Off the tracks diplomacy & the Primat der Mensenrechte

I like to think of myself as a reasonable human being. Most of the time then. But given my primal reaction to this text in which it is stated that “human rights issues have proved a complication” in establishing parliamentary linkage with North Korea, I am afraid I have to admit it stripped the veneer of reasonability right away from me. So allow me to show my more unreasonable side in this blog.

North Korea. A problem, wrapped in a dilemma, inside a bucket of crap, to badly paraphrase my light in dark times, Winston Churchill (suffering from anglophilia is a common Dutch affliction). Most difficult of all the difficult things about North Korea are the human rights. To quote Justice Michael Kirby (whose Commission of Inquiry wrote this report: yes, this is the link to the long version): “We now know.” Well, in fact, we already did. At least those of us who have worked on (North) Korea. And we have known for a while. Roughly since Ali Lameda left a North Korean prison camp in 1972. Anyone who pretends (s)he didn’t know either lies or is a crap scholar.

So we know. Now what? Human rights abuses are so horribly serious in North Korea that I would in principle not even oppose a UN-mandated force going in and putting an end to the camps. National sovereignty would just have to step aside and let human dignity and the inviolability of one’s physical and mental well-being pass through. The problem is (apart from the infinitesimally small possibility that the UN Security Council would actually support this) that this would cause a regional war and perhaps bring Armageddon to us in the shape of WOIII even before the situation in Ukraine, in Gaza or melting glaciers will do the same.

Sanctions have not been particularly effective. Exerting pressure on the NK regime is like pressuring coal into becoming a diamond, i.d. something even harder and even more difficult to deal with. Engagement then? Well, how shall I put it? Engagement has been as successful as Tony Blair’s Iraq policy. I used to like engagement as I used to like Tony Blair. But uncomfortable facts have been staring me in the face for a while now and I do not intend to look away. Tony Blair isn’t as impressive as I once found him to be. Too many skeletons in the closet. So, no engagement then? Back to sanctions (let’s get make sure those commie bastards never drive in a Mercedes Benz again! That’ll teach them a lesson!) and pressure? Yes and no. The only viable policy is probably a policy that alternates between these two poles and that can take recourse in either, depending in the situation. Why after all should it be only North Korea that is unpredictable (which it really isn’t, but that’s another story)?

The choice between sanctions and engagement should however not be a matter of principle. Yes, I’ve said it. It should not be a matter of principle, but of practical expedience. In this sense, I agree with Park Geun-Hye’s Trust Politik. This is not to say there should be no principles involved in dealing with the North Korean state. There should be. Allow me to digress for a moment. I’ll take you back to North Korea in a few paragraphs.

The father of the modern discipline of history, Leopold von Ranke (now often looked down upon and scampered at as inevitably happens with a father figure), introduced a defining concept in modern historiography: the so-called Primat der Außenpolitik or the ‘primacy of foreign affairs.’ I’ll spare you the details (or the struggle that is still going on to leave behind his legacy), but what it comes down to is that the study of foreign affairs is essential for the study of the entire nation and that extant sources (official archives) allowed enough ‘objective’ (oh, how that notion has taken a hammering since the days of von Ranke…) research to make this possible. What’s my point, you’ll ask (if indeed you have read until here and not switched to checking you Twitter-feed to see whether Nigella uploaded another recipe). My point is this. We (academics & people working on North Korea) should enshrine a principle similar to von Ranke’s Primat der Außenpolitik in dealing with North Korea. It should, like von Ranke’s principle, underlie everything we do and it should be at the bottom of our understanding of North Korea-related policy. Even when it’s not visible, it should inform that which is visible. We need a Primat der Mensenrechte or ‘primacy of human rights.’ Yes, you’ll say, but isn’t that kind of what the UN is for? Yes, it is. And it has now done its job thanks to Justice Kirby c.s. But the field of (North) Korean Studies seems to have been particularly deaf to Kirby’s call. Which not only embarrasses the hell out of me, as a practitioner in that field, but it reinforced my belief that we may not even know with whom we’re dealing in North Korea. At a very superficial yet also fundamental level, we’ve not heeded von Ranke’s insistence to look at foreign affairs and to do so objectively (which for convenience’s sake and in order to avoid  useless and never-ending debate I’ll define as “as painstakingly secure and self-reflective as possible.” Don’t like it? Go write a PhD about it). If not, how on earth can we actually think that the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland 조국평화통일위원회 (affectively known by its friends as 조평통) is not the government but a friendly neighbourhood NGO? To seriously think that, you have to be either deluded or a crap scholar. Or both. Track 2 diplomacy with North Korea? Right. Engagement is fine, but be honest about it: all Track 2 diplomacy is routed to Track 1 in Pyongyang (which incidentally we know full well).

Engagement or pressure. That is not the choice to be made with regard to North Korea. Both are mere tools in what should be the ongoing international effort to stop the human rights abuses in the North Korean prison camps. Everything else is secondary. Empowering North Korean women to undertake economic initiatives? Great! (As if that is possible working through our friendly neighbourhood official authorities, but I digress). Tourism to NK? Fine (but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re actually helping promoting anything but your own cultural capital or the real capital of your tour operator and the NK state). Cultural exchange between the Pyongyang Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus? Wonderful. I’ll even buy a ticket myself. But only after we have decided amongst ourselves that economic support, cultural exchange and other activities that I sometimes can’t help but associate (I can’t help it, it’s an subconscious process. I’m not responsible) with the white man’s burden bs of old, are only permissible in as much as they strategically help in the amelioration of the human rights situation in North Korea. A Primat der Mensenrechte in other words. Investments in North Korea would have to take this into account. Go there, but go with your eyes open. Don’t pretend the suffering doesn’t exist, just because you can’t see it. It has been a while since Monseigneur Berkeley felt the need to seriously ask the question whether if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, it makes a sound. I am no philosopher (and that’s not just stating the obvious, but it also explains why I became a historian), but I guarantee you that the suffering in the NK prison camps continues even if no one is around to see or hear it. Worse still, we are around to see and hear it (“Now we know”) and it still continues.

The debate on engagement vs. pressure will continue. And so it should. But only as a matter of strategy. The principle should be clear: the primacy of human rights must be enshrined in some way or other. Engagement policies must heed this. Rather than stimulating the elite into making even more money (unless, of course, this makes them amenable to outside pressure to do something swift and concrete about the prison camps etc.), we should be stimulating the North Korea population with information, with ways of economically empowering them (and yes, that means not going through official channels. Shit, there goes my Pyongyang visa). Track 2 diplomacy is only possible outside the mechanisms of state control. That means the BBC should start its Korean-language broadcast (even if that may mean the British defence attaché will have to up and leave Pyongyang); that more ways of getting information into and out of the country must be found; that indeed the economy must be stimulated. The black economy, that is. What we need is off the tracks diplomacy.

Addendum: coincidentally, there is an organization that is promoting this kind of approach: European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Not so coincidentally and in the interest of full disclosure I should mention here that I am a trustee of EAHRNK.

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