(ABC Radio’s Eleanor Hall reported this story for “The World Today” program on February 18, 2014)
ELEANOR HALL: As he released this report accusing the North Korean regime of horrific crimes against its own people, Michael Kirby called on the international community to act, saying, “We can’t say we didn’t know.”
So what action can the international community take?
Dr Leonid Petrov is a Korean specialist at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and he says Justice Kirby’s recommendation that the North Korean leaders be tried before the International Criminal Court is likely to be far less effective than using the report as a bargaining chip with the regime.
LEONID PETROV: Even if Moscow and Beijing decided to go ahead and join the international community, I very much doubt that Kim Jong-un himself is going to react to one more resolution.
So human rights is a minor issue for Pyongyang leadership but I believe that the report which has been produced by International Commission of Inquiry is actually a perfect bargaining chip in grand bargaining, grand discussion with Pyongyang.
ELEANOR HALL: It sounds like you don’t agree with Justice Kirby that the UN should launch a crimes against humanity trials.
LEONID PETROV: You know I’m not a lawyer, I’m a historian, unlike Justice Kirby, and I propose to look at the history of North Korean history of region.
Actually I met with Justice Kirby just last week who, before he left for Geneva, and I proposed to him that we have to look at the issue of North Korean human rights as a by-product of colonialism, a by-product of world war, cold war, the result of the ongoing conflict, and the Korean War has never ended and in order to stop this violation of human rights, we have to stop the war.
North Korean regime is also expecting the diplomatic recognition, the lifting of sanctions, more engagement in economic reparation but there is simply no interest in seeing North Korea reformed.
ELEANOR HALL: Well, the North Korean leadership refused to participate in this UN inquiry and has now announced that it categorically and totally rejects the findings so if there’s no cooperation, what can world leaders do short of regime change? Is regime change the only answer?
LEONID PETROV: I don’t think so, that’s the only answer, but everything is being done to see the regime collapses is the only solution to this problem. I’m originally from Russia so I grew up in the Soviet Union behind the iron curtain and I remember that in 1970s things were changing – political prisoners were permitted to leave the country, soviet leadership was convinced and persuaded to engage with the West in exchange for certain actions in improving its human rights records, Soviet Union was permitted to deal more actively on the economic front.
I believe that the same grand bargain can be achieved in relations with North Korea.
ELEANOR HALL: You mentioned sanctions, are Western sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear actions contributing to some of the problems that are raised in this report like hunger? I mean how does the international community balance ensuring that the people of North Korea get food with applying sanctions to try to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
LEONID PETROV: Absolutely, I believe that sanctions involve both multilateral, bilateral sanctions against North Korea. They contributed to the aggravation of situation of human rights. Sanctions never work and sanctions hit only the population. They never make life of the cruel regime harder.
By continuing sanctions, by not diplomatically recognising the regime, by isolating them, we continue, we preserve the regime, we help the regime to keep the situation in North Korea and unchanged and justice Kirby just very graphically showed the world that the situation in North Korea is intolerable. People suffer from all possible violations of human rights.
The report which the Commission of Inquiry has produced is basically an encyclopaedia of human rights abuse so what can be done in relation to like improving it from our perspective? I think it’s more preparation, engagement and understanding as well.
So North Korea simply shouldn’t be blamed unilaterally for what is happening. I believe that inter-Korean relations must be improved first of all before we summon Kim Jong-un to the International Court of Justice.
ELEANOR HALL: Well, China’s government’s reaction to this report is of course critical. China’s leaders are not making particularly helpful noises at this stage about the referral to the International Criminal Court but what sort of role could the Chinese government play in addressing some of these human rights problems and the problems of starvation.
LEONID PETROV: China has very limited influence over North Korea and recently we just saw that North Korea’s resentment of Chinese influence, both economic and political, and the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle was the most telling example that North Korea is actually rejecting Chinese interference in domestic economic political matters. I don’t think that China, that the key to the issues of Pyongyang really lies in China.
ELEANOR HALL: You say that China has limited influence over North Korea but the economic links between the two surely give the Chinese leadership more leverage than many other international leaders?
LEONID PETROV: Yes but China is not interested in the collapse of the regime. China is still captivated by this Cold War mentality where they look at North Korea as a buffer state. They will implement certain resolutions of United Nations Security Council; they do so but in a very limited way. They understand that the disadvantages of North Korea’s collapse is going to hit Chinese national interest.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s Korea specialists, Dr Leonid Petrov from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
Transcripts of all witnesses’ testimonies (in Korean and English) see here… http://www.ohchr.org/…/CoIDPRK/Pages/PublicHearings.aspx