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What to Watch For: North Korea and the ICC

NOTE: This guest post was written by Katherine Wolchko.  Katherine is a current undergraduate studying Diplomacy and International Relations, with minor concentrations in Russian and Women and Gender Studies. Her interests include healthcare, domestic public policy, and women’s role in the political process. Katherine is currently studying the social/economic implications of compensated paternal leave in the U.S. workforce, a subject she hopes to research in further studies. As a contributor to the Diplomatic Envoy and Women for Women’s online publication Inversion, she is also part of a working group to bring female professional mentorship to the School of Diplomacy’s student body.


It is no secret that North Korea has continuously been the subject of widespread controversy, currently brought back into the media spotlight after its infiltration of Sony’s confidential files and personal correspondences. Yet Pyongyang holds a special place in the hearts of many human rights activists who attempt, tirelessly, to publicize its nefarious acts of brutality and force international governors to do something about it. Now defined as “crime against humanity”, this violence—brainwashing, starvation, rape, and murder—has not gone completely unnoticed, but have been passively acknowledged for decades. However, a recent movement within the United Nations Human Rights Council has its prospects on taking down this controversial state, requesting that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. It must be acknowledged that UN investigator Marzuki Darusman’s report—which details these horrific tactics as well as accounts of those who have escaped Pyongyang’s cold, hard grip—have done wonders in revitalizing this dormant issue and bringing it back to front page headlines. As we enter the year 2015, this quasi-universal call for justice will continue to strengthen over the course of UN proceedings; however, the likelihood of any action taking place is slim to none, as dialogue will increase over many bureaucratic concerns but in turn will forgo the development of significant legislative action.

It is not to say that on a broader scale, the global community would not be in favor of such a referral; in fact, a General Assembly resolution in favor of forcing Pyongyang to be subject to the Court received the support of 111 countries back in November. However, their voices—no matter how loud—are insignificant. The UN Security Council holds the true power in this dilemma, and the structure of unanimous voting completely nullifies any progress that can be made in proceeding with the resolution. Russia and China’s vocal condemnation of this attempt to bring Pyongyang to the ICC, fueled by their economic ties to North Korea, would lead them to utilize their veto, sans question. The idea was nullified before it even approached the Council.

What we have now is a frustrated pool of international players: the General Assembly, various human rights groups, NGOs, and even North Korea itself. Another year, another opportunity has passed in which Pyongyang is in prime media spotlight (and scrutiny in regards to the Sony hacking dilemma), yet bureaucratic measures are sealed in place that curtail any meaningful action against the state from being accomplished. This gross oversight—the failure of the Court to achieve its duty of bringing international crimes to justice—is certainly concerning, yet it can prove to be a source of inspiration. Some may be wise and determined enough to seek other avenues through which to bring North Korea subject to the ICC, one of which is to forgo the organizational process of involving the United Nations Security Council and targeting the provisions of the organization itself. Namely, to rewrite the hard law stipulations of the Rome Statue and find a legal loophole that allows room for a bit of cheating. However, while it is possible that talks may commence in eventually bringing this idea to the ICC within the year, the chance of this hypothetical dialogue to catalyze a movement, to begin progress towards a more absolute measure is small. Ten or twenty years down the road we may see a newly revised Statue that allows, in some way, for North Korea to be brought to the ICC. But these are only hypothetical predictions of future conduct that do not hold any relevance for the current issue of North Korea’s continued use of torture.

And what is to be said of North Korea? It’s proactivity in combatting unfavorable attention is not a passing fluke, but is a potential tool of deflection. We may see Pyongyang take a more offensive strategy in combatting negative press by turning the tables on stats whose human rights records are not so clean either—and the United States isn’t exempt from this list.

It is unfortunate to conclude that the possibility of due justice falls short because of these complications, namely the happenstance circumstances of global actors taking their own interests into account before the millions of North Korean citizens suffering at the hands of Kim Jong Un. While this travesty is acknowledged and outcries come pouring in from the international community, it is just talk, no walk. All bark, no bite.

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