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Why North Korea probably won't change despite damning U.N. report

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Story highlights

  • The United Nations report on harrowing conditions in North Korea is unlikely to change much
  • China and its desire to avoid a flood of refugees is a major roadblock, experts say
  • An 'Arab Spring'-like event is unlikely because of regime's stranglehold on dissent

It's hard to imagine a more powerful indictment of a government's behavior than the one just handed down by a U.N. panel tasked with investigating human rights in North Korea.

In a 372-page report, the Commission of Inquiry on Democratic People's Republic of Korea outlined harrowing claims of "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape ... and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."

After years of flouting international pressure over its nuclear program, it's unclear whether these latest allegations are any more likely to alter Pyongyang's behavior. And while there has already been speculation over how things might play out differently this time, many analysts remain skeptical about the prospects for change.

Will China please stand up?

China is widely seen as having more leverage over North Korea than any other country, not least because it is a vital source of resources. China supplies its neighbor with virtually all of its fuel needs and some 80 percent of all its imports.

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"China holds the very survival of the Kim (Jong Un) regime in its hands," argues Stephen Yates, deputy assistant to the vice president for national security affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

    "North Korea's access to energy, food, and finance is heavily dependent on China," says Yates, now CEO of the consultancy firm DC International Advisory. "Beijing also has decades of relatively close party-to-party and military-to-military relations with Pyongyang, which should be a great advantage in terms of understanding and influencing North Korea's leadership. And of course China is home to hundreds of thousands of North Korean migrants (perhaps more) who earn a living in China while bringing currency and goods back to North Korea."

    But as John S. Park, a Northeast Asia specialist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, argues, Beijing is unlikely to back a push for more sanctions anytime soon.

    "The Chinese government has already contested the key findings of the Commission's report," Park says. "It's highly unlikely that Beijing will support targeted sanctions" aimed at members of the regime.

    "It would be nice to see the five members of the Six Party talks express support for the report, though there's little chance of China doing this," agrees Victor Cha, author of "Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future" and a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

    So what's behind China's reticence? As the Council on Foreign Relations notes, China has generally resisted the imposition of tough international sanctions on its neighbor in hopes of "avoiding regime collapse and an influx of refugees across their shared 800-mile border."

    And China's Foreign Ministry was certainly quick to dismiss the possibility of taking action over the commission's findings.

    "Of course we cannot accept this unreasonable criticism," Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as saying. "We believe that politicizing human-rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights."

    Anyone else, then?

    Park says that individual countries can -- and have -- applied their own targeted sanctions against Pyongyang. But he adds that such measures have had a limited impact because of what he describes as the growing trend of the North Korean regime toward conducting more of its commercial activities inside of China with private companies as partners.

    "Chinese authorities deem these commercial activities to be benign economic, development-related interactions," Park says, noting that under prior U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions, U.N. member states aren't prohibited from engaging in economic development and humanitarian assistance activities with North Korea. "This clause constitutes a loophole that directly benefits the regime through its current configuration of commercial activities with private Chinese companies."

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    What about the United States?

    So, if China is unwilling to press North Korea more, could the United States act?

    "The United States should double down on a strategy of supporting defectors and refugees, barring access to the global financial system for officials complicit in crimes against humanity, and presenting a clear moral choice for the regime -- immediately cease these atrocities or face the consequences," says Adrian Hong, managing director of Pegasus Strategies and co-founder and former executive director of U.S.-based Liberty in North Korea, a non-governmental organization.

    In practical terms, Yates adds that a crucial step for the United States would be doing more -- directly, with allies, or in support of allies -- to get more truthful information into and out of North Korea.

    "This may sound overly simple or inconsequential, but it isn't," Yates says. "North Korea may have the most manipulated and politically pulverized population in history. We need to increase access to the truth within North Korea and also raise the international profile of the crimes against humanity within North Korea."

    And if nothing else, the U.N. report may have done just that, according to David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

    "Everybody who studies North Korea already knew this," Kang says. "But simply having this cataloged by the United Nations makes it difficult to ignore. In that sense, I think the report is important."

    Could Kim be prosecuted?

    In addition to issuing a scathing report, the commission said it would refer its findings to the International Criminal Court or possible prosecution, adding that it had also sent a letter warning Kim that he could face prosecution for crimes against humanity. Other options it said were on the table included the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal by the United Nations.

    However, prosecution by the ICC requires the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, and China has already effectively ruled this out. "We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country's human-rights situation," China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

    Yates suggests this should not come as a surprise.

    "When it comes to issues like those contained in the latest United National human rights report, it's extremely unlikely that China would expend any effort to influence North Korean behavior. To the contrary, Beijing is most likely to thwart any effort to expose and punish human rights abuses."

    Don't expect an Arab Spring here

    The last possibility is arguably the least likely to occur. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may all have experienced some form of the Arab Spring, but Kang says that North Korea is unlikely to witness anything similar.

    "People are too atomized," he says. "There's no way for people to organize -- there is no institution other than the government or leadership."

    This point was underscored by the commission's report, which dedicated a section to violations of freedom of thought and expression.

    "State surveillance permeates the private lives of all citizens to ensure that virtually no expression critical of the political system or of its leadership goes undetected," the report said. "Citizens are punished for any 'anti-State' activities or expressions of dissent."

    Kim showed his regime's capacity for ruthlessness in quashing perceived opposition with the execution of his uncle late last year. Jang Song Thaek was seen by many as the second-most powerful figure in North Korea. But Kim turned on him, claiming that Jang tried to overthrow the government.

    "As our Party detected and purged the anti-Party, counterrevolutionary factionalists at an opportune time and with a correct decision, the Party and revolutionary ranks were further consolidated and our single-hearted unity was solidified to the maximum," Kim was quoted as saying in his New Year's address.

    Kang says the highly public nature of Jang's execution was likely in part prompted by a desire by Kim to consolidate his position. "He wanted to make clear he isn't going to be pushed around."

    The question now is whether this mindset will inform North Korea's response to this week's U.N. report.

    "They've already condemned it as a conspiracy," Cha says. "North Korea could use this and the upcoming U.S.-South Korea exercises as a pretext for some sort of provocation."

    "That wouldn't be surprising. Of course, the provocations would already have been intended," he says. "But this gives them a way to blame others."

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