The Korean version of the Helsinki process has begun to move forward, with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s March 21 decision to establish a Commission of Inquiry for the “grave, widespread and systematic” human rights violations in North Korea. David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords, emphasized the need for a “Helsinki process with a Korean face” to address egregious human rights conditions in North Korea. The establishment of the COI can be construed as setting in motion the Korean version of the Helsinki process by recognizing that the human rights issue cannot be separated from nuclear programs in dealing with the North.
The 1975 Helsinki Accords adopted a comprehensive approach by emphasizing the interconnection of the security, economic, and humanitarian dimensions. Before the landmark agreement between the former communist bloc and the West, security and economic issues had attracted more attention while humanitarian issues were disregarded as an impediment to solving more pressing issues. The Helsinki process represents an innovative approach that gave weight to human rights dimensions during the Cold War era and contributed to peacefully ending the confrontation.
Korea’s own peace process needs to entail an integrated approach with due attention to the North Korean human rights issue like the European Helsinki model. Past inter-Korean joint declarations and government-level agreements did not touch on the subject. The Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation of December 1991 and the joint declarations of June 15, 2000 and Oct. 4, 2007, do not contain any clause regarding human rights in North Korea. The topic was also excluded from the agenda of the six-party denuclearization talks.
The neglect of the human rights issue resulted from strategic calculations to give priority to the security problem. The traditional security-first approach was not successful in halting Pyongyang’s long-range missile and nuclear programs, which was highlighted by its third atomic test last month. The Korean version of the Helsinki process can be an alternative to overcome the pitfalls of the traditional approach toward North Korea.
Skepticism exists that North Korea is not likely to cooperate with the COI given its track record of defying U.N. human rights resolutions and inquiry mechanisms. But Pyongyang’s refusal to cooperate will only deepen its isolation from the international community ― the 47 UNHCR member countries’ unanimous support for the resolution is a testament to its diplomatic isolation.
Meanwhile, thousands of victims of human rights abuses currently live in South Korea. The COI can gather information on egregious and systematic human rights abuses by interviewing North Korean refugees and families of victims. The results of the investigation of specific abuse cases can pave the way for the prosecution of Pyongyang’s human rights violators when the two Koreas are reunified. The looming fear of future indictment may have a psychological impact on possible perpetrators and hinder them from committing further crimes. North Korean officials who committed crimes against humanity stipulated in the Rome Statute can be referred to the International Criminal Court with the backing of the U.N. Security Council.
The Park Geun-hye government is ready to work with the COI in close cooperation with North Korean human rights groups as a cosponsor of the U.N. resolution. It is also necessary for ruling and opposition parties in Seoul to narrow their differences over the long-pending North Korean human rights bill. That will put them in step with the monumental change in perception and policies of the international community and lay down relevant legal infrastructure.
As the Korean version of the Helsinki process begins to gather momentum with the establishment of the COI, new hopes will emerge for North Koreans suffering under the totalitarian regime with the coordinated efforts of the international community and South Korean government.
By Kim Young-ho
The writer is a political science and international relations professor at Sungshin University and South Korea’s ambassador for human rights. He was a secretary for unification policy to former President Lee Myung-bak.