North Korea is:
a) An insular, hardscrabble country of 23 million people, ruled by ailing dictator Kim Jong Il and a military clique that tortures, publicly murders and imprisons its people, kidnaps enemies abroad, deliberately starves its population to support a successful quest for atomic weapons, rejects humanitarian assistance, and scoffs at international law and the United Nations;
b) The country next to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's native South Korea, whose human rights situation is "grave" but which faces "complex humanitarian problems which seriously hamper the fulfillment of human rights of the population," whose refusal to grant access to U.N. human rights investigators "has not allowed the secretary-General to obtain the information necessary to report in full to the General Assembly regarding the subject in question;"
The correct answer is c) — especially in the murky diplomatic universe of the United Nations, where the realities of North Korea's ugly human rights situation look vastly different in two separate reports presented on the same day last week to the U.N. General Assembly.
The first report is a blunt and bleak assessment of North Korea's human rights situation prepared by Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Bangkok law professor who works pro bono as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is known.
Muntarbhorn, who has held the position for six years, issued his toughest report yet for the situation in DPRK, covering the period from late 2008 to mid-2009, after the North Korean regime had set off its second atomic blast and fired missiles in the direction of Japan and Hawaii.
According to Muntarbhorn, "human rights violations are evidently widespread, systematic and abhorrent in their impact and implications. They compromise and threaten not only human rights but also international peace and security." Elections are empty rituals; the media are the "backbone of an enormous propaganda machine." The regime "monitors its population through the tentacles of its iron-fisted security machinery."
The second report is from Ban himself, a longtime senior South Korean diplomat and ultimately foreign minister, who was responsible at that time for helping to funnel billions of dollars worth of international aid to the North Korean regime.
As for Ban, the current Secretary General, says Jay Lefkowitz, U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea during the Bush Administration, "nobody in that chair has known more about the depredations there."
Ban's document freely borrows from the special rapporteur's report but turns it into something far less accusatory.
Ban's 19-page report acknowledges North Korea's atrocious human rights record, while simultaneously soft-pedaling it and accentuating the positive — however small — in order to coax North Korea's rulers into returning to the nuclear bargaining table and bringing their brutalized country at least a millimeter or so under the rule of international law.
Thus, for Ban, DPRK's announcement on July 22, 2009 that it is "setting up the Ministry of Foodstuff and Daily Necessities Manufacturing is a sign that the Government is trying to address the severe food situation."
This is followed by the Secretary General's acknowledgement that "the authorities have blocked access to alternative sources of food by forbidding kitchen farming in private households and closing down markets where food items are traded." Such reports, Ban says, delicately, "indicate that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is failing to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law to protect the right to adequate food."
Ban's bloodless formulations, however, do not paint anything like the same horrifying picture that Muntarbhorn does in his 24-page document. Forbidden by North Korea from visiting the country, he relies on refugee and local human rights reports to paint a grim picture of the country's "stifling political environment and stultifying developmental process, compounded by a range of stupefying cruelties."
• "Citizens who fail to turn up for work allocated to them by the State are sent to labor camps."
• "There are reports of public executions and secret executions in political detention camps."
• "Although torture is prohibited by law, it is extensively practiced."
• The role of lawyers "is to pressure the accused to confess to a crime rather than to defend his client."
• There are plenty of crimes to confess to: citing human rights legal sources, Muntarbhorn says there are "14 types of anti-State crime; 16 types of crime disruptive of national defense systems; 104 types of crime injurious to the socialist economy; 26 types of crime injurious to socialist culture; 39 types of crime injurious to administrative systems; 20 types of crime harmful to collective life; and 26 types of crime injuring life and damaging property of citizens."
• Punishment is collective: "Where the parents are seen as antithetical to the regime, the child and the rest of the family are discriminated against in their access to schools, hospitals and other necessities."
• Forcible child labor, sometimes on state poppy farms, and forcible separation of children from their parents is far from uncommon.
On an even more sinister front, Muntarbhorn notes the regime's practice of "kidnapping a number of foreign nationals," sometimes to steal their identities for use by North Korean spies. Many remain unaccounted for. The report says over 10 countries have been affected by DPRK's extraterritorial crimes (at a press conference, Muntarbhorn later raised the precise number of countries where DPRK kidnappers operate to 12).
When it comes to such basics as food, the regime's strategy is brutally direct: provide it only through state distribution where possible, after the ruling elite takes as much as it wants. Muntarbhorn refers to the regime's stance as a "military first strategy," as opposed to a "people first" strategy in which civilian needs matter.
In fact, Muntarbhorn makes it clear that where the regime is concerned, the people often should have no ranking at all. While acknowledging that floods and bad harvests made a bad situation worse in 2006 and 2007, Muntarbhorn notes that "at the end of 2008, in the pursuit of State control over the population, the authorities planned to close general markets and banned rice sales in such markets, even though those markets had been a major source of income and food for the population."
In effect, the issue was not merely whether the military clique had first call on food and income, it was more that any independent sources of food and income should be removed. The market closures have caused some of the few reported confrontations between authorities and protestors.
Citing a South Korean Bar Association paper, Muntarbhorn also makes the claim that international food aid — in its extremely limited amounts — may have accelerated the trend to impose state monopolies of distribution.
But if so, maybe not by so much. In July, in the wake of its second atomic blast, North Korea announced that it would turn its back on 500,000 tons of food aid offered by the U.S. through the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP).
When a dry-up of donor funds after the blast limited WFP's other supplies, the regime cut the agency's access to North Korean territory in half, forced all Korean-speaking U.N. employees out of the country, and made the agency announce inspection visits for its food distribution a week in advance.
Women in particular have been hard-hit by the food power-plays, Muntarbhorn reports. All those under 40 were banned from trading in the markets at all — an age later raised to 49. Muntarborn cites report that women have also been prosecuted for wearing trousers, or riding bicycles.
DPRK is a signatory to the U.N.'s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Even so, Muntarbhorn cites legal sources who say that assault against pregnant female refugees who return home is "routine, and wrapping the forcibly aborted fetus' face with plastic to [induce] death is known [in] frequent occurrences."
North Korea is also a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, not to mention the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Secretary General Ban's report notes North Korea's signatures on those documents, without comment, although from his perspective these legal adherences clearly matter a great deal. Among other things, he carefully lauds the regime for the creation of a "2008-2010 work program" by the Central Committee of the Korean Federation for Persons with Disabilities, even though DPRK "has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."
Ban does not note, however, as Muntarbhorn does, that DPRK has not yet signed protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that ban child trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography, or the involvement of children in armed conflict, among other legal instruments.
To be fair, Ban does forthrightly note "with serious concern continuing reports that the situation of human rights In [DPRK] remains grave." He also declares that the North Korean government "has not taken significant steps to address persistent reports of systematic and widespread human rights violations."
He cites a "range of reports" that refer "to the continuous absence of due process and the rule of law," torture, forced labor, and the vulnerability of women in detention to sexual abuse. But Ban is careful to note that the reports "could not be independently verified."
The main reason they could not be verified is that the regime does not allow anyone in to verify them.
The regime has vetoed, Ban notes, requests for a visit by the U.N.'s special rapporteur on free expression since 1999, by the special rapporteur on religion since 2002, the special rapporteur on the right to food since 2003, and the special rapporteur on human rights — that is, Muntarbhorn — since 2004. On Muntarbhorn's latest request, dated July 21, 2009, the regime said such a visit "would never be possible."
But in the cases of 11 separate kidnapping victims from Japan—some dating back to the 1970s — Ban could report glimmers of progress: essentially discussions that in the future might "lead to the clarification of the outstanding cases." There was also an agreement in August 2008 for the DPRK regime to conduct "a comprehensive investigation of the unresolved cases of abduction."
In other words, the regime agreed to investigate itself for the alleged crimes.
When it comes to food issues, Ban acknowledges stark shortages, but places much of the blame not on the regime's predatory policies but on North Korea's poor soils, small percentage of arable land, and the lack of "key inputs such as fertilizer, fuel, seed, plastic sheeting and mechanization." Among these, he also notices "structural constraints (including constraints on market activities)." But a bigger factor is "natural disasters."
Even then, he adds, citing the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), "increases in agricultural production can only be achieved through improved yields, given that all suitable arable land is already under cultivation." The biggest need is for fertilizer — which the regime refuses to request from its South Korean neighbor.
FAO is one of five U.N. agencies that maintains a small presence in North Korea, as part of a U.N. "country team." Each part of the team can claim to see small improvements In North Korea's situation, and Ban gravely notes all of them.
UNICEF, for example, reports that DPRK "has done well in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, "to the extent that information is available about these matters." But the agency adds that "it is difficult to estimate progress toward reducing child mortality owing to the absence of reliable data."
The United Nations Population Fund, on the other hand, says that it "continues to implement the national reproductive health strategy with a program focusing on reducing maternal mortality, with funding from the U.N., Norway and New Zealand. It soon plans to establish a family planning clinic to serve three mountainous North Korean counties.
Ban clearly sees the need for more international carrots where the special rapporteur on human rights issues sees the North Korean regime wielding many sticks.
In his conclusions, Muntarbhorn says that North Korea's human rights violations are "evidently widespread, systematic and abhorrent in their implications." He recommends that the regime cease and desist, allow him to visit the country, "modernize the government system," and "act against the impunity of those responsible for the violence and violations" — meaning, essentially, themselves. Muntarbhorn also calls on the international community to push North Korea toward a "people first" policy and "enable the totality of the U.N. system, including the Security Council," to "protect people from victimization and provide effective redress."
Ban, on the other hand, "urges the government of [DPRK] to provide safeguards for human rights," "implement fully" such things as "the need to improve access for United Nations agencies in order to ensure equal distribution of humanitarian assistance," and to engage with the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights "in substantive dialogue and technical cooperation."
Ban's sanguine attitude about deepening the U.N.'s involvement with a repressive regime engaged in a naked hunt for nuclear weapons bears a strong resemblance to the attitude that resulted in the U.N.'s biggest scandal in North Korea, back in 2006 — a year before Ban took office.
That was when the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) was revealed by a whistleblower, an employee in North Korea named Artjon Shkurtaj, to have funneled millions of dollars in hard currency illegally to the Pyongyang government, allowed North Korean government employees to fill sensitive UNDP posts, turned a blind eye to the hand-over of sensitive "dual use" technology of potential value in North Korea's nuclear program, and kept $3,500 in defaced U.S. counterfeit $100 bills in UNDP's North Korean safe for more than a decade without reporting them to the U.S. Treasury.
The aim of all that excessive engagement with the North Korean government was ostensibly to retain influence with the regime and, through incentives, keep it from continuing its quest for atomic weapons.
The engagement ended badly — for the whistleblower. Shkurtaj was removed from his job, and eventually his employment contract was not renewed. A 353-page report by a three-member "External Independent Investigative Review Panel" subsequently confirmed virtually every one of Shkurtaj's accusations, and added more, notably that the U.N. was ignoring its own technology sanctions against North Korea, even as the U.N. Security Council called on the world to tighten those restrictions in the wake of the regime's nuclear explosion.
The U.N.'s Ethics Officer, Robert Benson, subsequently determined that the investigative panel had not given Shkurtaj a chance to answer allegations leveled against him, which he called a "due process failure," and ruled that UNDP should pay Shkurtaj 14 months' wages. UNDP has not yet done so.
And UNDP, after a brief stint out of North Korea, is now about to rejoin the U.N. agencies offering North Korea greater "technical cooperation." It has reopened its dormant offices in Pyongyang and is preparing to restart programs there, a stance that not only has the backing of Ban, but of the Obama Administration.
In addition to his call for greater North Korea-U.N. engagement, Ban also calls on the international community in far less specific terms than Muntarbhorn to "uphold its commitment to protecting human rights and addressing critical humanitarian concerns."
Where Ban and Muntarbhorn agree is on setting store by a new U.N. ritual, the so-called "universal periodic review" of North Korea's human rights practices by the notorious 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), which has largely busied itself since its founding in 2006 with attacks against Israel. Among its members are Angola, China, Cuba, Egypt, Nicaragua, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Belgium, Hungary, and — as of this year, the U.S., ending a three-year boycott of the institution. North Korea is not a Council member.
The Universal Periodic Review is described on a HRC web page as a "unique process" in which all 192 U.N. member states eventually appear before the Council every four years to "declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations In their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations." It is "designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situation are assessed."
In other words, it puts democracies like the U.S., Germany and India on the same level as North Korea when it comes to justifying their behavior.
Ban Ki-moon is quoted as saying "this mechanism has great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world."
The HRC says its goal is to complete the entire Universal Periodic Review by 2011.
North Korea's turn is slated to come between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Monday, December 7, 2009.
The U.S. turn is slated for Friday, November 26, 2010, between 9 a.m. and noon.
Special rapporteur Muntarbhorn won't be there to see it. After presenting his report in New York last week, he let it be known to some reporters that he would be leaving at the end of his six-year-term in December.
Before then, he clearly hopes to see whether the U.N.'s Human Rights Council will adhere to one of his main recommendations for the international community: use North Korea's refusal to cooperate with the special rapporteur "as a key indicator of the Universal Periodic Review."
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.