The Role of UN Member States

Notwithstanding the legal options at its disposal, UNHCR maintains that it is powerless to force China’s compliance with international law or binding contracts. Instead, UNHCR states that it is up to UN member states to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on China to comply. In his letter to Sen. Lugar, Commission Lubbers explains:

UNHCR depends on the goodwill of the UN Member States to carry out its work and … it expects governments to meet their international obligations. As High Commissioner, I cannot “force” such compliance, but I do count on support for these efforts from the international community, something that has been lacking in this particular situation. Without meaningful support from Member States, including China and your own, a framework for international protection in unlikely to be put in place to find solutions for those fleeing persecution in North Korea.

The UN member states best positioned to “encourage” China’s compliance are South Korea, Japan and the United States. None, however, raised the issue of North Korean refugees during China’s WTO ascension, while making foreign direct investment, before its grant of the 2008 Olympics, or during its application for the 2010 World Cup.

Of the three countries, the United States has easily been the most assertive member state, applying diplomatic pressure on both China and North Korea. Numerous Congressional hearings, resolutions and efforts to address the crisis culminated on 18 October 2004 with the signing into law of North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, HR 4011 (the “NKHRA”), which had passed both the U.S. Senate and the House by unanimous vote. The NKHRA takes an aggressive stance by:

  • Authorizing $2 million for each of the fiscal years 2005-2008 to support programs by private organizations to promote human rights, democracy, rule of law and a market economy in North Korea.
  • Authorizing $2 million for each of the fiscal years 2005-2008 to increase the availability of non-government-controlled sources of information (such as radios capable of receiving outside broadcasts) to North Koreans.
  • Authorizing $20 million for each of the fiscal years 2005-2008 for humanitarian and legal assistance to North Korean refugees, orphans and trafficking victims.
  • Authorizing an increased amount (not less than $100 million per year) for humanitarian assistance to North Korea conditioned upon substantial improvements in transparency, monitoring and access, and otherwise prohibiting US humanitarian assistance directly to the North Korean government until such conditions are met and until its government has made substantial progress toward respecting basic human rights.
  • Easing US immigration for certain North Koreans, including bypassing the need for a UNHCR referral.
  • Noting China’s obligations to provide UNHCR with access to North Koreans in China and urging the UNHCR to assert its right to arbitration with China in an effort to secure access to North Koreans in China.

On April 9, 2004, the United States at the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) introduced a draft resolution that “Encourages China to permit visits by United Nations mechanisms … and to [uphold] its commitments under the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.” China killed the resolution with a “no-action” vote, stating “The United States … was outright lying. Regrettably, by overrating its own IQ, it had underestimated other people’s judgments. To any person who could still use his brain, it was obvious that the United States resolution was nothing but a sugar-coated bullet, and even masquerading as a mild resolution, its true purpose of obstinately interfering in the affairs of another country in order to serve its domestic interests could not be concealed.”

South Korea, for its part, abstained from voting on the UNCHR resolution condemning China, as well as a similar resolution condemning North Korea on its human rights record. These actions stem from the “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea adopted in February 1998, which paved the way for economic and humanitarian assistance to the DPRK and the reunification of families separated by the Korean War. The South Korean constitution automatically grants South Korean citizenship to any North Koreans seeking it, and once a North Korean achieves such asylum, the South Korean government provides approximately $30,000 in relocation assistance, temporary housing and job training. The Sunshine Policy, however, prohibits any encouragement to defect, which might explain why the South Korean Government hasn’t aggressively tried to free South Korea humanitarian aid workers imprisoned in China for assisting North Korean refugees.

Critics of the Sunshine Policy maintain that, contrary to its goal, the South Korean Government doesn’t truly want reunification. They point to the exorbitant cost, estimated by some to be as much as $600 billion. More jaded critics point to the potential post-reunification exposure of hundreds (some say thousands) of South Korean Government officials that have served over the years as agents for the DPRK.

Although many scapegoats for this crisis can be identified, it exists first and foremost because of the policies of one UN member state in particular: the DPRK. Well known is North Korea’s potential for military aggression, including its weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) programs. Lesser known is its state-sanctioned narcotics trafficking and counterfeiting, which along with the export of WMDs form the backbone of the North Korean economy. Hardly known at all is North Korea’s human rights record, as outlined herein. In the final analysis, if North Koreans were not put in a position where they had to leave their country in order to survive, there would indeed be no refugee or security crises at all.