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Michael Kirby AC CMG FAIIA - Human Rights in North Korea

Published 09 Apr 2017

At Glover Cottages on Tuesday 4 April 2017, our distinguished guest, Michael Kirby, former judge of the High Court, discussed the current situation in North Korea as far as he could decipher it. In his earlier address to the Institute on 10 March, 2015, he had described his experiences as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2013-14: a finding of gross systematic denial of human rights, including fettering the North Korean press, depriving people of food, imprisoning those whose opinions were deemed to be against the ill-defined interests of the state, forced abortions, public executions and international abductions. Michael and his two fellow Commissioners decided that none of this warranted the label of genocide, but certainly these were crimes against humanity.

Michael recounted how his report had had such an impact that on 18 November 2014, the UN General Assembly voted unanimously for a resolution referring the matter to the Security Council. It was there blocked by Russia and China from proceeding to the International Criminal Court. So as not to deny Kim Jong-un natural justice, Michael had written to him warning that his transgressions could conceivably end up in the Court at some future date. But Michael never received a reply, and the DPRK rejected the Commission’s findings as ‘the product of politicisation of human rights on the part of the EU and Japan in alliance with a hostile United States’.

Since then, Michael observed, some good things have occurred. A human rights field office has been established in Seoul. Food production has improved in the North. The DPRK regime appeared to launch a ‘charm offensive’, although this was rather short-lived. And the rather confrontational right-wing president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, has recently been toppled by the courts, with the prospect of her party, the Liberty Korea Party, being replaced by the moderate Moon Jae-in and his Minjoo Party at presidential elections scheduled for 9 May 2017.

But, continued Michael, negative developments counter-balance the ledger. Kim Jong-un has re-doubled his efforts to develop a viable nuclear weapons capability and missiles capable of delivering miniaturised nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea, and then further afield as far as the west coast of the United States. The regime has also apparently developed an undersea delivery system. And political assassinations continue, not just of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, but Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Michael said he was not well-versed in geo-politics, but it seems that the United States is reaching the end of its patience with North Korea, and may do more than simply condemn the regime and apply more sanctions. He noted that a crucial meeting is about to take place in Beijing between Xi Jin-ping and Trump, and that the latter had rather ominously threatened to solve the North Korean problem alone if China would not or could not cooperate in doing so.

During a lively discussion that followed Michael’s address, it was suggested that the United States could reduce the risk of military confrontation by curtailing its own highly-provocative annual joint military exercises in South Korea, and sit down with the North Korean leaders with the objective of negotiating a peace agreement in exchange for North freezing its nuclear weapons program. Either or both initiatives could lighten the atmosphere and reduce the risk of unintended nuclear war.

Michael Kirby with interns Toby, Charlotte, Philip, Harrison, Farah and James

Richard Broinowski