK actually believes its people are being denied rights, which it clearly does not. In fact, “North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong rejected the resolution as ‘an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK,’ and said, “‘[a]s we stated time and again, those human rights abuses mentioned in the resolution do not exist in our country.’”[7]

What will the COI look at specifically?

Luckily for me, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) already explained this quite nicely:

“As defined by the resolution on North Korea, the Commission of Inquiry will have a mandate to “investigate all systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ The resolution made particular note of ‘the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and ‘the unresolved questions of international concern relating to abductions of nationals of other states.’ The resolution empowers the commission to undertake a one-year investigation into the ‘violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.’”[8]

I need to dive into the specifics of the resolution still, but I believe some of this language is from the Rome Statute, which is the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Under Article 7(1) of the Rome Statute, “‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a)     Murder;

(b)     Extermination;

(c)     Enslavement;

(d)     Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e)     Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f)     Torture;

(g)     Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; 
(h)     Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i)     Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j)     The crime of apartheid;

(k)     Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.[9]

And just for good measure, and because the argument has been made that the Kim regime has committed genocide, here’s Article 6 of the Rome Statute:

For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a)     Killing members of the group;

(b)     Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c)     Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d)     Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e)     Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

How can the COI investigate since it is unlikely NK will cooperate?

I think this is the crucial question right now. The COI is established to investigate, but if NK stands in the way (which it will) and does not let the commission into NK, then it stands to reason that the COI will not gather as much evidence about potential abuses by the Kim regime. As the Geneva Academy points out, “[a]n important task of any commission of inquiry is to analyse facts on the ground with regard to applicable law. Thus, it is crucial that a commission can independently and freely conduct investigations on the ground to establish the facts for itself.”

I hope that this will not inhibit the work of the COI too drastically though. After all, as Dr. John Park pointed out recently, the roughly 24,000 NK defectors in South Korea are a relatively untouched information resource. My hope is that the COI will have the cooperation of the South Korean government and the NK defectors in order to search for the truth about what the Kim regime is doing to the people unlucky enough to live north of the 38th Parallel.

A Brief Look at North Korea’s Gulags

I wrote this piece about gulags when Kim Jong Il was still alive and in power. Today, the international community knows more about political camps, or gulags, in North Korea, and the information is appalling. Over the last couple of years, we now have access to satellite imagery that shows that perimeters of the political prison camps have expanded. For very current information, please look at a report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and David Hawk, “The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of Those Who are Sent to the Mountains” and a report by DigitalGlobe Analytics and HRNK, “North Korea’s Camp No. 25.”

I recently spoke to a South Korean who said that gulags are likely considered the best example of crimes (against humanity) by the North Korean State from the perspective of South Koreans. This is because gulags are the most visible showing of atrocities against North Korea’s own people. I think this is understandable, don’t you? It seems that throughout history people need to see abuses before they can really start to understand them. North Korea’s tight control on information and limited foreign access makes it very difficult for the majority of the world to see, and therefore understand and care about, the incredibly egregious human rights violations and, arguably, crimes against humanity being committed by the Kim Regime.

North Korea: “The Last Worst Place On Earth”[1]

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The GulagRead more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The Gulag
Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

Although Kim Jong Il’s regime is marked by serious and prolific human rights abuses, it has not attracted the attention of the international community as much as other parts of the world. Kim’s regime is surrounded by a state-sponsored veil of secrecy which makes it harder for the international community to document and respond to his abhorrent behavior. Recently, that veil has been slightly lifted by intrepid journalists and defectors allowing brief glimpses into the lives of North Koreans suffering under Kim’s vast oppression. The evidence indicates Kim Jong Il’s policies have caused the death of millions of his own people through deplorable human rights violations.

One of the most egregious violations of the Kim Jong Il regime has been the establishment of gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat against Kim’s regime. Defectors have told their stories and political prisons have appeared on satellite imagery – this evidence tells awful stories. For instance, the gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[2] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in the DPRK are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people.[3] Recently, a newspaper article retold the account of a former political prisoner in DPRK’s increasingly-populated gulags. The prisoner said that due to the rampant starvation, prisoners were happy when one of them died because it meant more food for the others. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[4] Another newspaper article tells of a prisoner’s tragic upbringing in a gulag:

“Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.”[5]

Shin’s story is, unfortunately, just one person’s account of life under Kim. There are so many more examples in spite of Kim’s control.

Additionally, reports tie the population growth in the political gulags with the possibility that Kim Jong Il may be turning over the regime to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director, stated, “‘As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability, the big worry is that the prison camps appear to be growing in size.’”[6]

The gulags are not the only place where human rights violations take place. Kim is accused of starving his own people and using international food donations to bolster the strength of his army. He restricts travel, denies free speech, the right to practice religion. Recently, Amnesty International reported Kim is responsible for the criminal abduction of 180,000 people.[7]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Grace M. Kang, A Case for the Prosecution of Kim Jong Il for Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide, and War Crimes, 38 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 51, 65 (2006).

[3] Rendler, supra note 1.

[4] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[5] Rendler, supra note 1.

[6] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[7] Id.

Information Suppression: A Violation of the Right to Information

Kim Violates North Koreans’ Fundamental Right To Information Through Information Suppression

North Korea in the dark

North Korea in the dark

This blog delves into the “fundamental human right” to information because North Korea denies this right so severely by suppressing information in and out of North Korea.[1] The right to information is a right dating back to the early days of the United Nations (UN), which was founded in 1945 as a solution to the atrocities committed in World War II.[2] “From the beginning of its establishment, the United Nations had proposals put forth to adopt measures to ensure freedom of expression and information and to control propaganda.”[3] In fact, “before any human rights declarations had been adopted, the General Assembly passed Resolution 59(I), which stated ‘[f]reedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.’”[4]

Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948,[5] at Article 19 states, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[6] The ICCPR, to which the DPRK is a signatory, also states at Article 19 that there is “the right to ‘freedom of expression. . . includ[ing] freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’”[7]

The DPRK has signed onto several human rights treaties, as mentioned above, but has proven through egregious human rights violations that its signature has no merit. The fact that the international community knows strikingly little about the DPRK’s human rights abuses –because it intentionally keeps its borders closed off to the world – is in itself evidence that there are potential human rights violations, if none other than violation of the right to information. Kim’s acts of information suppression are abusive and these are, in turn, grave violations of the right to information. According to a 2008 published report by the UN High Commission for Refugees:

North Korea remained the most repressive media environment in the world in 2007. The one-party regime of top leader Kim Jong-il places severe restrictions on media freedom, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, in practice constitutional provisions for obeying a “collective spirit” restrict all reporting not sanctioned by the government.[8]

What Information Do North Koreans Receive?

North Koreans are cut off from the rest of the world almost entirely, but the Kims – from previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to current leader Kim Jong Un – provide them with their own version of the truth through the use of propaganda. This propaganda, however, does not compensate for the information that North Koreans are denied; they still do not have the right to information in the DPRK, and that is why Kim violates this human right. In the DPRK, there is a Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers Party of Korea. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, ran this Department while Kim Il Sung was still alive and in power. Today, the Propaganda and Agitation Department continues to serve openly as the organization responsible for shaping information and distributing and disseminating propaganda in the DPRK.

Propaganda has been a constant in the lives of North Koreans for over six decades now. In fact, all North Koreans under the age of 55 have been subjected to intense indoctrination since primary school.[9] As a result, two or three generations have already grown up under the tyrannical influence of the Kim regime. The North Korean State pushes propaganda in school, at work, on the radio, in posters, in movies, and any other medium it can. The basic principles of North Korean propaganda – the greatness of Kim Il Sung and his family, juche nationalism, virulent attacks on the US and South Korea – have remained unchanged.

From a young age, North Koreans are told to believe that Americans are terrible, monstrous people who kill Korean babies and want nothing more than to wage a war of aggression against the DPRK. North Korean children sing a song in music class called “Shoot the Yankee Bastards”:

Our enemies are the American bastards

Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.

With guns that I make with my own hands

I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.[10]

North Koreans have special education classes where the juche/self-reliance ideology is reinforced by recitation of the Kims’ speeches which proclaim their greatness:

‘Establishing juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance,’ Kim Il Sung proclaimed.[11]

The propaganda techniques of Kim Jong Il spread far and wide; every household is required to have two photos hanging up – one of Kim Il Sung and one of Kim Jong Il (note: now, likely one of Kim Jong Un as well). It is a punishable offense, up to execution, for not having these photos fully displayed and polished.

Furthermore, the radio and television stations only show North Korean programs that are modified and controlled by government propaganda employees. Before Kim Jong Il’s death, these propagandists ensured that all scripts sent the message that Kim Jong Il was a generous leader and did good things for his people. A North Korean caught listening to a foreign radio station or receiving a foreign television station reception can expect to be taken to a work camp/prison where he will probably die from starvation, disease, or exhaustion. He can also expect that his family will face a similar fate, and it would not be uncommon to be beaten and tortured, if not executed eventually.[12]

The Kim regime also strictly enforces adherence to the juche ideology through the use of local informers who are deemed the most loyal to the regime. Typically, there is one informer/head of the community, who is responsible for reporting any disloyalty to the Korean Workers Party.[13] This reporting technique makes it extremely difficult for people to speak out against the regime, lest they become victims of interrogation, torture, reeducation work camps, or have their families suffer.


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights art. 19, Dec. 10, 1948; See Ban Ki-Moon, Freedom of Expression…A Fundamental Human Right: Message on World Press Freedom Day, UN Chronicle, May 3, 2010, http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/chronicle/cache/bypass/home/archive/webarticles2010/world_press_freedom_2010?ctnscroll_articleContainerList=1_0&ctnlistpagination_articleContainerList=true.

[2] United Nations, UN at a Glance, http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/index.shtml.

[3] Sarabeth A. Smith, Note, What’s Old is New Again: Terrorism and the Growing Need to Revisit the Prohibition on Propaganda, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l. L. & Com. 299, 314 (2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 1.

[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 1.

[7] Sarabeth A. Smith, Note, What’s Old is New Again: Terrorism and the Growing Need to Revisit the Prohibition on Propaganda, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l. L. & Com. 299, 326 (2010).

[8] Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2008 – North Korea, 29 April 2008, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4871f623c.html %5Baccessed 4 April 2011].

[9] Andrei Lankov, The Official Propaganda in the DPRK: Ideas And Methods, http://www.fortunecity.com/meltingpot/champion/65/propaganda_lankov.htm.

[10] BARBARA DEMICK, NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA 121 (Spiegel & Grau 2009).

[11] Id. at 44.

[12] Id. at 67.

[13] See U.S. Library of Congress, The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), http://countrystudies.us/north-korea/57.htm.

Korean Creation Myth: The Legend of Tangun

Brief Notes on The Legend of Tangun 

Welcome to my blog! I chose the name ‘the bear and the tiger’ because if refers to the creation myth of Korea – one Korea – before the Peninsula was divided into two sovereign states, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Here are some quick notes about Korea’s creation myth to help shape the rest of Korean history and subsequent conflict!

The Legend of Tangun from http://legend-of-tangun.tumblr.com

The Legend of Tangun from http://legend-of-tangun.tumblr.com

  • Female bear + male tiger wanted to become human
  • Went to a cave, could only eat garlic and mugworts
  • Female bear endured and married son of the god and had a boy named Tangun
  • Bear is a symbol of courage, patience, and wisdom
  • Tangun chose Pyongyang as his residence, which is very important to North Korea
  • Tomb of Tangun was “discovered” in NK
  • NK emphasizes the myth because it legitimizes the State as the more representative state of the entire Korean people
  • Each side claims it’s the sole, legitimate government
  • Koryo = North Korea
  • Silla = South Korea
  • Koreans go back in history and try to find any credence to their claim that they are the rightful leader of the whole population
  • NK emphasizes the history of Koryo and South emphasizes Silla
  • Koreans tend to be obsessed with history and hierarchy

More info: http://koreanhistoryproject.org/Ket/TOC1.htm

Note: Any mistakes, omissions, or inaccuracies are my own and are unintended. Opinions are my own.