On November 18, the UN Human Rights Committee passed a resolution denouncing human rights abuses in North Korea. North Korea indeed has one of the world’s most notorious human rights records, but this time, the resolution contains an important twist: It urges that the North Korean regime be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer for its crimes.
This decision is likely to be seen by many as a “strong signal” sent to the North Korean government, making the North Korean leadership feel more inclined to treat their people with humanity in order to avoid punishment for past crimes.
However, enthusiasm about the resolution is misplaced. In our less than perfect world, the explicit threat of prosecution likely will not ameliorate the sorry human rights situation in North Korea. On the contrary, it is liable to make it even worse.
North Korea is unique in being the only communist country of East Asia that has yet to follow the stunning successful Chinese reformist model. While China and Vietnam have permitted their population to get rich and be freer than they were in the 1970s, the North Korean government does what it can to maintain the old Stalinist system of total state control. (Admittedly, the North Korean leadership is not very successful in this endeavour because the system is slowly falling apart anyway.)
North Korean decision makers have their reasons for not following the Chinese in reforming their system – at least as long as political issues are concerned. The major reason is fear.
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Indeed, North Korean decision makers – a few hundred thousand people in the police, party, army – see themselves as cornered. They believe that they cannot afford to relax the level of political and social control to that of China today, because they face a rich and successful South Korea. They suspect that even a modest relaxation will give the common North Korean access to much information about the stunning affluence of South Korea.
Such a relaxation is also likely to make the people less frightened of the government and its police force. In a divided country, this is indeed dangerous because the North Korean people might one day do what East Germans did in 1989: change the government and demand immediate unification with the rich brethren on the other side of the DMZ.
Such a threat does not exist in China. The Beijing leadership does not face a state whose population is twice the size of China and whose per capita GDP is at least 15 times higher but whose people speak the same language and consider themselves to be part of the same nation.
North Korean leaders understand perfectly well that German-style unification with the rich and powerful South will deprive them of power and privileges. However, the loss of power is not their greatest fear: They also believe that should their regime collapse and unification occur under South Korean auspices, all people who were prominent in the North Korean regime will face persecution or die a violent death.
It is not incidental that the question of the fate of former East German officials after unification is something one is bound to encounter when talking to North Korean officials in private. North Korean officials are perfectly aware of how they would treat the South Korean elite had they successfully won the inter-Korean rivalry and taken over the South.
They also believe that should their regime collapse and unification occur under South Korean auspices, all people who were prominent in the North Korean regime will face persecution or die a violent death.
Indeed, former South Korean officials who found themselves trapped in North Korea during the turbulent days of the Korean War were subject to lifelong official discrimination. Their children and grandchildren still do not have the right to live in major cities, serve in the army, or go to university. The North Korea elite expect to be treated by the victorious Southerners in a very similar way.
The top North Korean leadership has tried to deepen such fears in order to secure support from the lower levels of the elite. When, in 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s communist dictator, was shot together with his wife, the video of his death was secretly shown to mid-level officials in order to vividly demonstrate the threat that the elite potentially faced.
There is little doubt that this recent UN resolution will also be used by the North Korean propaganda. It is not going to be seen by average North Korean officials as a signal that they should keep away from human rights abuses. Rather, it will be another confirmation of their worst fears; the proof that they should expect the sorry fate after the regime’s end. There is little doubt that most of them will be strengthened in their belief – for the sake of the future of themselves and their loved ones, they should be harsh and forgiving, stop at nothing and exterminate all challenges to the present system with remarkable ferocity.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.