North Korea has been condemned for crimes against humanity by a United Nations panel, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has pushed for North Korea to be referred to the International Criminal Court. But China, Pyongyang’s main ally, has already faulted the report, and is far more interested in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons than in punishing its human rights record, says CFR Korea expert Scott Snyder. China wants to move forward on denuclearization without destabilizing North Korea, says Snyder, but "it remains to be seen whether the United States and China can find a way to jointly push forward effectively."
What is your impression of the blistering report from the UN Special Commission on North Korea’s human rights policies?
The significance of the Commission of Inquiry report is that it aggregated a lot of information into testimony regarding the nature of the North Korean regime, and it was compiled in such a way as to be able to make a formal legal judgment about whether the North Korean regime and leadership is guilty of crimes against humanity. This is important as a body of evidence that could theoretically be used at the International Criminal Court on some future date. One very interesting move that the head of the commission made was to send a letter directly to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, laying out the findings of the report, indicating that he may be personally found liable if these practices continue, and actually appealing to Kim to change direction in terms of the nature of this system and its implications for human rights.
But for anything to happen, the report has to be backed by members of the Security Council, right?
That’s right, the Commission of Inquiry formally conveys its reports to the Human Rights Council in mid-March, and the Human Rights Council will presumably vote on whether to refer it to the Security Council for consideration, possibly in the fall. Clearly, China is a member of the Security Council and is on record opposing the report. It would likely veto the findings. It’s not clear yet whether the report itself would find itself on the Security Council’s agenda.
Could the United States make an effort to push it to a vote?
The United States would have to make a decision about whether to pursue the measures needed, in terms of backing by other Security Council members, to have it on the agenda, in which case there would be a formal consideration and a vote on whether the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court. The administration has stated its concerns on human rights, but its main priority remains focused on convincing North Korea to make a strategic choice to abandon its nuclear program and return to the Six-Party Talks.
What’s the current status of North Korea’s nuclear program?
The facilities at Yongbyon are by all accounts active, and may indeed be producing more material at this stage for nuclear weapons. There are reports of improvements to North Korea’s satellite launching site, and reports that North Korea may continue to prepare its site for potential detonation of a fourth nuclear test. It doesn’t appear that those developments are immediately likely, but there’s also no indication of restraint on the part of North Korea.
Now the Chinese say they also want North Korea to stop, right?
"The most significant development on the Chinese side occurred in the context of the 2013 California summit, where President Xi indicated that denuclearization is an objective that the U.S. and China share."
That’s right. The most significant development on the Chinese side occurred in the context of the 2013 California summit, where President Xi indicated that denuclearization is an objective that the United States and China share. It appears that China’s push for denuclearization will only occur within the bounds of maintaining stability in North Korea. It remains to be seen whether the United States and China can find a way to jointly push forward effectively to pressure North Korea to actually pursue denuclearization without destabilization.
So you wouldn’t expect the Chinese to lean hard on North Korea over the human rights issue?
No. The United States and China have very different preferred means for pursuing objectives, with the United States willing to consider sanctions and pressure to a much greater extent than China. And on the human rights issue, there appears to be no indication of any convergence in view. In fact, the Commission Inquiry report implicates China as part of its findings for returning North Korean refugees and denying the possibility that they would have political grounds for escaping North Korea.
Talk a bit about the North Korean leadership. We know little about the young leader Kim Jong-un, who had his uncle and adviser, Jang Song-taek, executed in December 2013.
It’s a complicated picture. It’s possible to argue both that North Korea may be more politically consolidated under Kim Jong-un today than it was before and that the system may be fragile and less resilient. Certainly, the Jang purge and execution represents the most dramatic and visible evidence of division within North Korea that goes to the very top, and that is clearly a sign of weakness. But in terms of Kim Jong-un’s power and capacity to push forward, there’s little evidence to suggest that there is a capability within the North Korean system to challenge him directly.
He has yet to visit China. Have the Chinese given him an official cold shoulder?
There [seemed] to have been a building set of expectations for a Kim Jong-un visit to China at the end of the last year, and that all evaporated with the Jang purge. We know Jang was a major player in the China-North Korea relationship, so presumably there’s a lot of adjustment and scrambling within China to figure out how to adjust policy toward North Korea accordingly.
Giving Kim Jong-un face is probably the most precious form of usable leverage China has. And so it makes sense that Chinese leaders would want to ensure that that leverage is used as effectively as possible to block North Korea from pursuing the types of provocations that run contrary to China’s own national interests. So it would suggest to me that the price of a visit to Beijing by Kim should be a firm commitment by the DPRK to rejoin the path of denuclearization. And that would involve resumption of the Six-Party Talks on the premise that the DPRK is willing to pursue denuclearization in word and action—probably including the return of inspectors to Yongbyon and opening the North Korean program to third parties that can verifiably move it toward a denuclearized status.