The UN observes Human Rights Day each year on December 10, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed exactly 70 years ago. However, just three days before this commemoration, seven members of the UN Security Council refused to support a U.S.-led effort to have the body hold a formal meeting on the subject of human rights in North Korea.
On December 7, the United States withdrew its request for a fifth annual meeting of the Security Council on North Korean human rights. China has tried to block the meeting each of the past four years, but until now, the U.S. was able to muster the nine votes necessary to proceed.
Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that China succeeded in blocking this year’s meeting on North Korean human rights by pressuring Cote d’Ivoire, who could have provided the critical ninth vote that the U.S. needed to overcome Beijing’s opposition. As the vote did not happen, it is unclear precisely who would have voted for and against. Human Rights Watch noted that China successfully leaned on Cote d’Ivoire to block a briefing this past March on human rights in Syria, although the Ivoirians reversed themselves after Assad’s chemical attack on Douma.
The UN’s own 2014 Commission of Inquiry demonstrated conclusively that “[t]he gravity, scale and nature” of North Korean human rights violations “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” These violations “are not mere excesses of the State,” the commission reported, “they are essential components of [the North Korean] political system.” These violations amount to crimes against humanity, and include murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and deliberate starvation.
While the world focuses on the threat North Korea poses to the region and the world with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, some 25 million Koreans continue to suffer. Addressing their plight is both a moral imperative and a national security issue, since Kim Jong Un remains in power thanks to a social structure designed to deny human rights.
Unfortunately, there are those who think nuclear negotiations and a peace regime should remain separate from human rights talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-In said yesterday that peace must come first to pave the way for changes in human rights conditions. What this approach fails to understand is that emphasizing human rights is an indispensable means of putting pressure on the Kim family regime, which remains deeply insecure because of its fundamental illegitimacy and reliance on repression.
In contrast to the UN and South Korea, the U.S. is taking action: On December 10, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control announced sanctions on three North Korean senior officials “who direct departments that perpetrate the regime’s brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population.”
The remaining members of the UN Security Council and the international community need to do their part to expose and stop North Korean human rights abuses. In January, five new members will rotate onto the Security Council, giving the body a chance to redeem itself by reversing its decision to shut down discussion of the horrors in North Korea.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.