North Korea's 'charm offensive' can't hide human rights atrocities, say experts

International isolation, sanctions and derogatory language, like “Hermit Kingdom” or “Axis of Evil” may not move North Korea’s leaders to change their ways, but calling them out on human rights abuse seems to have rattled their cages.

On Thursday, Marzuki Darusman, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said there is enough evidence to hold leader Kim Jong-Un accountable for “massive” human rights atrocities carried out by the state on his watch.

Earlier this year, a United Nations report suggested Kim could end up at the International Criminal Court to answer for the wholesale enslavement, extermination and starvation that takes place in his country. North Korea watchers say the report's release seems to have prompted a Pyongyang charm offensive, with diplomats being sent around Europe, the release of three American prisoners, and in an unprecedented move, the opening of its Embassy near London for a show of North Korean art.

According to Sue Terry of the Eurasia Group, and former CIA North Korea analyst, Pyongyang's leaders are trying to “show the world they are a normal country and not a violator of grave human rights in the world.”


But Terry said that North Korea will have a tough time overcoming hard statistics that lay bare its brutality.

“Eighty-four percent [of North Koreans], according to the World Health Organization, suffered from borderline malnutrition last year," Terry said. "There are 120,000 that are sitting in Soviet-style gulags, and they were consigned there for political crimes, not real crimes.”

Terry suspects the initiative to present Pyongyang in a kinder, gentler light is also aimed at luring the United States back to talks regarding sanctions on its economy, imposed due to its rogue nuclear program.


“North Korea is not ready to give up nuclear weapons, and that is what we need to talk about if we return to talks," Terry said. "There is no point of returning to talks for the sake of talks.”

Mark Fitzpatrick directs the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and charged that North Korea is ramping its military programs up, not winding them down.

“Militarily, North Korea is just as dangerous as ever," Fitzpatrick said. "The nuclear program is expanding—the uranium enrichment part of it. They just doubled the size of their facility, and the plutonium program is continuing. And they are building more and more types of missiles. They don’t have anything that could hit the United States, but they certainly could hit Japan or South Korea.”

Terry thinks something is brewing in North Korea, but she dismissed rumors about a palace coup that circulated when Kim Jong-Un was missing from public for a month. He apparently has some sort of problem with his foot, or possibly gout. But Terry does believe Kim rules through fear, and the fact that he had his uncle and top deputy executed last year and has replaced military brass six times is an indication that there is a degree of disunity within the elite and that young Kim doesn’t command the respect afforded his grandfather and father. She said the instability makes the country more dangerous.


Fitzpatrick says the fact that Kim has recently built a fancy ski resort and a water park may mean something, too.

“It’s a strange allocation of resources, so there must be some grumbling below the surface," he said. "We just can’t see it.”

The legendary opaqueness of North Korea may be why the display of art at London's North Korean Embassy in London drew such a crowd and held great interest. The works were socialist realism, landscapes and even some paintings done in London by the North Korean artists who traveled with the exhibit. None would be drawn in to a discussion of politics. Asked if he felt the  exhibit indicated an opening in his country, one artist's careful response through an interpreter, was “I am an artist. I have been fully engaged in the painting. I haven’t thought about it,” he said.

“They are trying to show that they have some good sides to them, and they do," Fitzpatrick said. "Art is fine. It is a human interest story, and good luck to them, but meanwhile, they are doing all these other things, rattling swords, building up nuclear forces, missile forces. I don’t think people will forget about that anytime soon.”

Terry would neither be surprised if the regime imploded in the next six months, nor if it lasted another 30 years. The lesson to be learned right now, she said, is that pressing the human rights button appears to be somewhat effective.

“I think we do have leverage with this human rights situation," Terry said. "Our U.S. policy has been too myopic and ineffective just focusing on the nuclear issue. I think everyone will agree now. North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons program so you can’t make a policy around that.”