– 9Dashine (18.06.2020) – – The outbreak of a global health crisis starting in China in December 2019 has upended everything, with no end in sight. It amplified existing tensions between global rivals with the potential of realigning an already fragmented, but highly interconnected world, where coordination and cooperation are vital to tackling global crises. When it comes to international efforts to deal with a nuclear North Korea and its dire human rights situation, more tension weighing on already strained relations could only complicate things further, for everyone.

In other words, by amplifying differences and tensions, COVID-19 could make global cooperation on North Korea – in particular between the United States, South Korea, Japan and Europe on one hand, and China and Russia on the other – all the more difficult.

In dire straits

The US and China are locked in a downward spiral that looks difficult to reverse and improvements in Russia’s relations with the West are as distant as under the Cold War. China’s attitude towards South Korea has brought increased hostilities, while tensions in inter-Korean relations have been escalating.

Even the US-Europe alliance is in a worse state that at any other point in recent history, just as the longevity of US-ROK relations is called into question. On a positive note however, EU-Japan relations are being reinvigorated by an Economic Partnership Agreement, just as the EU-South Korea free trade agreement brings together two like-minded partners.

In this era of “great power competition”, North Korea keeps everyone guessing about their next provocation. As such, on 13 June, the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong warned the next “action” against South Korea would be by the North Korean army. On 16 June, North Korea blew up its joint liaison office with the South near the border town of Kaesong and further threatened to send troops into the disarmed areas along the border.

Largely isolated and dependent on China, its sole ally, chief supplier of aid, trade and investment, North Korea remains a security threat and a “problem” to the rest of the world. Hence, its nuclear program is at the core of international efforts to deal with the threat.

Zero progress

Yet, this “problem” can only be tackled if it is defined as the threat the state poses to its own people. Considered against the backdrop of the current state of global cooperation – or rather lack thereof – it should surprise no one that this does not represent the majority view. Denuclearization talks and human rights advocacy are predominantly viewed in a zero-sum game. But they are the not mutually exclusive, and should not be treated as such. Yet, as the world is becoming increasingly anxious and confrontational, there is little chance this “problem” will be fixed any time soon, let alone with, and not at the expense of human rights.

Beijing’s approach is taking the international community further away, rather than closer to a strategy focused on human rights and accountability. As Beijing and Washington remain locked in rivalry, Beijing and Pyongyang share similar goals: the weakening of the US-South Korea alliance, removing US forces from the Peninsula and reducing US regional influence

Following the US-North Korea Singapore summit in 2018, Hanoi in 2019 and the US-ROK-DPRK presidential summit at the demilitarized zone in 2019 there has been zero progress with Pyongyang on giving up its nuclear programs. And the same holds true concerning human rights under the rule of an authoritarian regime, where every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated in extremity.

Moreover, the fear is that with COVID-19, things are getting worse for millions whose status was already bleak before the pandemic. North Korea’s medical system is in a dire state, with the right to health of citizens largely neglected especially in rural areas. More than 10 million people, or nearly 40 percent of the population are thought to be in need of humanitarian aid.

North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine has nearly halted trade with China, damaging its already fragile economy. While private markets have exploded with most North Koreans no longer dependent on the dysfunctional central government, the virus could disrupt these markets, further straining the population.

China vs. the West?

As if the grim state of global cooperation wasn’t reason enough to worry about, chances for progress in international agreement focusing on North Korea’s human rights appear even slimmer because of a shift in the global human rights discourse. This must be considered more broadly. China – with Russia’s support – is challenging the existing rules-based, human rights centered liberal order, presenting a state-centric alternative, centered on the respect of sovereignty and non-interference at the expense of human rights.

This shift has supported tendencies to frame the future in terms of confrontation, rather than cooperation; the West vs. China, as opposed to the West working together with China. Already over a decade ago this shift was portrayed as a manifestation of the rise of the rest. With China’s rise, some see America’s abdication of global leadership as an indication that the US is no longer taking the lead in maintaining alliances, or in building global institutions that set the rules for how international relations are conducted.

Against this backdrop, Beijing has been pursuing its strategy to entrench its influence and presence in prominent multinational institutions. This is pivotal to its consolidation of regional hegemony within Asia, which should in turn contribute to further securing its control over Pyongyang. In this process Beijing is seeking to increase its capacity to control the narrative and skilfully use it to its advantage.

“Winning the war” against COVID

Through its response to COVID-19, including its mask diplomacy, drawing on its substantial state – and Communist Party – owned media apparatus, the Chinese leadership has used the opportunity to shift the international narrative by claiming that “winning the war” against COVID-19 needs strong centralized leadership, not democratic governance.

Similarly, Russia has sought to undermine democratic debate through targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in Europe, seeking to reinforce the impression that the EU is crumbling. A “battle of narratives” is unfolding, indicative of a global power transition and increased uncertainty.

Human rights “with Chinese characteristics”

In the medium to long term, China’s growing capacity to exert more regional and global influence could help Beijing to increase its capacity to shape the international approach to North Korea. Two factors are particularly noteworthy.

First, as North Korea’s biggest trading partner and only ally, China is vital both in denuclearization and in addressing human rights violations. Second, with increased clout, China is working on promoting its human rights approach “with Chinese characteristics”.

This alternative model encourages the downplaying of individual rights, strong state involvement and less support for civil society actors, such as NGOs, both in the political and economic aspects of development. Considering the closed nature of North Korea, where unearthing reliable information about human rights is already difficult, shifting the attention away from government accountability to favour national sovereignty makes addressing human rights violations in the country even more complicated.

In proposing an alternative, China is undermining the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms more broadly. As such, in 2018, at the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council China sponsored a resolution calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” between states on human rights issues, and for a “new type of international relations with win-win cooperation”.

This approach further inspired the second South-South Human Rights Forum China hosted in 2019, which welcomed over 300 international experts, seeking to gather steam in China’s bid to redefine the concept of human rights, while dismissing the “Euro-American centric notion of human rights”.

China and North Korea, still “close as lips and teeth”

Beijing has regularly evoked sovereignty, along with non-interference, in line with the Five Principles on Peaceful Coexistence, to reject international criticism of its own human rights record. And so has Pyongyang, embracing, unsurprisingly, a similar human rights discourse.

Pyongyang, sees any criticism of its human rights record as criticism of its nuclear power, just like Beijing sees criticism as interference in its own domestic affairs. In 2014, North Korea’s DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies outlined three key elements of its understanding of human rights: 1. human rights are conditional and shaped by the demand and reality of the nation-state; 2. collective rights are above individual rights, and 3. welfare and subsistence rights have special importance. In 2019 North Korea even warned the UN Security Council that it would consider any discussion of the country’s human rights record a “serious provocation”.

But North Korea’s own provocations, including conducting its largest nuclear test to date in 2017, have complicated the China-North Korea alliance, long regarded as “close as lips and teeth”. Notwithstanding traditional solidarity and warmth at the source of their ties, Beijing has suggested North Korea could become an asset and liability at once for China.

Nevertheless, China has restrained its punitive steps towards its awkward neighbour. Concerning the application of human rights within their own borders, there is little disagreement. Moreover, there is much support China has provided in the form of resources, high tolerance for North Korea’s provocations and the rejection of international norms. Beijing, in violation of its own commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, has continued forcibly returning tens of thousands of North Korean refugees, deeming them economic migrants. It is suspected North Korean defectors are stuck in limbo in China; not able to finish their escape across the country are now living in hiding fearing getting caught and sent back. There are also worries that China’s surveillance technology is posing increasing threats to North Koreans seeking refuge in China.

Do It “My Way”

It will be some time before the pandemic’s full impact on global cooperation on North Korea can be judged. The future of engagement on human rights looks bleaker than before. While Washington has most to offer Pyongyang in return for denuclearization, China is in the position to reason with – and control – Pyongyang.

Yet, Beijing’s approach is taking the international community further away, rather than closer to a strategy focused on human rights and accountability. As Beijing and Washington remain locked in rivalry, Beijing and Pyongyang share similar goals: the weakening of the US-South Korea alliance, removing US forces from the Peninsula and reducing US regional influence. And while Russia generally follows China’s lead on North Korea, President Putin’s 2019 summit with the North Korean leader reminded both Washington and Beijing that Moscow has a stake in the Peninsula.

This leaves us with Europe. As a distant global actor with limited strategic interest in Asia, the EU has had limited avenues to directly influence the human rights crisis in North Korea. Yet, the EU has helped facilitate engagement with the UN Human Rights Council mechanisms, including co-sponsoring resolutions since 2003. The joint initiative with Japan in 2013 led to the establishment of the UN Commission of Inquiry, the first concrete step in challenging North Korea on its human rights record.

This is clearly no small task. But as the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged to lead a “geopolitical Commission” this is the right moment to act. It requires two elements: one, strengthening cooperation with like-minded partners – US, South Korea, Japan – in order to keep the multilateral system in place. Two, it demands finding a way to deal with China, without being caught in the middle, or choosing sides. As High Representative Borrell suggested, Europe should go for the “Sinatra doctrine”, or “My Way”, i.e. adopting a strategic approach to uphold and defend interests and values. The biggest task for the EU, however, is to first find a common EU-approach to the “way”.

For now, there are two certainties: North Korea remains a global threat with a dismal human rights record, and global cooperation is vital to tackle the “problem”. All parties involved must find a way to work together and not against each other, as millions of North Koreans continue their struggle for survival.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of the platform.

Author biography

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy Ph.D. is author of “Europe, China, and the Limits of Normative Power” (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019), Affiliated Scholar at the Department of Political Science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Consultant on China and Korean Peninsula at Human Rights Without Frontiers, former political advisor in the European Parliament (2008-2020).

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