China, North Korea, and Hypocrisy on Human Rights

As Beijing moves full steam ahead with its diplomatic offensive against Japan over World War II history, it nonetheless cynically chooses to provide diplomatic cover for North Korea’s human rights atrocities via a threatened UN veto. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that “China strongly hinted Tuesday (March 18th) that it would veto a United Nations resolution holding North Korea's leadership responsible for crimes against humanity, dashing hopes for the international community to act on the North's grim human rights record.”On the human rights issue Beijing has clearly decided that what is good for the goose (Japan) is definitely NOT good for the gander (North Korea).

Reuters quoted diplomatic sources on February 23rd indicating that Xi Jinping had requested an official visit to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial during his first visit this month to Europe as Chinese president -- immediately following Xi’s attendance with President Obama at the just-completed National Security Summit in The Hague.  Der Spiegel reported on March 4th, however, that the German government “wanted no part of the East Asian propaganda war” over WWII history. The magazine noted that Chancellor Merkel had declined the request to accompany the Chinese leader to Holocaust sites. “China wants a strong focus on World War Two when Xi visits Germany and Germany is not happy," one diplomatic source said.

Others clearly see the connection between World War II atrocities and those of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. At a recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Michael Kirby, the chair of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) into North Korea, stated that “contending with the great scourges of Nazism, apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike.”  Kirby further noted that "it is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)." His comments came a month after the COI released a 400-page report documenting these atrocities.

Pyongyang’s permanent UN representative in Geneva walked out of the session, calling the report’s conclusions “shameless fabrications.”  The EU and Japan will present a draft resolution later in March calling upon the Security Council to refer North Korean leaders, including Kim Jong-un, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.  China’s likely veto, however, makes this impossible.  Beijing criticized the COI report’s credibility by noting that “the inability of the commission to get support and cooperation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner."  COI hearings were held in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and London.  The commissioners, however, were denied requested access to North Korea and to the People’s Republic of China.

Testimony at the Washington hearing pointed to crimes similar to those carried out by the Axis Powers -- concentration camps, hunting down refugees, public executions, abductions, and abuse of women and children.  But this was not 1945, this was 2013. And those crimes concerned the Kim family’s contemporary North Korea. The fact that Tokyo is being lectured on human rights issues by communist China is a clear indication of just how seriously Japan has mishandled historic issues. For these COI-recorded crimes against humanity were committed by an ally Beijing has aided and abetted.

Mr. Xi does not need to go to far-off Berlin to learn the lesson of the historic pledge, “Never again.”  He only has to travel to the detention centre in the Chinese border city of Tumen.  This is the holding place for desperate North Korean refugees caught in China’s security dragnet.  There they wait for forced repatriation across the river to North Korea.  And what awaits them there? As the BBC noted on February 21st,“the United Nations report on North Korea's crimes against humanity is not for the faint of heart. It contains gruesome details of systematic extermination, torture, rape, forced abortions and starvation.”

If Mr. Xi is concerned over the sexual exploitation of women and children, he does not need to visit the new Comfort Women museum in Nanjing commemorating human rights atrocities from over seventy years ago. The tragedy of North Korean women being sexually trafficked in China is not history -- it is happening today. And it is a situation, unlike Nanjing, where Mr. Xi could take immediate action.  The best way to pay homage to the Korean Comfort Women would be to assure that their North Korean sisters in China today are not sexually exploited.               

And on the question of hunting down those in hiding, Mr. Xi does not need to consult the Diary of Anne Frank.  It is not the Gestapo, but Mr. Xi’s own security forces, that today hunt down North Korean refugees in China. President Xi would also not need to visit the concentration camp near Dachau to comprehend the horrors within.  On a future trip to Pyongyang, he could ask to see one of North Korea’s kwaliso camps -- perhaps the camp whose horrors were so graphically described by North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk in the recent best-selling book, Escape from Camp14.

Two years ago I accompanied my former boss, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, when she stood with members of the South Korean “Save My Friend” campaign in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.  She publicly called on Beijing to stop the forced repatriation of refugees. Some shadowy figures appeared at the windows of the Chinese Embassy to watch the congresswoman. There was, however, no formal reply to her entreaty. Instead, all that came from within the embassy walls were the sounds of silence.

Dennis Halpin is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at SAIS and a former Asian advisor for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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