Kim Jong-Un is one step closer to being charged with crimes against humanity

The United Nations just passed its toughest resolution yet on North Korean human rights violations. We reported on the issue ahead of Tuesday’s vote at the UN General Assembly. The resolution was put forward by the European Union and Japan, and it got 119 votes in favor, 19 against and 55 abstentions. And it was a defeat for the North Korean government, because the resolution includes a recommendation to refer the leadership in Pyongyang to the UN Security Council for possible prosecution at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.

The UN report that set this process into motion was co-chaired by Michael Kirby. He is a former justice on the High Court of Australia, which is equivalent to the US Supreme Court, and for the last two years he lead the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea. I spoke with Kirby last week, ahead of Tuesday’s vote in the General Assembly and the following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Is the UN going to go after Kim Jong-un on the charge of crimes against humanity?

I don’t think the objective is ‘go after’, as you put it, Kim Jong-un. His hands have been on the levers of power for only the last two-and-a-half years or so. The issue is whether the United Nations will render the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea accountable under international law for crimes against humanity, which the UN Commission of Inquiry has found to be established on probable grounds. That is going to be the test. Hopefully, it will be recommended to the Security Council to take the matter further.

Q: Do you think the United Nations should refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court?

Undoubtedly. We were not a prosecutor. We were not a court or a tribunal. But we were a Commission of Inquiry. We conducted an extremely thorough investigation. We recorded this and accounted for it to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. And the material that we gathered, of which we had a great amount, does demonstrate that there is a strongly arguable case for prosecution. Indeed, it’s a compelling case. In fact, if the case of North Korea is not a case that would warrant referring the issues of that country to the International Criminal Court, it’s really very difficult to conceive of a case that would be suitable for such a reference.

Q: Why has it taken so long for the UN to address North Korea’s dismal human rights record?

North Korea has actually been brilliant in its international strategy. It’s pulled the shutters down, pulled up the drawbridge and it controls very strictly the few people that do get into the country. It has systems of controlling its own population. And it doesn’t have links with the Internet. It doesn’t allow its citizens to have links with the outside world by telephone or by mail. Therefore, it’s basically just cut itself off. And basically, unless you’re willing to take on a UN inquiry into human rights or you would contemplate the unthinkable, of sending troops or taking other military action, that really puts [the DPRK] outside the scrutiny of the world. But fortunately, the world was fed up and the Human Rights Council, without a vote, established the CoI. We conducted our investigation. Our report created something of a sensation. And now, the issue will be whether the UN stays the course. I hope that all the talk that we hear about accountability for grave crimes will come to pass.

Q: China is North Korea’s only real ally right now. Do you think Beijing might let this case go to the ICC?

Certainly, China is a very important ally. When the CoI came to a vote in March 2014, there were six votes against adopting the report and China was one of them, but there was also the Russian Federation, Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba and Pakistan. North Korea has a number of allies. Some of them are probably more sentimental than close. As to what China will do, it has expressed itself as opposed to country-specific investigations. But that was a somewhat formalistic stance, given that they had the CoI report and it just won’t go away. It’s there for the whole world to see. China is a great power, a hugely important economy. It’s trying to build the rule of law in its own jurisdiction. I may be wrong. But I have a suspicion that China has left North Korea a little uncertain about its stance, because it’s difficult otherwise to explain the many steps taken in the last two months on the so-called charm offensive by North Korea, to try to make itself more acceptable to the international community. It’s done many things that are, by comparison to the last few decades, truly astonishing. Some of those steps are to be welcomed. They’re good. But they don’t erase the terrible crimes against humanity which the CoI has put before the world. And accountability for those crimes is essential.

Q: What’s at stake here in the bigger picture?

North Korea offering a few crumbs to the international community is not a reason for the world to feel so grateful that it takes its eyes off the ball and doesn’t insist on accountability for crimes against humanity. These are extremely grave international offenses, the kind that the Nazis were guilty of. And in our world, the whole point of establishing the charter of the UN was to make sure that this didn’t happen again. The question now is whether the UN will stay the course. It doesn’t mean you have a kangaroo court. It means that you have a prosecutor consider the material that’s been produced by the CoI, gather any additional material that’s needed from the 36,000 refugees from North Korea that live in South Korea and elsewhere, and then consider putting it before independent judges of the ICC. It’s a matter of holding those charged with crimes against humanity accountable.

Q: Why did you request that North Korea retract its characterization of defectors as ‘human scum’?

North Korea has produced, as part of its so-called charm offensive, a report of its own on its human rights record. And in that report, it uses quite a lot of language which seems to us to be quite antique and resonant of the Cold War. Repeatedly, it has referred to the witnesses who came before the CoI as ‘human scum.’ Because we had a number of witnesses at the UN, and because we have relied substantially on these witnesses, I asked them to withdraw that statement. I also asked [the North Koreans] to release the report of the CoI to their own citizens, which they have never done. And I asked them to allow members of the CoI to come to [the North Korean capital] Pyongyang to debate the issues, answer questions, defend our findings and justify them in front of the people of North Korea. The CoI would still be willing to do that, but North Korea does not permit it. Until they do, my own view is that we should welcome the steps that they are taking in the right direction, but the UN should continue to insist on accountability and the most efficient way to get that is before the International Criminal Court, which requires a referral by the Security Council.

UPDATE: Here’s a video report from the BBC’s Stephen Evans in Seoul.

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Hong Kong protesters are finding out about tear gas

I’m at the Boston airport, on my way to Hong Kong, watching my Twitter feed blow up with news about the pro-democracy protests there that have gathered serious momentum. The protesters have been met with a pretty serious police response. But things don’t look like they’re going to settle down quickly. Here’s a sampling.

Alan Wong works for the New York Times and he’s been out there on the street watching things develop since the protests got going a few days ago.

Protesters have been using umbrellas, face masks and goggles to deal with pepper spray and tear gas.

There’s quite a bit of shock and indignation online about the police response to these student-led protests.

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Why is China’s government taking down Zhou Yongkang?

He was once the third-most powerful man in China and described in the western press as the “Dick Cheney” of the People’s Republic, as Isaac Stone Fish explained to us in a radio interview yesterday. Now, Zhou Yongkang – along with some of his relatives and many of his former associates – are in a whole heap of trouble. As Stone Fish mentions in his Foreign Policy piece, the former head of China’s domestic security likely finds himself facing something known as shuanggui – “Chinese Communist Party-speak for an internal investigation against its own members — a process that usually involves lengthy detention and intense interrogation without any due process or legal representation.”

After the official announcement about the investigation of Zhou on Tuesday, the AP posted some quick vox, i.e. clips from ‘people on the street’ interviews, from Beijing. All of them welcomed the fact that Zhou was being held on corruption charges, echoing the rationale given by state-run media that the news would send a message through the halls of power. “Of course it is good news,” a man identified as Yang Shangyi said. “Those corrupt officials, no matter how senior their titles are, they must be pulled down.”

Writing at the FT, China expert Minxin Pei says President Xi Jinping seeks to accomplish a few different objectives by taking down Zhou.

To the Chinese people, Mr Xi hopes to offer reassurance that he is working hard to cleanse the rot inside the party. To his rivals, the downfall of Mr Zhou sends a clear warning: jail awaits those daring to challenge my authority (Mr Zhou is an ally of the now-disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, Mr Xi’s adversary during the leadership transition). To everyone else, Mr Xi shows that he is now unquestionably the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
But will Xi’s bold moves spark a backlash? The BBC’s China editor Carrie Gracie writes, “other powerful veterans will worry that they might be next.”
Finally, David Wertime at Tea Leaf Nation has a great piece about how the Zhou story has been dealt with in the Chinese news media and on social media like Weibo, where Zhou was previously referred to as “you understand”, among other things. 
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Watching the Israel-Gaza war play out on Twitter

Things were relatively quiet over the weekend between Israel and Gaza, and on Monday morning (Boston time), the news was all about the possibility of getting a ceasefire in place. John Kerry was just in the region, but apparently everybody’s angry at him. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground unraveled in pretty quick and horrific fashion today. Explosions in two Gaza City locations, one near the main hospital and another close to a refugee camp, killed several Palestinian kids and injured a number of people. Israeli officials swiftly issued statements denying responsibility, blaming “terrorists in Gaza” for firing rockets at Israel that fell short. Palestinians blamed Israel. You can find graphic pictures of dead and injured Palestinian children online, but I’m not going to post any here. The pace of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel picked up. And then came signs of more Israeli casualties. At least four people died in a mortar attack near the Israeli border with Gaza. Around mid-day, things started moving quickly toward broader escalation. Here’s a burst of events I pulled from Twitter, just to illustrate how fast and detailed the news from there plays out for all to see.


A minute or so later, warning sirens start go off in Israel.


Some real time analysis from a Reuters correspondent.


A quick public service announcement.


More sirens.


Sometimes, Palestinian militants launch multiple rockets simultaneously, presumably to increase the chances that one or more them might evade Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ anti-rocket missile system.


And this might be an indication of where that first rocket, seen by the journalist in Gaza, ended up.


Soon, the Israel Defense Forces issue a fresh warning to Palestinians in specific Gaza neighborhoods.


There are reports about a possible infiltration by Gaza militants into Israel.


The Israeli military steps up strikes inside Gaza, and they are reported by another correspondent reporting from inside in the territory.


These were some of the detailed events leading up to a televised announcement from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He called for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and “neutralizing the tunnels, which have the sole purpose of destroying our citizens, killing our children.”

“We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign. We will continue to act with force and discretion until our mission is accomplished,” Netanyahu said.

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The whole world fell in love with the students demonstrating at Tiananmen Square

When Chinese students initiated huge demonstrations in Beijing during the spring of 1989, they captivated pretty much everyone – the foreign press, the residents of Beijing, and even Chinese security forces. That’s a point made by Wall Street Journal reporter Adi Ignatius, who covered the movement 25 years ago in China, in this video posted yesterday on the 25th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown. Ignatius also appears in a fantastic documentary produced by Mike Chinoy, former CNN bureau chief in Beijing. I talked with Chinoy for my radio piece that aired on Wednesday. Listen here, and watch the full documentary too. And listen to this great interview from yesterday’s show, in which Aaron Schachter speaks with a young woman from Beijing (and a BBC colleague) about how many Chinese people from the post-Tiananmen generation feel that the June 4th events are sort of irrelevant to their lives.

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What does Obama really want in Syria?

Yesterday, I talked with Amb. Fred Hof after President Obama’s speech at West Point, and Hof seemed to think the president was indicating that he wants to start sending more military assistance to Syrian rebels. Today, Obama’s former special representative on Syria doesn’t seem so sure and he seems pretty frustrated with the lack of clarity from the administration.

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How much do the indictments of Chinese military officers matter?

The charges announced by the US Justice Department yesterday were a year in the making. “Enough is enough,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Not everyone was impressed though, given how unlikely it will be for any of the suspects to ever face trial in US court.

But James Lewis told me that this is an important first step for the US government. Here’s the Q&A he graciously endured with yours truly on Monday morning, after the news broke.

The online nicknames used by the accused hackers are kind of fun – “UglyGorilla” and “KandyGoo” are my personal favorites. Here’s a link to the whole 56 page indictment. As the NYTimes points out, the legal document “reads like a chronology of most of the major trade disputes between the United States and China during the past five years.” If China was indeed using cyberattacks as a way of punishing companies that challenged Chinese competitors under WTO regulations, this move by the DOJ is an interesting development.

In this insightful post, Jack Goldsmith writes that, “the indictments can be seen as a calculated escalation of pressure designed to demonstrate  United States’ resolve to clamp down on corporate cybertheft.”

China’s national news agency has a piece today about Beijing summoning the new US ambassador for a scolding, and it’s got lots of overwrought quotes from a Chinese foreign ministry official about American misbehavior. The Snowden revelations certainly put the Obama administration in an awkward position on the issue of cyber surveillance. But it’s hard to see how that should excuse Chinese cyber espionage activities, if they’re anywhere near as extensive as the experts seem to believe.

What happens next? Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations writes that it’s safe to expect some heat, but not much else.

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