A top South Korean lawmaker is calling for new efforts in Seoul to fight North Korean human-rights abuses, after a United Nations committee recommended Pyongyang's political elite be scrutinized by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The UN resolution, passed last week, has sparked protests and bilious verbal attacks on the West by North Korea, which this week accused the U.S. of cannibalism amid a tirade that may presage another nuclear weapons test.
Pyongyang's parade of putdowns has done little to dissuade Seoul from taking up the human-rights cause. Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Wednesday said South Korean lawmakers should come together to enact a bill that would offer a systemic way to address North Korea's often-flagrant abuses of its own people, which include a horrific prison camp system that has been compared to the worst of Nazi Germany.
South Korean legislators have in the past discussed a series of measures that would range from offering humanitarian support to the north in hopes of encouraging change to financially supporting North Korean human-rights groups working in the south. Coming together on such a law would offer hope to North Korea, Mr. Ryoo said in comments reported by Korea's Yonhap news agency.
It could also further provoke the regime of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, which responded with unusual ferocity this week to the UN committee action. The resolution, by a UN General Assembly committee dealing with human rights, urged the Security Council – where both China and Russia hold vetoes they may be willing to employ – to consider referring the North Korean leadership to the ICC.
In an unusual step, Mr. Kim personally joined the blizzard of retaliatory invective directed at the United States, which North Korean state media called "the worst human rights abuser" that should be dragged before a criminal court. The media reports cited revelations about the scope of American spying operations. They also pilloried the White House, saying it sits atop a nation facing demise and adding that the U.S. "reminds one of the old Roman Empire that was buried in history after facing a ruin for coveting for prosperity through aggression and wars."
A North Korean general even publicly raised the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States – although the country's list of unfulfilled threats could fill books.
Still, the striking response by the Hermit Kingdom, which included a march of some 100,000 people this week, suggests the human rights criticisms have struck an unexpected sore spot.
It may indicate that for Mr. Kim and his confidants, "there is a concern that the paradise world they've been lying about to their own people may be laid bare by the United Nations and the international community," said Jung Hoon Lee, South Korea's ambassador for Human Rights. "The leadership feels very unstable about that" – and may be enacting pre-emptively to counter the narrative.
It may also be true, he said, that in a country that deifies its leader, bureaucrats are attempting to outdo each other in defending Mr. Kim's to the the international community. "It's almost like – who is out there on the front lines to defend the Great Leader's name?"
In the months leading up to the passing of the UN human-rights resolution, North Korean diplomats offered a basket of concessions in hopes of weakening, or deleting, the language calling for international criminal proceedings that would personally target Mr. Kim and his associates.
North Korean diplomats went so far as to discuss a possible trip to their country by a UN human-rights investigator – the first in 10 years they have broached such a visit.
Pyongyang also released several detained Americans and agreed to talks with Tokyo on the issue of kidnapped Japanese citizens, moves designed to dampen global distrust. It also dispatched top officials to a surprise meeting with South Korean leaders, including Mr. Ryoo. It was the highest-level encounter in half a decade – and, taken with the other steps, was a surprising mark of how seriously North Korea sought to avoid global human-rights censure.
"They've revealed themselves to be sensitive to it and to care about it," said Sokeel Park, the research and strategy director for Liberty in North Korea, a defector support organization.
But those efforts at wooing failed, and Mr. Park warned the charm offensive now appears to be over, potentially with serious consequences.
"After all of this, it's not impossible to think there would be another nuclear test," he said.
But it's not clear the international elevation of North Korea's human-rights issues will produce much in the way of positive change. "It's not going to make them more tolerant. But it's going to make them even more terrified, and provide them with powerful ammunition in their domestic propaganda," said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.
That may actually serve to strengthen Mr. Kim's leadership, he said, while offering a pop-psychology explanation for the Supreme Leader's strong reaction this week: "maybe he wants to be liked."
But, Mr. Lankov added, a bellicose North Korea is hardly unusual. "Last year, they promised to nuke Austin, Texas," he said. "It's the world's capital of jazz music – maybe they hate jazz, I don't know."