By Dr Alan Bloomfield
He did it again.
North Korea’s frighteningly weird leader Kim Jong-Un ordered this year’s seventh missile test on Sunday 21 May 2017. Since US President Donald Trump struck Syria in early April and strongly intimated that North Korea might be next, tensions have risen sharply on the divided peninsula. Pyongyang can’t yet put a nuclear weapon on a missile yet – miniaturisation technology is challenging – but recently late night TV host John Oliver captured the popular mood by warning that two “tubby, power-hungry leaders with daddy issues and bad haircuts,” were taking the world to the brink of nuclear war.
In actuality, both sides are essentially locked in stable mutual-deterrence; a war would likely end in North Korea’s total defeat, but not before tens of thousands – a conservative estimate – of South Korean civilians have been killed by the North’s conventional artillery. After all, central Seoul is only 60kms from the DMZ.
But all this sabre-rattling simply distracts from the fact that North Korea is the world’s worst human rights abuser. And I don’t say that lightly.
The ongoing conflict in Syria has undoubtedly claimed more lives since 2011, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is directly responsible for much of the carnage. However, the North Korean regime has been committing atrocities against its people for decades. The 2014 report from the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘Commission of Inquiry’ for North Korea – chaired by Australia’s former High Court judge Michael Kirby – revealed in unprecedented detail just how severe and systematic the regime’s abuses really are.
The international community arguably has a tool it could use to remedy the situation, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. In the accepted jargon, Pillar I of the R2P establishes that states are responsible to protect their people from mass atrocities. Pillar II establishes that the international community should help states meet their Pillar I obligation. Pillar III establishes that if a state fails to protect its people – or if that state is the main source of such threats, as is the case north of the DMZ – the international community assumes the responsibility to protect and can impose coercive measures, including using military force.
The Commission of Inquiry report broke new ground by applying R2P in a case of chronic abuse; all previous attempts to apply R2P took place in ‘crisis’ contexts such as NATO’s 2011 Libyan intervention. The report made numerous recommendations, but the most intrusive called for the UN Security Council to sanction regime members responsible for abuses and to refer those persons to the International Criminal Court. In response, the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have issued 5 resolutions condemning North Korea and calling on the Security Council to implement the report’s recommendations in full. The matter was placed on the Council’s agenda in December 2014 and a formal debate took place in December 2015, but resistance from China and Russia meant no draft resolution was presented. Nevertheless, a solid majority of the international community supports pressuring North Korea to improve its disgraceful human rights practices.
Unfortunately, nuclear and ballistic missile issues dominate the agenda when the Security Council considers North Korea. The Western democracies who typically provide political support – and troops if necessary – for ‘tough measures’ to protect human rights remain much more focussed on their own security. This should surprise nobody, nor should it necessarily elicit condemnation; the citizens of these states’ primarily elect their governments to save them, not as Nicholas Wheeler put it in 2000, to “save strangers”. We live in a world of sovereign states after all.
But there is a ray of hope for the long suffering North Korean people. ‘Signals’ from China, most notably several refusals to accept shipments of North Korea coal in 2017, suggest Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing thin. Beijing’s obvious inability to influence Pyongyang undermines its pretensions to superpower status. However, China must also play a careful game; above all it fears a total collapse of the North Korean regime, leading to floods of refugees and US troops back on the Yalu river for the first time since 1950.
Nevertheless, China may reverse its position and begin supporting the Commission’s recommendations as a way of placing additional pressure on Pyongyang. No doubt it would not be primarily motivated by human rights concerns. Beijing’s intent would be to reverse the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. But it is possible that in such a scenario North Korea may feel the need to reform its human rights practices to ease the pressure it would be under.
Nicholas Wheeler also said that if foreign intervention in a sovereign state’s internal affairs produced beneficial humanitarian outcomes, then these consequences, not the motivations of the interveners, is what really matters.
It is a slim hope, but it is better than nothing.
Alan Bloomfield is a Lecturer in the Social of Social Science at the University of Western Australia. He teaches courses on International Security, IR Theory and Strategy, Diplomacy & Conflict. His first book, India and the Responsibility to Protect, was published by Ashgate in 2015 and his second, Norm Antipreneurs and the Politics of Resistance to Global Normative Change, was published by Routledge in 2017.