Year 2015 marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonialism, and the continued oppression of the North Korean people in a nation-wide gulag. 2015 also marked the first Seoul Dialogue, an exceptional gathering of political leaders, diplomats, NGOs, and civil society members who discussed maintaining global focus on Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, building an international consensus to end and, eventually, punish those crimes, and innovating new ways forward.
The conference’s touchstone was Magna Carta; signed in England in 1215, this watershed document became the foundation for modern democracy and human rights.
Conference participants recognized that the 2014 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) was a similar watershed moment for North Korean human rights. This exhaustive and unimpeachable study, which chronicled the horrendous suffering of the North Korean people and has supported multiple UN resolutions, informed every panel discussion. But, everyone also recognized that the hardest task lies ahead: building the international consensus to enact the COI’s recommendations.
While the conference detailed Pyongyang’s usual human rights violations, participants highlighted new, troubling trends:
• The tightening of the Chinese and Russian borders, reducing the number of North Koreans successfully escaping to South Korea.
• The doubling of internal forced disappearances.
• Increased gender repression, as more women are arrested for participating in the underground markets.
Proceedings were sometimes emotional, with moving personal stories. Mi-il Lee recounted the abduction of her father during the Korean civil war, and Hwang In-Cheol described how his father, and other South Korean citizens, were kidnapped when North Korea hijacked their civil passenger plane. They, along with thousands of South Koreans, CELEBRATING THE 800TH ANNIVERSARY OF MAGNA CARTA IN SEARCH OF LIBERTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA still hope that, one day, their families will be reunited or at least their relatives’ final fate will be revealed.
While participants offered different ideas to change the status quo, they voiced one consistent theme – the time for studies is over; the time for action is here. This chorus included President Park Geun-hye, former prime minister, Hong-koo Lee, and COI Chairman Michael Kirby, who urged advocates to move past celebrating recent achievements and toward effective remedies. All agreed that promoting North Korean human rights must be equal, not secondary, to security and unification goals and that a global grass movement, on par with the campaign against South African apartheid, is necessary. Specific plans included pressuring the UN Security Council to refer Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court (ICC), more targeted and severe sanctions against the Pyongyang leadership, extracting human rights concessions from Pyongyang during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, and promoting human rights through development organizations operating inside North Korea.
Participants’ enthusiasm was buoyed by the practical experiences of front-line human rights champions. The life experiences of Jose Ramos-Horta, former president of East Timor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Martin Lee, founding Chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, showed the importance of never giving up. Charles Hay, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, provided personal insights into how countries, having diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, can use their special access to pressure the government and make small, but useful, contributions to improving the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Participants were also encouraged by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ new Seoul field office. Now, a UN organization will regularly document the Kim regime’s crimes against humanity and seek ways to address them.
Participants seemed most encouraged by three new mechanisms for effecting change.
One is pursuing the prosecution of Kim Jong-un for international human rights crimes. UN discussions, during 2014, to refer him to the ICC produced Pyongyang’s unprecedented participation in the Human Rights Council (including a first-time attendance by the foreign minister) and invitations for in-country visits by the Special Rapporteur, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Though all this proved to be nothing more than theatre, intended to derail the UN proceedings, a fresh pressure point was revealed.
A second exciting new mechanism is ending or significantly reducing Pyongyang’s ability to send forced laborers abroad to earn capital for the regime’s weapons programs and the elite’s appetite for luxury goods. A third is the opportunity created by increasing corruption among North Korean officials. Corruption signals that officials are becoming alienated from the regime’s core leadership and open to bribery which can help ordinary Koreans escape the worst abuses of human rights.
Traditional tactics were also discussed. Penetrating North Korean society with information, including translated copies of the COI report, was widely viewed as worthwhile. China’s importance was frequently mentioned, not only as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, but as holding the key to addressing refugees’ deplorable conditions and their illegal repatriation to North Korea.
Participants recognized that it is easy to grow cynical over the lack of progress in North Korea, but, here, again, the Magna Carta is a model. The first Magna Carta in 1215 was merely the beginning of England’s long journey toward democracy and rights. Several ‘Magna Cartas’ followed, and only with other groundbreaking documents and popular uprisings, did extensive change come. As Ambassador Charles Hay reminded everyone, “Magna Carta wasn’t the start of freedom and democracy as we understand it today. It was the end of despotism.” We still may be at the beginning of the journey to liberate the North Korean people, but all agreed that the destination will be reached.