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UNITED NATIONS – For an envoy of the North Korean government, which virtually bans the average citizen's contact with the outside world, Kim Ju Song looks breezily connected. A tablet computer is propped on his table in the United Nations' bustling delegates lounge. He hands out his name card with a Gmail address and mobile number and suggests a "coffee meeting to exchange views."
The young adviser to North Korea's foreign ministry is on an unusual mission that's almost certainly doomed to fail: Persuading the world that his country's dreadful human rights situation isn't so bad after all.
Faced with the threat of a referral to the International Criminal Court, Pyongyang is trying on the charm.
Diplomats and observers describe the attempt at openness as both ridiculous and remarkable. The North Koreans, once known for simply picking up the phone at their mission and hanging it up again, now hold press conferences and private briefings where they invite, and even answer, questions. "Don't hesitate to contact me," one official told a room of startled diplomats last week.
Diplomats also say they detect what normally isn't part of the North Koreans' remote presence at the United Nations: fear.
International pressure on the North began to mount early this year, when a groundbreaking U.N. report by a commission of inquiry laid out widespread abuses, including a harsh system of political prison camps holding up to 120,000 people. The commission head, Australian Michael Kirby, said the North's human rights situation "exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror."
Now the European Union and Japan have teamed up on a demand for the Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body, to follow the commission of inquiry's advice and refer North Korea's situation to the International Criminal Court.
This year's EU-Japan text for the General Assembly's human rights committee doesn't name names, but the commission of inquiry has warned leader Kim Jong Un that he may be held accountable for orchestrating widespread crimes against his people, including rapes and mass starvation.
Though it's unlikely an ICC referral would get the approval of China, the North's most powerful ally and a veto-wielding Security Council member, Pyongyang doesn't want the issue to get even that far.
So in recent weeks, North Korea has offered a string of surprises. The latest came Tuesday, when it released U.S. detainee Jeffrey Fowle nearly six months after taking him into custody on charges of leaving a Bible in a nightclub. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in the communist country.
The North last month introduced a lengthy human rights report on itself, praising the country's guiding Juche philosophy as "the ideology of believing in people as in heaven." It met with the EU's top human rights official and expressed interest in dialogue. Its foreign minister Ri Su Yong last month addressed the annual U.N. General Assembly of world leaders for the first time in more than a decade.
And last week, North Korea left diplomats speechless by handing out its own draft resolution, saying that resolutions that target countries over their human rights records aren't fair. The draft calls on the United Nations to make an "unbiased reassessment" of the North's situation.
Diplomats are still trying to figure out the last time Pyongyang has offered any resolution of its own — or if it ever has.
On another track, the one-on-one lobbying has begun, both at the United Nations and in European capitals. "I'm all booked up," Kim said Monday by phone from his mission in turning down a request to talk. He later was back at his post in the delegates lounge, alone.
One U.N. diplomat this week said a colleague was approached and invited for a cappuccino — an expense that roughly equals the estimated average North Korean's daily income.
In that meeting, the North was very concerned about the EU-Japan text and asked many questions about the referral to the ICC, the diplomat said. The conversation turned into a lecture. The North even had dug up an old draft resolution from 2006 by Belarus and Uzbekistan that objected to country-specific U.N. resolutions over human rights.
"It shows they've gone back and done their homework," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the contact was private.
But other remarks behind the scenes indicate that North Korea's hard-edged defensiveness remains.
In a private meeting Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations, North Korea's U.N. envoy Jang Il Hun said his country wanted the EU-Japan language about referral to the ICC removed, and that any chance of gestures like allowing a visit by a U.N. special investigator or the International Committee of the Red Cross would depend on what the EU does.
"I think we have shown everything we can do," Jang said, according to a transcript. "So once it is not accepted by the European Union, I cannot predict what will come, what will follow afterwards, right?"
He also said his foreign minister was not allowed to join a high-level diplomatic meeting, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss the North and human rights. The minister had wanted to explain his views, Jang said.
He called the refusal "a bad mistake."
The United States, a vocal critic of North Korea, has not been swayed. "We do not believe that the language in the DPRK draft is serious, credible or viable," a diplomat with the U.S. mission said, using North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The EU continues to move ahead. The newly tabled EU-Japan resolution, obtained Tuesday evening by The Associated Press, still has the ICC language and adds new language to submit the commission of inquiry report to the Security Council.
"Of course there should be a human rights dialogue with North Korea. Many of them," David Hawk, a former U.N. human rights official and a leading researcher on North Korean prison camps, said in an email. "But not at the expense of continued diplomatic encouragement for real, on-the-ground progress." He pointed out that with other countries, positive results from dialogue had come with the possibility of on-site monitoring of a government's claims.
There is no such chance with North Korea, Hawk said.
Pyongyang comes under international scrutiny again next week, when the U.N. special investigator on North Korea briefs the General Assembly's human rights committee.
But a more immediate challenge arrives Wednesday. Kirby, a sharp-tongued former Australian judge who headed the commission of inquiry, returns to the U.N. for a public briefing, along with former political prisoners and refugees from North Korea.
North Korea's mission on Monday said it had received the "save the date" notice for Wednesday's event. It did not say whether it would offer its latest surprise and show up, too.