Why has North Korea decided to talk now?

Story highlights

North Korean officials make rare move of taking questions at UN from journalists and diplomats

North Korea reached out to human rights discussion with EU and visited South Korea

Critics say the regime is pressured by human rights allegations and sanctions

CNN  — 

With Kim Jong Un still out of sight, North Korean officials have gone on a publicity blitz, making a rare move to take questions at the United Nations, arranging human rights talks with the European Union and taking a high-level trip to South Korea.

The overtures come at a time when its human rights record has received increased scrutiny. Pyongyang’s charm offensive has raised questions of what the regime seeks and what could be happening in the country’s inner circle.

While Ri Tong Il, the North Korean deputy ambassador, declined to respond to questions about Kim’s health on Tuesday, he gave some clues to what may be behind the country’s rare willingness to take reporters’ questions.

Citing over 40 different sanctions against North Korea, he said, “This is the most brutal sanction throughout the world. No country … has been living under these sanctions.

“You can imagine how these obstacles are to the peaceful environment for the people of our country.”

He adamantly defended the country’s human rights record, saying it’s “doing its best to exceed” universal human rights conventions. North Korea had issued a rosy human rights report in September, boasting that it has “the most advantageous” system.

North Korea brags about its human rights record

Its self-assessment on human rights came after the publication of a scathing U.N. Commission of Inquiry report cataloging North Korea’s abuses that the investigators said amounted to crimes against humanity.

North Korea’s outreach at the U.N., EU and South Korea comes at a time when that report’s recommendations – for prosecution and more sanctions – are on its way to the U.N. General Assembly.

Another North Korean official had said last week that North Korea is ready to restart nuclear talks.

‘Abundant evidence’ of crimes against humanity

“No amount of charm should divert us from the responsibility to protect human rights,” said Judge Michael Kirby, the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry in the DPRK, regarding the country’s latest diplomacy.

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North Korea: We needs baths

Observers view these latest entreaties from North Korea with skepticism.

“I think they want various parties to loosen sanctions as we saw in the case of Japan,” said Joshua Stanton, a North Korea watcher.

Japan eased several of its sanctions in exchange for information about Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea during the Cold War. That report has yet to be issued.

Japan eases sanctions on North Korea

“What they’re trying to do is divide and conquer the international community to make sure they’re not facing concerted efforts for sanctions,” said Stanton, who writes on the site One Free Korea.

The EU is taking the lead in drafting a resolution regarding the regime’s human rights violations in the General Assembly. Ri announced that North Korea and EU officials will hold dialogue at the end of the year to remove “misunderstanding.”

When the North Korean officials at the U.N. briefing were asked Tuesday to identify human rights problems in their country, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean, responded, “We need some facilities where people go and enjoy a bath. … Right now, due to problems in the economic field – that is due to the external forces hindrance – we are running short of some of the facilities.”

He cited lack of facilities and did not mention executions, torture allegations or food shortages.

Choe said North Korea had reform-through-labor camps but insisted that there were no such thing as prison camps – despite satellite images and testimonies from survivors to the contrary.

“We made it clear there are no prison camps in our country,” he said.

A voice from a North Korean gulag

Mixed messages from Korea

North Korea also made overtures to the South in recent days, sending what could be seen as mixed messages.

From “capricious whore” to “disgusting political prostitute,” the South Korean president is routinely insulted by the North. So when KCNA, its state-run news mouthpiece called South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “wretched pro-U.S. stooge and traitor to the nation,” it was nowhere near its worst invective.

But just two days after this latest round of insults, three high-ranking North Korean officials arrived in a surprise visit to South Korea. They received a red carpet treatment on Saturday and shook hands with South Korean officials with a message: Let’s talk.

The U.S. State Department representative stated that the U.S. was consulted regarding the visit and that it supports better inter-Korea relations.

But by Monday, the two countries exchanged fire in the west coast of the peninsula after a North Korean boat crossed the Northern Limit Line, a disputed maritime demarcation line.

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It was another zigzag in the seesawing and often tumultuous relationship between the North and South.

“To the DPRK, perceived confusion and chaos, both domestically and internationally, by the international community is exactly what North Korea wants,” said Jasper Kim, founder of Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.

“It increases the risk profile of the country from the perspective of the U.S., South Korea, China and other players, increasing the stakes of the negotiation game.”