N. Korea’s Threat to Tear Up Armistice Comes As S. Korea Supports U.N. Human Rights Probe

By Patrick Goodenough | March 6, 2013 | 4:29 AM EST


A South Korean human right activist places candles during a March 2012 rally in Seoul focusing on North Korean refugees captured in China. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

(CNSNews.com) – North Korea’s threat to abrogate the 60 year-old armistice with South Korea is being viewed as a response to a new sanctions push at the U.N. and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills. But it also comes after a less-noticed but significant shift in Seoul’s international diplomacy.

In a statement read on state television Tuesday night, a top North Korean army general threatened to “totally” nullify the truce agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

The statement accused the U.S. of “working with bloodshot eyes to swallow up” North Korea, while the South Korean “puppet forces, steeped in worship and sycophancy toward the U.S., are dancing to its tune.”

It cited the annual joint Foal Eagle military training exercise now under way and negotiations in New York towards a new Security Council resolution in response to the Feb. 12 nuclear test.

Pyongyang is also incensed, however, at the decision by the new administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye to support a call for a formal U.N.-sponsored investigation into North Korea’s human rights situation, which advocacy groups say is arguably the worst in the world.

That decision, announced by a government minister at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, will boost the “commission of inquiry” (COI) initiative, since many countries have used South Korea’s past reticence to justify their own inaction over the issue.

A vote on the COI is expected before the current HRC session ends later this month, with a simple majority vote in favor sufficient for it to pass.

For many years South Korean rights activists, including defectors from the North, have fretted over Seoul’s reluctance to confront the Stalinist regime in international forums over its human rights abuses.


North Korean defectors hold an April 2011 rally outside the South Korean parliament, protesting North Korean human rights abuses. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Previous governments, particularly the liberal ones of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1998-2008, placed the desire for improved inter-Korean relations under their so-called “sunshine policy” above their willingness to speak out over the plight of fellow Koreans suffering under the regime.

Roh’s conservative successor, President Lee Myun-bak promised a less accommodating approach, but anti-Pyongyang activists were largely disappointed. It was only after North Korea launched an unprovoked artillery attack on a South Korean island in late 2010 that Lee ended aid, and he was reviled by the North as a “traitor.”

When Park campaigned for the presidency, she sought to position herself somewhere between the “sunshine policy” approach and Lee’s more hard-line one. so her new administration’s announced in Geneva that it would actively support the COI came as a surprise.

The U.N. has had a “special rapporteur” focusing on North Korean human rights since 2004 (Pyongyang has refused to admit him, and last month described him as a “marionette” whose strings were being pulled by the U.S. and Japan). The HRC has also passed annual resolutions on North Korea’s human rights record for the past five years, as has the U.N. General Assembly for the past seven.

But a commission of inquiry would be unprecedented, a step much more serious than annual non-binding resolutions. It would be carried out by independent experts who would investigate, report and make recommendations on how to respond to the abuses, including ways to seek accountability – possibly even through the International Criminal Court.

More than 200,000 people are believed to be incarcerated in North Korea’s network of prison camps, many of them for “crimes” no more serious than questioning government policy, according to researchers. Survivors have testified about summary executions, torture, forced abortions, hard labor and malnutrition.

In January, U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for “a full-fledged international inquiry” into crimes committed by Pyongyang, saying the human rights situation there “has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”

A North Korean diplomat in Geneva retorted that Pillay should focus her attention instead on the U.S., “the king of human rights abusers.”

The United States and Japan have thrown their support behind the COI initiative.

“Principle demands that the countless human rights violations exacted by the Pyongyang government merit international condemnation and accountability,” assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs Esther Brimmer told the HRC last week.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow