Freeing North Korea: a readiness for responsibility

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A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) test. CC: United States Missile Defense Agency

 

This year has and will deliver continental-sized shifts in the global political landscape. New administrations in the United States and the Republic of Korea, major changes to China’s Politburo Standing Committee, and ongoing political flux across Europe will reposition our known political compass points. But one of the biggest changes looks likely to come from a small corner of north-east Asia, namely North Korea.

Pyongyang’s recent tests of ballistic missiles and the suspected murder of Kim Jong Nam should come as no surprise to global policymakers. North Korea has been on a deliberate march toward nuclear deterrence since the 1960s, while its support and participation in acts of terror have grown in stature and frequency in recent years.

Given the current political condition in which South Korea finds itself, Pyongyang appears to sense an opportunity to cement itself as Asia’s immovable force. The terrorisation of its nationals abroad is a deliberate part of this strategy.

How will our changed world respond to North Korea? Diplomatic overtures in recent years have lacked the urgency, intimate knowledge, and policy coherence which has been required. I have seen first-hand how many states, particularly in Europe, appear to believe that North Korea’s nuclear weapons (not to mention its human rights violations) could be negotiated away for political or economic reasons.

But as Nicholas Eberstadt recently explained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Sovereign governments simply do not trade away their vital national interests.” It is beyond the realm of reason to think that a North Korean Government that keeps millions in hunger and poverty, hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, violated two International Atomic Energy Agency agreements, two Agreed Frameworks, and six United Nations Security Council resolutions, would willingly negotiate away its only bargaining chip.

“Engagement and dialogue can and do work in many situations. North Korea is not one of those situations.”

Engagement and dialogue can and do work in many situations. North Korea is not one of those situations. North Korea’s rulers cannot put an end to their policies of human rights abuses. Nor can they relinquish their nuclear program. They are not ignorant of the costs of Libya’s rollback of its nuclear ambitions. Nor are they oblivious to the consequences that befell totalitarian regimes who initiated social and economic reforms or lessened their grips on violence.

Calls for negotiations with Pyongyang grow louder by the day, but we must not let reason yield to misplaced hope. The North Korean Government has repeatedly stated that it will not relinquish its nuclear weapons. Why doubt this? For North Korea’s elite, promises of personal wealth, immunity from war crimes, or foreign economic investment count for naught. They have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands which cannot be washed away. They know that with reform will come retribution.

Given recent developments, the former UK Ambassador to North Korea, David Slinn, posed the question: “Is it possible to even think of negotiating with [somebody] who believes it is OK to use a deadly nerve gas in public in a foreign country?” North Korea’s new tools of lethal intent clearly demonstrate one point: that it will seek survival at any cost. The world cannot continue to endure such an existential threat. It is high-time that we adopt a new and radical approach.

It is taboo, yet entirely reasonable to expect states to initiate policies that seek the demise of the North Korean regime in a controlled and non-violent manner. No status quo can last forever, especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea, and any effective foreign policy should acknowledge this point.

“No status quo can last forever, especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea, and any effective foreign policy should acknowledge this point.”

The rise of the Cheollima Civil Defense, an underground and seemingly powerful group that operates inside and outside of North Korea to save the lives of its vulnerable citizens, suddenly allows us place our hope in a revolutionary actor who tells us that change is not just conceivable, for it already exists. This group’s brave actions, which have been supported by the governments of the US, China, and the Netherlands, should be supported more widely.

As a member of the UK’s International Development Select Committee, I know it is vital for a network of international experts to commit to planning the rebuilding of vital infrastructure and services in North Korea. We must learn from cases such as Iraq and put in place rapid response strategies in the event of regime failure in North Korea for food and medical aid; and from Burma, where we have seen that democracy building is a slow, painful process, which requires persistent support over time in a coordinated manner by the international community to promote progress. The governments of the US, UK, South Korea, and European powers are in strong positions to begin this urgent task today.

“The time to speak out against North Korea has, to a certain extent, already been and gone. History will judge those who turned a blind-eye, appeased North Korea, or disempowered the exiled community. Soon, actions and not words may be crucial if millions of North Koreans are to be saved.”

The time to speak out against North Korea has, to a certain extent, already been and gone. History will judge those who turned a blind-eye, appeased North Korea, or disempowered the exiled community. Soon, actions and not words may be crucial if millions of North Koreans are to be saved. Unification, democratization, marketization — these can all come later. First, we must carefully consider how we can help free North Koreans.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi dissident, proclaimed that “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” This is especially true in the case of North Korea. When change arrives, governments, civil society, and other stakeholders, including the United Nations, should be ready for the responsibility that Bonhoeffer described. Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in April 1945, just one month before the liberation of Germany. The same fate must not befall those in North Korea’s concentration camps. We may only have one chance to help North Koreans reclaim their country; and it is a chance that we must not surrender.

Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

*A version of this article was originally published in the Korea Times on March 28th 2017.

North Korean Diplomats: personae non gratae

Once again, the international community finds itself asking a perennial question: What to do about North Korea? A chain of events has unfolded in the past month-and-a-half which has proved as astonishing as it has belligerent, and the international community is now compelled to take immediate and resolute measures — not only to uphold numerous international laws and norms, but also to ensure the security of North Korean exiles and refugees.

On February 11th, North Korea launched a Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile aimed directly at Japanese waters, followed by the launch of four more ballistic missiles on March 6th which landed just 300 kilometres west of Japan’s Oga Peninsula. Both were acts designed to perfect weapons capable of inflicting death on an enormous scale.

Yet it is the calculated and cold-blooded murder of one individual, Kim Jong Nam, which appears to have exposed a new and deadly intent of the North Korean regime. Slain on February 13th in broad daylight at a crowded Kuala Lumpur airport with a highly toxic liquid nerve agent that has been classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction, the murder — if carried out by the Government of North Korea — would be one of the most brazen acts of state-sponsored terrorism and chemical warfare in recent memory.

Apparently orchestrated by a North Korean institution designed to network with foreign governments and non-government agencies, the External Liaisons Department, seven North Korean nationals have been suspected by Malaysian police of being involved in the murder. Four immediately flew to Pyongyang, while the remaining three suspects, one a North Korean diplomat, are still in hiding at the DPRK embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The refusal of the DPRK Ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, to release the North Korean suspects into Malaysian custody, combined with his unsuccessful attempts to impede Malaysia’s police investigations and a suspected attempt to gain entry at the morgue where Kim’s body was held, rightly led the Government of Malaysia to declare Kang to be persona non grata.

As the international community reflects on this series of events, what is to be done about North Korea’s belligerence and the suspected wider problem of North Korean diplomats acting as agents of terror?

Continued missile launches pose existential threats to us all and North Korea’s military operations must be countered by direct and targeted disruption, in addition to the roll-out of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system and the imposition of yet further and far stronger sanctions. But the gruesome murder of Kim Jong Nam, which is just the latest in a long list of outrages suspected to have been coordinated by North Korean diplomatic personnel, requires a closer consideration of North Korean diplomats and agents across the world.

Operating as potential extensions of Pyongyang’s domestic arms of terror, corruption, and belligerence, North Korean diplomats have the capacity to move freely to conduct illicit activities, organise slave labourers, and execute North Korean exiles — even in Europe.

A recent United Nations Panel of Experts report found “diplomats, missions and trade representatives of the [DPRK] systematically play key roles in prohibited sales, procurement, finance and logistics.” Indeed, I have written in this paper before that such actions make it abundantly clear “that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade.”

The latest United Nations Security Council Resolution calls upon Member States to “reduce the number of staff at DPRK diplomatic missions and consular posts.” The United Kingdom and other European Union states have submitted their initial implementation reports concerning this resolution to the United Nations Security Council, and we should expect many North Korean diplomats to face de-recognition and a return to North Korea in the coming months.

Of course, a return to Pyongyang is not the only option for North Korean diplomats. The example of Thae Yong Ho, who I met while he worked at the DPRK Embassy in London and who has provided valuable intelligence on North Korea’s illicit activities since his defection, demonstrates the pull of freedom and prosperity over tyranny and fear. The emergence of the Cheollima Civil Defence, a discrete organisation which rescues and evacuates high-level North Koreans, and the recent quadrupling of the reward given to elite North Korean defectors who share intelligence to $860,000 by the South Korean Government, suggests that many more North Korean diplomats may refuse to abandon the freedoms and living standards they and their families enjoy in Europe and across the world.

But for now, the murder of Kim Jong Nam has brought the actions of North Korean diplomats sharply into focus. For far too long, Pyongyang’s diplomatic personnel have acted as potential vehicles for terrorism, murder, sanctions evasion, illicit sales, and the procurement of weapons of mass destruction. The latest United Nations resolution provides states with an opportunity to uphold international law and better protect exiled North Koreans and refugees who now find themselves to be targets of this most brutal regime. Starting today, this is a task that must not fail.

Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

*An edited version of this article was originally published in the Chosun Ilbo in Korean on March 28th 2017.

Opinion: Preparing for Change in North Korea

We are told that North Korea is a Hermit Kingdom ─ mysterious, unknowable, and impenetrable. But this is simply not the case. Those of us involved with North Korea are acutely aware of what is happening within its borders.

We know that a famine, exacerbated by government action and inaction, deliberately starved to death between 250,000 and 3.5 million innocent North Koreans in the mid-1990s. We know that government officials routinely commit acts of torture and sexual violence upon vulnerable women and girls. We know that returned female escapees, who are often trafficked and sold into prostitution or marriage in China, and who become pregnant in the process, undergo forced abortions upon their repatriation ─ lest the ‘pure’ Korean bloodline becomes tainted. And we know that the government runs a nationwide system of concentration camps that hold up to 200,000 people.

These facts should not surprise us, rather they should inform our actions. We cannot afford not to know that the Government of North Korea has committed crimes against humanity for over six decades. To do so would be an abrogation of our duty as compassionate, free, and responsible human beings.

To talk of Yodok and Hwasong concentration camps in the same breath as Auschwitz and Belsen is not an exaggeration. North Koreans, and up to three generations of their families, have been sent to these camps for the crime of being ‘politically impure’ and many have not returned.

North Korea’s horrors should not suffer distance or time. Nor should they be far from our thoughts, because what is happening in these concentration camps is not a part of the past. Terrible atrocities and crimes against humanity are happening today in North Korea, now – as we write this, and even as you read this.

North Korea’s horrors should not suffer distance or time. Nor should they be far from our thoughts…

To this end, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which both authors serve, continues to raise these issues. Parliaments across the world have discussed with horror the events that have unfolded in Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere. We have contemplated the suffering of ethnic and religious minorities at the hands of Daesh and other likeminded actors. Sadly, far fewer protest about the atrocious human rights abuses and restrictions on fundamental freedoms in North Korea. This must change.

What must the world do to end suffering in North Korea? It would surely be a suspension of reason to assume that any government which keeps millions in hunger and poverty, hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, violates two Agreed Frameworks, and six United Nations Security Council resolutions, would negotiate away its security in good faith. North Korea’s rulers will not be oblivious to the consequences that have befallen totalitarian regimes who initiated reforms or lessened their grips on violence.

As difficult as it may seem, there are ways and means for the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea to exercise their leverage over Pyongyang. Stricter and better enforced sanctions on a raft of luxury goods; the dismissal of North Korean slave labourers in Europe and further afield; increasing information inflows to North Korean citizens; and the recognition that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade, would all have notable effects. We must also do far more to convince China that the economic, political, and humanitarian costs of supporting Pyongyang outweigh any benefits.

Stricter and better enforced sanctions on a raft of luxury goods; the dismissal of North Korean slave labourers in Europe and further afield…and the recognition that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade, would all have notable effects.

But if there is one strategy that must be implemented, it is this: the international community should prepare for change to come to North Korea. No status quo can last forever ─ especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea ─ and we cannot afford to wait until the moment of change to react.

Examples from recent nation-state transitions evidence a need for effective preparation. We must learn from cases such as Iraq and put in place rapid response strategies for food and medical aid, and from Burma, where we have seen that democracy building is a slow, painful process, which requires persistent support over time in a coordinated manner by the international community to promote progress.

We must begin to quietly support a meaningful opposition in North Korea. We must support and train North Korean exiles in leadership roles so that they may one day take ownership of their country. And we must build support for change in North Korea among international partners.

Over a decade of concerted engagement and pressure has not significantly altered North Korea’s behaviour. Millions of its citizens continue to suffer untold abuses and hardships, while the regime continues its march towards its aim of comprehensive nuclear deterrence. It is therefore high-time to recognise our failures and to help quicken fundamental transformations inside North Korea. Change will come, that is assured, and we must be ready to help. Let us pay heed to the words of the anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”.

Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

James Burt is Special Adviser to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and Director of Research at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea.

*An edited version of this article was originally published in the Chosun Ilbo in Korean on February 14th 2017.

Violence against Women and Girls & the Sustainable Development Goals

On the 27th April, Fiona Bruce MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, spoke briefly at a Westminster Hall debate on Violence against Women and Girls and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Fiona Bruce MP; Deuk-Hwan Kim, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the ROK in the UK and NI; and Shin Heisoo, United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Credit: Human Atlas)

Fiona noted:

 

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he join me in condemning the state-sanctioned violence against women and girls in North Korea? Technically, that country joined in support of the SDGs last autumn, but it operates violence against women and girls as a tool of oppression. Even the UN has described it in a report as having human rights violations that ‘reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world’.

Those violations include: sexual violence; exploitation; rape; forced abortion; human trafficking; institutional, economic and psychological violence; slavery; and torture, even until death. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK must use what limited engagement it has with North Korea—it is mainly via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to press for change? Also, will he join with me and other parliamentarians in putting on the record that the abused women of North Korea are not forgotten here?

This was the first time that the issue of VAWG committed against North Korean women and children had been raised in the Houses of Parliament since the APPG’s dedicated conference in February.

 

Remembering North Korea’s Forgotten Women

As we mark International Women’s Day, I am minded to reflect upon the recent conference in the House of Commons hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, of which I am Co-Chair. Titled Addressing Violence against Women and Girls in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the conference looked to a forgotten corner of Asia and a forgotten group of people: North Korea’s women and girls.

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Fiona Bruce MP (Credit: Human Atlas)

Notorious for its diplomatic belligerence, its disregard for international law and its nuclear programme, the DPRK (or North Korea) successfully concealed its widespread human rights violations from the world for decades. An era of silence ended in 2014 when a United Nations Commission of Inquiry reported, “The gravity, scale and nature of [North Korea’s human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

The severity of this UN statement is worth repeating: North Korea’s human rights situation has no parallel in the contemporary world.

As the international community slowly awakened from its slumber, it was no longer farfetched to recognise North Korea as the largest concentration camp the world had ever known or to rank the horrors of Yodok, Hoeryong, and Pukch’ang alongside Auschwitz, Belsen, and Dachau. It became a fact that North Korean women have and continue to experience sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and harassment in public and private spheres of life; human trafficking; forced abortions; slavery; sexual exploitation; psychological violence; religious and gender discrimination; and institutional and economic violence.

This violence in North Korea is neither occasional nor confined to certain quarters — it is endemic; it is state sanctioned; and it is perpetrated against women precisely because they are women. In every sense of the term, North Korea’s abuses are ‘gendered’.

Why has the international community been silent on this issue? We can look to many factors, but first and foremost is the discourse that surrounds North Korea. Dominated by talk of nuclear weapons, regional security, engagement, unification, and humanitarian aid, there has been little room for North Korean women. And, if truth be told, advocates have simply not been loud enough on this issue.

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The APPG’s recent conference (Credit: Human Atlas)

This year’s International Women’s Day marks an important phase for women’s rights. Just months after the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, and fifteen years since the pioneering UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this is the year that the world is developing the Agenda for Sustainable Development looking to 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals include a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality and empowerment for women and girls.

North Korea’s female population should not be forgotten on March 8th. Gendered violence and discrimination are destroying lives and ruining families in North Korea. Women are enduring unimaginable suffering and the UK must use what engagement it has with the DPRK to push for real change. The APPG’s conference on VAWG in North Korea brought together North Korean victims, exiled DPRK Government officials and experts on gender and the rights of women and girls. Women’s and girls’ human rights is an area in which the UK exhibits international leadership. Let us draw from our knowledge and set out to challenge gendered violence in the DPRK just as we do in so many other countries in the world.

Why the UK should welcome South Korea’s passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act

fionabruce1South Koreans may be surprised to learn that over five thousand miles away in London, the Korean peninsula is a hotly debated issue. In the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament, where I am a serving MP, politicians from across the political spectrum regularly meet to discuss the trials and tribulations of the Kim Jong-un regime and the plight of the North Korean people.

In 2004, two of my colleagues, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, visited North Korea. Their objective was to raise awareness in the UK parliament of the human rights, humanitarian, and security issues posed by the North Korean Government. Upon their return to London, they founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea (APPG) — a grouping of politicians from all parties that meet to discuss and debate North Korea.

Since the APPG’s formation, we have welcomed North Korean Government delegations, including the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Choe Thae-bok; we have debated North Korea in both Houses of the UK parliament; and, most importantly, we have provided North Korean refugees with the opportunity to speak about their experiences to UK politicians (the UK is home to the largest North Korean refugee population outside of South Korea).

In December 2015, I met with Kim Son Gyong, Director General of the European Department of North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our discussion, which is on pubic record, was cordial, but frank. I told Mr. Kim that UK parliamentarians asked for changes in the way that his government treated the North Korean people. I questioned his view that there were no human rights violations in his country. And I reminded him of the inevitable course of international justice that is outlined in the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry.

An offer was also extended to his Government for assistance in the field of human rights — I await a reply.

This, in essence, is the role of a democratically elected politician. Like my colleagues on the National Assembly in South Korea, I was elected by the people, for the people. My job is not only to represent and promote local interests at the national level, it is also to promote universal interests at the international level.

The North Korean people have no recourse to justice or democracy. They have no viable political representatives. It therefore falls upon politicians, like myself, to advocate for their well-being and human rights.

As a serving MP with a passion for the North Korean people, I have followed the now decade-long legislative debate in the South Korean National Assembly on the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) with interest.

The debate is of course nuanced, but many politicians in the UK — both liberal and conservative — had struggled to comprehend why the NKHRA had not passed into South Korean law.

In the UK, human rights were first set out in law in the Bill of Rights in the year 1689. In the three centuries that have passed since, there have certainly been struggles but human rights are now seen as being above politics. Indeed, they now form a global normative order: which is to say that human rights are universal and non-negotiable. They are the most basic and substantive component of modern humanity.

As such, and with profound respect for the views of my fellow South Korean politicians who oppose the NKHRA in its current form, I urge them to act immediately to improve human rights in North Korea through supporting the NKHRA legislation.

Discussing human rights issues with the North Korean Government and people should not be optional, nor should it be viewed as a political act. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated, the dignity and worth of all human beings passes through national borders. It is for those of us who enjoy freedom to champion it for those who do not.

Is the NKHRA, as the bill is presented in the National Assembly today, provocative or detrimental to peace and unification on the Korean peninsula? I would say it is not. North Korea’s actions — from the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010 to the border shelling in August 2015 that followed anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts — have certainly been provocative and detrimental to peace. But South Korea has a maturing democracy and has shown admirable restraint. It should not be held hostage by its northern neighbours.

The APPG has for many years urged the BBC — the UK’s public broadcaster — to transmit a Korean- language service to the North Korean people. Following years of consideration and NGO action, a BBC radio service for the North Korean people will soon become a reality. For the APPG, our support of this radio service was not a matter of politics. It was a way of ensuring that North Koreans were able to exercise their freedom to listen to impartial news and information.

In my view, the aim of the North Korean Government’s opposition to the NKHRA is clear: Pyongyang seeks to divide South Korean public opinion. If South Korea’s politicians and public stood united behind a NKHRA, Pyongyang understands that it would face its biggest challenge: a politically unified South Korea that is at one with ordinary North Korean citizens.

Will change in North Korea come through unrestrained flows of money or humanitarian aid? The evidence suggests it will not. Will reform come through tourism or cultural engagement? Again, all evidence says it will not. In reality, the small amounts of change in North Korea have emerged from the North Korean people themselves.

It is the duty of us all to support those who are working for positive change in North Korea. A NKHRA will not bring an end to the North Korean Government’s abuse of its population, but it will say ‘enough is enough’. Time is fast running out for the current North Korean regime. Now South Korea’s National Assembly is better prepared for change and is uniting behind the North Korean people today.

The above article was first published in Korean in the Chosun Ilbo.

Fiona Bruce MP: Statement on DPRK Nuclear Test

Fiona Bruce MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, has condemned the North Korean government’s test of a nuclear device, describing it as “a threat to the North Korean people, the Korean peninsula and international security”.

Fiona said: “The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea explicitly condemns North Korea’s latest nuclear test. Not only has this act violated numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, it has also posed a serious threat to the security of the people of the Korean peninsula and the surrounding region.

In a recent meeting with Kim Son Gyong, Director General at the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I urged his country to focus its resources on aiding its beleaguered people. Instead, the North Korean government has chosen to spend its limited resources on weaponry that may one day lead to unfathomable destruction.

Today, I am reiterating my calls to the North Korean government and ask them to end such provocations and work to better the security of its most vulnerable population.”