Analysts say China holds key on UN North Korea Report

  • 21 February 2014
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviews soldiers in an undated photo released by North Korean officials on January 12, 2014.
Image caption North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be charged with human rights abuses

Monday's United Nations report on North Korea's crimes against humanity is not for the faint of heart. It contains gruesome details of systematic extermination, torture, rape, forced abortions and starvation.

Although it was a "polite letter", in the words of the Telegraph's Colin Freeman, the report constitutes a clarion call to action, according to many analysts. It will also amount to little, they say, unless China, one of North Korea's few allies, gives its consent.

In the wake of damning accounts provided by various defectors, the report urges the UN to turn over the findings to the International Criminal Court, which could prosecute Kim Jong-un for human rights violations. To do that, however, the UN would need the approval of the Security Council, over which China has veto power.

"I hope the international community will be moved by the detail [in the report]," Michael Kirby, chairman of the independent Commission of Inquiry, said. "Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well this is a time for action."

"So what is likely to happen? Nothing," write the editors of New York Post. They argue that while the report exposes a slew of North Korean atrocities, it may be more eye-opening to see the extent of the UN's failure to do anything about it.

The international community must hold China accountable for the role it played in facilitating North Korea's abuses, writes Kenneth Roth of Foreign Policy:

No country has more influence over North Korea than China, which has long provided a lifeline of economic aid and political cover to the Kim dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and, since Dec. 2011, Kim Jong Un, while refusing to do anything about the horrendous cruelty being committed next door. If it wanted to, Beijing could use its considerable influence to press Pyongyang to curb its atrocities.

If response from China is any indication, Beijing seems uninterested in pursuing the avenue opened up by the UN report.

"China maintains that differences in human rights should be handled through constructive dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday, according to Beijing-based Global Times. "To bring human rights issues to the International Criminal Court does not help improve a country's human rights conditions."

The Global Times also quoted Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, who took a sceptical view of the findings.

"The report, following year-long interviews with defectors, may largely tell the reality in North Korea, but there are also emotional descriptions involved when defectors, who usually live a miserable life, recall their experiences," he said.

Human rights lawyer Jared Genser thinks there are ways to pressure China to allow the Human Rights Council to act. "That said, the way forward will be exceptionally difficult," he writes in The Diplomat. "Changing the conduct of the North Korea regime, let alone holding its members to account for the commission of crimes against humanity, will require a Herculean effort."

Bloomberg View's editors suggest that China may be ready to back away from Kim Jong-un.

"China's interests lie in a transition to minimally acceptable standards of behavior in Pyongyang, not in supporting the insupportable pending the outright collapse of Kim's regime," they write.

Even if the Chinese Security Council roadblock is overcome, however, that doesn't mean that Kim Jong-un will ever face judgment. The editors of the Ottawa Citizen write that the Security Council has a bad record of actually catching those they refer to the ICC.

"What it comes down to, then, is that in the face of the most egregious acts of human rights abuses, the world is nearly helpless to act - or at least unwilling to pay the price of action," they argue. A record now exists of what is happening in North Korea, however, and they believe the world is watching and waiting for the day when justice may be served.

"So, 'too many times in this building, there are reports and no action'? Yep, that about covers it," writes Paul Whitefield for the Los Angeles Times.

"Someday, North Korea will change. Someday, things will get better there.

"But it won't be soon enough for millions of people. And it won't be because of this UN report."

(Kierran Petersen contributed to this article)