A Truth Commission for North Korea

  • February 15, 2018

Download: ‘A Truth Commission for North Korea

Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light”.
George Washington

Dramatic and unexpected changes may well occur inside North Korea in the near-term. A stability that was once assured under Kim Jong-il has failed to weather the transition to Kim Jong-un, allowing the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party — once a shadow operator — to step into the spotlight and take decisions on behalf of its nominal ruler.

But this new configuration has given rise to internal power calculations and ill-judged policy choices, allowing a veil of legitimate rule to slip. If the execution of Jang Song-taek in December 2013 spoke of a ruler who did not hold absolute power, then Hwang Pyong-so’s visit to Incheon in October 2014 put the world on notice that Kim Jong-un will never hold power. As North Korea scrambles, its strategies no longer elicit the effects of old. Self-interests that now govern the state are not being relinquished for the good of regime stability. Diplomatic cohesiveness, a hallmark of Pyongyang’s institutional pride under Kim Jong-il, is collapsing under its own weight and that of global sanctions. Flows of outside information, goods, and ideas send ever-larger ripples through a North Korean society that worships the dollar, not the Kim family.

North Korea is quickly pulling up the drawbridge in the hope of saving the Republic of Pyongyang: the real North Korea.

Signs of turbulence have not gone unnoticed by key decision-makers in East Asia. Stirred by the realities of state-collapse in Syria and elsewhere, major powers with a stake in the Korean peninsula have, to varying degrees, begun to plan for inevitable change — whether they desire that change or not.

China’s signalling of discontent with Pyongyang is profound and runs much deeper than its relationship with United Nations Security Council sanctions. The amassing of People’s Liberation Army troops and military hardware, including tanks, close to the border with North Korea in recent years is an unspoken, if begrudging, acceptance that change is coming to its borderlands. This far-sightedness has its strategic problems, but it also brings with it certain opportunities — for instance, China’s inability to develop its North Eastern region can be transformed by access to the East Sea and South Korea.

As narratives change, both Beijing and Washington may quickly recognise that the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is an issue that can only be solved when new leaders emerge in Pyongyang. The July 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme remains relevant, but it will only be brokered when a new North Korean power configuration emerges. For the United States, planning for an unknown geostrategic environment places new pressures on its foreign policy across Asia. In this context, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system based in South Korea is far more than a tool to exert leverage on the current North Korean Government: it is designed to anchor Washington in a future Korean peninsula and the East Asian region.

With transformation fast approaching it is in the interests of China, the United States, South Korea, and the United Nations to take immediate steps to address a series of existential challenges that will face the region and a new North Korean government, which, in all likelihood, is likely to be bereft of compass points and searching for direction. Concerns over mass refugee flows, factional violence, nuclear insecurity, the dispersal of conventional arms, and a considerable humanitarian disaster are no longer conjectural — they are to be glimpsed on the horizon. Although the world cannot know how North Korea will change or who will assume power, it is unlikely that any regional actor will desire regime-collapse, suggesting that a transitional or temporary government will assume power for an undefined period. Providing an alternative leadership with tailor-made policy options has the potential to mitigate the very worst effects of instability.

When planning for a future Korean peninsula, a reckoning of social justice must be accounted for. The recent case of South Sudan reminds us that a newly established government that fails to adequately address historic abuses can quickly suffer under the weight of its own history and leave a legacy of social, economic, and political instability. Regional powers can ill afford for North Korea to descend into mass civil unrest.

In preparation, the international community should begin planning for a transitional justice mechanism that moves beyond comparative examples, current research, and an existing judicial bias for the International Criminal Court. The prosecutions of those suspected of crimes against humanity is necessary, but justice extends beyond The Hague and it is unfeasible and undesirable to put the North Korean nation on trial given the often blurred lines between victim and perpetrator.

Nor is it certain that victims will find peace through prosecutions of a small number of political elite. Rather, victims will require a mechanism that befits an entire nation; that recognises North Korea’s abuses as sui generis; that works within prevailing structures to effect extra-structural change; that offers a dedicated form of social accountability; and that swiftly leads society past sixty years of authoritarian rule towards a stable and peaceful future.

In such a situation, we must look to a Truth Commission. Focusing on victim testimony rather than justice per se, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of South Africa’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, imagined the process as a ‘third-way’ between the mass trials of Nuremberg and Tokyo and the wholesale amnesties of transitional justice processes in Latin America. Unlike criminal trials, a Truth Commission will reach out to tens or hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to fully document and acknowledge their experiences, potentially becoming a facilitator of catharsis, a platform for social self-examination, a tool for future judicial action, an early building block for nation-building, or an arbiter of restorative justice for victims. A fine line exists between national amnesia and mass retribution and all forms of transitional justice must deal with imperfect realities, but on balance a Truth Commission appears the most suitable modus vivendi for North Korea.


Download: ‘A Truth Commission for North Korea