Sanctions are falling short and hurting the wrong people, the UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea told DW. Nonetheless, Marzuki Darusman sees reason to believe that the pressure is starting to pay off.
The situation in North Korea often seems static - with frequent stories of missiles launches, sanctions and human rights abuses - but some dynamics have started to shift underneath the surface. Marzuki Darusman, the UN's top official in charge of human rights in North Korea since 2010, has been well-placed to track the change. He spoke to DW about ways forward to ease tensions and find a security solution in the region, allowing for an improvement in human rights conditions.
DW: Who will stricter sanctions against North Korea really affect - the people in power or the public?
Sanctions have a way of also affecting the people, making their livelihood even harder. So you have to question the effectiveness of sanctions, because, if they take effect, they will lead to a humanitarian condition which would require the international community to step in again. Where do you draw the line between sanctions and their consequences?
The international community asks me every now and then: What more can we do? I am inclined to interpret this as recognition that sanctions are not working. There is indeed a lot of more that can be done, a whole range of actions known as the BSD formula - boycotts, sanctions and divestment. I would say sanctions works initially, but it will have to be coupled with other actions.
There have been reports that the agricultural situation in North Korea may be dire this year. Could sanctions lead to famine?
No, the harvest has been relatively good. The weather has been somewhat kind. But the public distribution system has broken down completely. People have found ways to cope, getting involved in market relations. But there is now this legitimacy gap between the people and their regime, whose ideology is totally defunct, because of the government's incapacity to meet the basic needs of the population. And to regain legitimacy, the government resorts to this belligerent, militaristic behavior.
We have cautiously welcomed the results of the recent Workers' Party Congress, the first in 36 years, which emphasized the balance between sovereignty and economic development. If serious, this bodes well for the future. I am quite optimistic, and I think the international community has been very instrumental in pushing for this transition.
China has increased its pressure on North Korea. How is this affecting the human rights situation?
Interestingly, China has shown greater care in gaining the understanding of international community for its actions. And so, recently, it has given escapees from North Korea safe passage to reach other countries. This is perhaps an indication that Chinese interests have been affected by North Korea's behavior. It is interesting to see such signs, after so many years.
Do you expect that new Six Party Talks will take place soon?
It is interesting that China - via a high-level spokesperson at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs - has responded positively to US presidential candidate Donald Trump's overture to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. So this will reopen the question of how negotiations can be resumed and shaped for the settlement of the nuclear issue. Ultimately that is the main problem - North Korea wants to be assured that it is secure, not threatened. Although an understanding might not immediately resolve the human rights issues in the country, it will certainly contribute to the easing of tensions and help eventually address such issues.
In six months, your term as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea will come to an end. What have you learned after six years on the job? Are you disappointed in the lack of progress?
A defector from North Korea recounts his time in the country, where he was forced to work under brutal conditions
No, I leave with a measure of satisfaction that we have prevailed in terms of the truth. The findings of our commission of inquiry continue to be confirmed by new testimonies from people who have fled the country.
And with the commission of inquiry report, with our office here in Seoul having been established, with the issue being appraised by the UN Security Council, and with the panel of experts soon to be established, we have set up an institutional framework for the process to move forward. I am thankful for the support of the South Korean government and NGOs that have helped us reach that point.
The interview was conducted by Alexander Freund, head of Deutsche Welle's Asia section.