Pyongyang shows signs of change

Written By: Glyn Ford
Published: December 17, 2014 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Even accepting the contents of the Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) Report on Human Rights in North Korea, and acknowledging continued abuse, does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the best and only way to force an amelioration is by referring the North Korean leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The counter-intuitive conclusion is that it may well at best delay and at worst aggravate the situation. All the recent evidence shows Pyongyang clearly signalling its willingness to open up both economically and politically and that it is prepared to make concessions in order for this to happen.

In North Korea, economic innovation is already the order of the day. They are experimenting with an ever-widening variety of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as they look for the best ways to expand the economy. From the business park model of the Kaesong Industrial Complex – where North Korean land and labour are married with South Korean capital and equipment – through to the Rason SEZ, abutting both China and Russia, modelled very much on China’s Shenzhen SEZ next to Hong Kong, where a semi-autonomous region runs under different rules and regulations from the rest of the country.

More recently, last year and this, the State Economic Development Administration in Pyongyang announced a positive rash of smaller SEZs covering export processing, tourism and gaming on through Green Zones, mineral processing and high technology. The last year has seen a parallel political opening. The rapprochement with Tokyo with the ongoing inquiry into the fate of Japanese abductees in the North has shown an unprecedented engagement by the authorities in the North attempting to come to terms with the past, for example making accessible to the investigators medical staff in the hospital were Megumi Yokota died. These efforts may prove insufficient to satisfy the raised expectations of Japanese public opinion, but the commitment should be acknowledged.

Pyongyang also sent Kang Suk Ju, the International Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea and the former chief negotiator at the Six Party Talks, on a four-country tour of Europe at the beginning of September. In Brussels he announced the North’s willingness to re-start the suspended European Union-DPRK Human Rights Dialogue and invited the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Stravros Lambrinidis, to visit Pyongyang. An invitation subsequently confirmed by the government in North Korea and, as of this week still standing. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the visit to New York by the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong and head of state Kim Yong Nam’s recent African tour.

There are none so blind as those who will not see. All of the above indicates a willingness to experiment and engage never before shown by any previous North Korean leaders, yet put at risk by the paragraph in the resolution from the United Nations Third Committee proposing the referral of this self same leadership to the ICC. While the vote for the basic resolution was understandably overwhelming – 119 to 19 with 55 abstentions – a large majority questioned the utility of the ICC referral. A Cuban amendment to delete the paragraph proposing the referral was only defeated by 77 to 40 with 50 abstentions with China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa all in the minority. In the EU, you need a majority of votes from member states that simultaneously represent a majority of the EU’s population. Here three out of four of the world’s most populous states were against.

Some claim that the changes in the North are short-term tactics designed to head off the threat of referral. If that is the case, Pyongyang is exceptionally far sighted as many of these changes predate the COI. But even if it was true, why not reward good behaviour? We are constantly told not to reward bad behaviour. For those in Pyongyang, currently it seems “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t”. After all, it’s merely a cynical ploy – it’s not as if when they fail to deliver they cannot be referred next year or in subsequent years.

No one disputes there are serious human rights problems in North Korea – including increasingly voices from Pyongyang. In May this year, they accepted 81 of 167 recommendations in full and 6 in part from the UN Second Universal Periodic Review of their Human Rights. The problem is that not everyone who voted no to Cuba’s proposal shares the same agenda. Some are “fighting the last war” looking to batter down a door that is already open. Others are fighting the next determined, come what may, to back Pyongyang into a corner and bring closer the day where they can find an excuse and opportunity to forcibly intervene. However, for everyone interested in the welfare of North East Asia, the lessons of the disastrous and horrific failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Syria demonstrates encouraging a changing regime trumps regime change every day.

Glyn Ford is a former Member of the European Parliament and author of North Korea on the Brink; Struggle for Survival

About Glyn Ford

Glyn Ford is a former Labour MEP and author of North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival