Engaging not appeasing North Korea


Universe Column for August 29th 2004

By David Alton

There was always a grave danger that as events played out in Iraq and the Middle East , the world would lose sight of events in North Korea . It is not a matter of speculation whether North Korea has weapons of mass destruction – they have been bellicose in their determination to try and intimidate their neighbours with the nuclear arsenal that they have been developing.

But, as I have argued here before, some of the paranoia and isolationism of North Korea is based on the historic fear of an invasion and the time-honoured fear of oppressive regimes that keeping vast numbers of men under arms will indefinitely prevent the need for reform.

Against all the odds, there are undoubtedly subtle and sophisticated officials in North Korea who know that both these premises are wrong. There are also a few glimmering signs that their more open approach is beginning to have some effect.  And, unless the world is content to risk Armageddon on the Korean Peninsular, the process of engagement (not appeasement) on both the nuclear stand-off and on human rights is ultimately the only show in town. The Australians have recently become involved in helping to step up the dialogue and I think it very likely that we will soon see a British Government Minister visiting Pyongyang .

In all these encounters, the linking of human rights and the nuclear issue is crucial – even though it is much to the irritation of the North Koreans.

The human rights situation must not be quietly shelved. The decision of the United Nations to appoint a special rapporteur, with responsibility for championing human rights is one good indicator that the world understands this.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has appointed Vitit Muntarbhorn, who is from Thailand .

He has earned international recognition for his expertise in human rights. He has served in various capacities in the United Nations system, including as Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (1990-4) and as expert or adviser to many United Nations organizations. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation on Human Rights.

Mr. Muntarbhorn is currently a Professor of Law at Chulalongkorn University , Bangkok , teaching international law, human rights, humanitarian law and a variety of other subjects. He has parti cipated in over 150 activities as seminar/conference speaker, presenter or rapporteur in all regions of the world, ranging from United Nations conferences to training programmes for non-governmental organizations. He has published widely both locally and internationally on subjects ranging from human rights in the Asia-Pacific region to refugee law, child rights, women’s rights and humanitarian law. He also undertakes various pro bono activities to help the civil society sector, such as training programmes on human rights.

Special Rapporteurs and other “mandate-holders” of the Commission are independent from any government and report to the Commission and the General Assembly.

This appointment will not just have an effect in North Korea . It is also affecting their neighbours – especially China .

One good straw in the wind is that a Japanese aid worker,  Takayuki Noguchi,has been released by China after serving an 8-month prison sentence for attempting to assist two Japanese-born North Korean refugees.

Three weeks ago, he arrived in Japan to be greeted by family members, friends and dozens of reporters. Looking thinner, but smiling, Noguchi had an emotional reunion with family members before holding an impromptu press conference.

He  spoke with sorrow of the fate of the North Koreans with whom he had been arrested. He described how he is haunted by the male refugee’s desperate groan of “I’m already dead” when the Chinese police entered their hotel room.

In his 50s, that refugee  and was born in West Japan , but moved to North Korea in the early 1960s. The other refugee was a woman in her 40s, born in Japan , but taken to North Korea as a child by her mother who believed the propaganda that North Korea was ‘a paradise on earth’.

Tragically, both refugees were repatriated. Those returned to North Korea regularly face mistreatment, imprisonment, torture and even execution.  Anyone coming into contact with foreigners and aid workers or who have sought to leave the country are treated with particular brutality, with some  reports of executions.

Noguchi had been pleading for intervention to secure the protection of the two refugees from repatriation. His sentence arose from his refusal to co-operate with the authorities to secure his own release unless given assurance of their safety.

But, Noguchi’s is not an isolated case. There are a number of other aid workers still detained in China for similar activities. For instance, in May 2003 a court in Yantai sentenced five people to five years imprisonment for attempting to help some North Koreans escape by boat.

For people like them  the appointment of a special rapporteur on human rights issues in North Korea is a welcome development. Despite the pressing crises elsewhere in the world we need to keep a focus on the Far East’s “ Hermit Kingdom .”

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