Can the UN Make a Difference in North Korea?


A UN field office for monitoring human rights abuses in North Korea opened in Seoul on Tuesday, the culmination of unprecedented scrutiny on conditions in North Korea since the establishment of a special Commission of Inquiry.

The establishment of the branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights fulfills a recommendation from last year’s UN investigation, which detailed shocking human rights violations in North Korea. Among the many abuses described as “without parallel in the contemporary world,” the UN panel documented witness testimony of summary executions, torture, and rape at North Korea’s infamous prison camps.

NGOs welcomed the new field office, while United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said it would build “on the landmark work of the Commission of Inquiry and Special Rapporteur” by documenting regime abuses.

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But can the office have any real impact on conditions inside North Korea?

While the COI focused global attention, it hasn’t spurred any actual improvement in human rights conditions in North Korea — at least as far as the outside world can see with its limited view into the closed-off nation.

“It is not going to solve problems in North Korea overnight, or even over years, but it will keep attention on the human rights situation so it doesn’t get neglected like it was before,” said OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville in an interview with The Diplomat.

Despite the limitations, Colville said the office would be able to continue the work of the COI by documenting conditions — this time on a continuing basis. “It’s been very hard to get information that you were sure was accurate and that you were able to crosscheck in a careful way,” Colville said. “Obviously many rumors, many stories come out of North Korea. But faraway in Geneva, it was very hard to get a handle on what was going on.”

He added that, prior to the COI’s report, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program had dominated the international agenda, overshadowing the human rights situation. “The very important global state bodies (of the UN)… are far more engaged since the Commission of Inquiry was set up,” he said.

He also claimed that the UN’s efforts had already affected North Korea’s behavior, by compelling it to participate in UN meetings in New York and Geneva. “They are clearly feeling some kind of pressure from the combined will of states,” he said. “It’s not just, you know, one or two states. It’s the UN. That’s the kind of weight the UN has.”

But even if the new office has limited ability to affect change inside North Korea, its greatest potential impact may lie elsewhere: providing evidence for any future prosecution of the leadership of the country. In his speech at the opening of the office, Zeid, the UN high commissioner, said the office could “lay the basis for future accountability.”

Colville acknowledged the possibility of submitting evidence to future courts, along with the extensive testimony already collected by the COI. “We are already building up a body of evidence and witness accounts which would be very valuable to any court in the future,” he said.

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