Earlier this week, Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson raised eyebrows with a private visit to Pyongyang, North Korea.
The United States State Department called the trip “unhelpful.” Schmidt’s visit to Kim il-Song University, during which a student demonstrated how he uses Google to conduct internet searches, seemed like a theatric production in the Potemkin style.
Although controversial, the visit accomplished this: It placed North Korea’s rights record in the spotlight in place of the usual news of nuclear weapons and missile tests.
In December, the regime drew attention with the launch of a rocket into space. International condemnation that followed focused on “provocation” and the potential nuclear threat posed to citizens of other countries.
The reaction, of course, diverts attention from the real threat that the regime poses to its own people: the government’s actualization of violence, suffering, and death for its own citizenry.
It is a good time to take stock of North Korea’s rights record. Just over a year ago, Kim Jong-un took the reins of power from his father, Kim Jong-il, who led North Korea from 1994 to 2011, and was the son of Kim Il-sung, who led the country from 1948 to 1994.
In a larger context, this was a remarkable development. For the first time in the modern history of totalitarianism, a succession to a third generation ruler took place. Totalitarian cults of personality have existed in the modern era, and dynastic succession is one of history’s oldest political phenomena. But blood dynasty and comprehensive totalitarianism, with all its mercilessness and mind-control, have never succeeded in one country, in one family, for so long. The transition raised a question: How long can the dynasty persist?
A year later, it is clear that little is changing. Millions of North Koreans still live under totalitarianism, with harsh strictures controlling almost every part of their lives. Serious consequences can result from any form of disobedience — even innocuous acts like trading rice on the black market.
Overt political opposition is analogous to suicide. As many as 200,000 people at any given time are locked up in a gulag of prison work camps. Many prisoners die in these camps, and in some cases are executed.
There are signs the situation may be getting worse. Recent escapees speak of intensifying crackdowns in the countryside after Kim Jong-il’s death. There was a drop in the number of escapees entering China in 2012, suggesting stepped-up border control. Meanwhile, the regime allows endemic malnutrition to persist, largely by giving priority to the country’s overlarge army instead of the general public.
The UN estimates that almost one in three children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, leading to a permanent condition known as stunting. Older groups also show high rates of this condition. Aid workers tell of schools with children too exhausted from hunger to learn, or even stand.
It is time for a new approach. Recently, the UN special rapporteur for North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, delivered a scathing report to the UN General Assembly, noting the “decades” of autocratic rule. He called on the international community to consider setting up “a more detailed mechanism of inquiry” of the North Korean regime’s record of abuses and crimes against humanity.
Human rights activists, academics and former international prosecutors agree, and have begun calling on the UN Human Rights Council to create a “Commission of Inquiry” to document and report on abuses.
This is the right thing to do. For more than 60 years, successive regimes have killed or starved millions, and the world has done little in response. No one should labor under the misperception that the regime can be influenced by negotiation, and reformed in some traditional sense. Only coordinated outside pressure has a chance to make an impact. Recording, exposing, condemning and calling for accountability for serious abuses may lead some in the regime to realize that there are potential costs to their behavior.
As younger actors in the government gain more exposure to the outside world, they may try to separate themselves from the worst forms of abuse, such as harsh torture at prison camps or public executions.
There are no compelling examples in history of a situation in which the exposure of a regime’s abuses has made matters worse. If anything, attention has in many cases acted as a deterrent. It is likewise dubious to suggest that creating a commission of inquiry will negatively impact diplomatic efforts on nuclear issues. After all, decades of negotiations on nuclear issues, in which rights issues are passed over, have failed.
On the contrary, creating a commission of inquiry could raise the stakes for North Korea to cooperate on other fronts.
A resolution to create a new commission of inquiry will likely be pursued at the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in March. To succeed, the resolution will need the support of the European Union, Japan and South Korea — and of course the US.
As President Barack Obama creates a new national security team, he has an opportunity to create a new strategy for North Korea. A commission of inquiry should be part of it.
John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. He can be followed on Twitter at @johnsifton.