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In this column, Christine Ahn, International Coordinator of Women De-Militarize the Zone, and Suzy Kim, Professor of History at Rutgers University, argue that the past has much to do with today’s state of human rights in the country and that only a peace treaty putting a definitive end to the Korean War will bring North Korea into the community of nations, leaving no excuse to delay addressing human rights.
HONOLULU, Dec 2 2014 (IPS) - On Nov. 18, a committee of the United Nations General Assembly voted 111 to 19, with 55 abstentions, in favour of drafting a non-binding resolution referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
While there is overwhelming evidence that economic and political conditions in North Korea must improve, missing from debates in U.N. corridors is the fact that the unresolved Korean War (1950-1953) underlies North Korea’s human rights crisis.
After claiming up to four million lives with at least one member of every family in North Korea killed by the war, the Korean War was halted by an armistice agreement signed by North Korea, China and the United States representing the United Nations Command.
As James Laney, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea during the 1990s explains, “one of the things that have bedevilled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War” and he prescribes the “establishment of a peace treaty to replace the truce.”
What does the past have to do with the present state of human rights in North Korea?
The continued state of war affects the human rights of North Korean people today in at least two ways. Domestically, the North Korean government prioritises military defence and national security over human security and political freedoms. Internationally, North Koreans suffer due to political isolation and economic sanctions.
The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary ceasefire rather than a permanent peace treaty gives the North Korean government justification – whether we like it or not – to invest heavily in the country’s militarisation.
According to the South Korean government’s Institute of Defense Analyses, North Korea invests approximately 8.7 billion dollars – or one-third of its GDP – on defence.
Pyongyang even acknowledged last year how the un-ended war has forced it “to divert large human and material resources to bolstering up the armed forces though they should have been directed to the economic development and improvement of people’s living standards.”
Since military intervention is not an option, the Barack Obama administration has used sanctions to pressure North Korea to denuclearise. Instead, North Korea has since conducted three nuclear tests, calling sanctions “an act of war”.
That is because sanctions have had deleterious effects on the day-to-day lives of ordinary North Korean people. “In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on his last visit to North Korea.
International sanctions have made it extremely difficult for North Koreans to access basic necessities, such as food, seeds, medicine and technology. Felix Abt, a Swiss entrepreneur who has conducted business in North Korea for over a decade says that it is “the most heavily sanctioned nation in the world, and no other people have had to deal with the massive quarantines that Western and Asian powers have enclosed around its economy.”
Whether in Pyongyang, Seoul or Washington, the threat of war or terrorism has been used to justify government repression and overreach, such as warrantless surveillance, imprisonment and torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) in the name of preserving national security.
In South Korea, one of the liberal opposition parties, the Unified Progressive Party, is currently on trial in the Constitutional Court on charges made by the Park Geun-hye government that its members conspired with North Korea to overthrow the South Korean government.
Amnesty International says that this case “has seriously damaged the human rights improvement of South Korean society which has struggled and fought for freedom of thoughts and conscience and freedom of expression.”
In the coming days, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on whether the U.N. Security Council should refer North Korea to the ICC, although it is likely to be vetoed by China and Russia. The United Nations vote, while lofty in principle, actually serves to further isolate Pyongyang, which will likely retreat even further behind its iron curtain.
“We’ve said from day one that if North Korea wants to rejoin the community of nations, it knows how to do it,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, referring to the precondition of denuclearisation for talks.
Instead of relying on the failed Washington policy of “strategic patience” it is time for a bold move that will truly bring North Korea into the community of nations, leaving no excuse to delay addressing human rights – sign a peace treaty to end the state of war. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)
(Edited by Phil Harris)
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.
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