TOKYO – A campaign within the United Nations to haul North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an international court for crimes against humanity has touched off a defensive fury in Pyongyang, where it's being treated like a diplomatic declaration of war — an aggressive act aimed not only at shutting down prison camps but also at removing Kim and dismantling his family's three-generation cult of personality.
Actually, according to the U.N.'s point man on human rights in North Korea, that's not too far off the mark, though he stressed no one is advocating a military option to force regime change.
"It would be, I think, the first order of the day to get these 80,000 to 100,000 (prisoners) immediately released and these camps disbanded," Marzuki Darusman, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But that can only happen if this cult leadership system is completely dismantled. And the only way to do that is if the Kim family is effectively displaced, is effectively removed from the scene, and a new leadership comes into place."
Such blunt words from a high-ranking U.N. official are unusual, although common among American officials.
Darusman said previous proposals submitted to the U.N. trying to persuade or force North Korea to improve its human rights record were mostly "rhetorical" exercises.
But he said this resolution, passed by the General Assembly in December, is more significant because it holds Kim responsible based on a 372-page report of findings presented last year by the U.N.-backed Commission of Inquiry that detailed arbitrary detention, torture, executions and political prison camps.
"This is a sea change in the position of the international community," Darusman said during a recent visit to Tokyo. The North Koreans "are in their most vulnerable position at this stage, whenever the culpability and responsibility of the supreme leader is brought out in full glare of the international public scrutiny."
North Korea's intense response has included threats of more nuclear tests, mass rallies across the country, a bitter smear campaign against defectors who cooperated in the U.N. report and repeated allegations that Washington orchestrated the whole thing in an attempt at speeding a regime change. Its state media last week railed yet again against the U.N. findings, saying "those who cooked up the 'report' are all bribed political swindlers and despicable human scum." It called Darusman, the former attorney general of Indonesia, an "opportunist."
In a rare flurry of talks, North Korean diplomats at the U.N. lobbied frenetically to get Kim's culpability out of the resolution without success. The proposal is now on the agenda of the Security Council, which is expected this year to make a decision on whether the issue should be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Just before the resolution passed the General Assembly, the North Korean diplomatic mission to the U.N. sought a meeting with Darusman to get the wording deleted. During the meeting with Ri Hung Sik, North Korea's ambassador-at-large, the North Koreans indicated their future was at stake, Darusman said.
"They said that other people will take over, and the hardliners will be taking over," Darusman said, suggesting a schism may already be forming between factions scrambling to prove themselves more loyal and more effective in protecting the leadership. "They wouldn't have to mention that to us, but I don't know. I'm taking it at face value."
But here's the reality check about the resolution: The likelihood of criminal proceedings against Kim is minuscule. It would likely be shot down by China or Russia, which have veto power on the Security Council. Also, while more than 120 countries support the International Criminal Court, the United States isn't one of them, so it is somewhat awkward for Washington to push that option too hard.
But even without bringing Kim to court, Darusman said, the placement of North Korean human rights on the Security Council agenda means Pyongyang will face increasing scrutiny from the international community. He said ally China will be under pressure to either distance itself from Pyongyang or lose credibility.
"It may seem remote, but at some stage it is conceivable that China cannot afford to be continuously associated with a regime that is universally sanctioned by the international community," he said. "Something will give."
Washington, meanwhile, is turning up the heat following the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures.
"We are under no illusions about the DPRK's willingness to abandon its illicit weapons, provocations, and human rights abuses on its own. We will apply pressure both multilaterally and unilaterally," Sung Kim, Washington's special representative for North Korea policy, testified in Congress last month. "The leadership in Pyongyang faces ever-sharper choices."
North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Extricating North Korea from the personality cult of the Kim family would be a genuine challenge under any circumstances.
The country's founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, permeate every facet of daily life. Citizens wear Kim lapel pins everywhere they go. Portraits and statuary of the father and son are everywhere. In Pyongyang at midnight every night, a ghostly dirge commemorating the elder Kim blares from loudspeakers through the darkness.
According to the U.N. commission's findings and the testimony of many defectors, North Koreans who dare criticize the Kim family are punished severely and face horrific treatment in prison camps around the country. North Korea says that isn't true, and routinely accuses defectors of being "human scum" and criminals.
Officials vociferously deny speculation of disunity within their ranks.
In an interview with the AP in Pyongyang in October, two North Korean legal experts attempted to discredit the U.N. campaign and its findings — which they called an "anti-DPRK plot" — and defended the prison system that has long been the core area of concern.
"In a word, the political camps do not exist in our country," said Ri Kyong Chol, director of the international law department at Pyongyang's Academy of Social Sciences. "The difference between the common and the anti-state criminals is that the anti-state criminals get more severe punishment than the common criminals."
But Ri said common and anti-state inmates are not segregated.
"I think every country has prisons to imprison those criminals who have committed crimes against the state," he said. But in North Korea, "there are no different prisons for that."