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Thursday, February 27, 2014

SF Weekly Goes International, Interviews North Korean Expert

Posted By on Thu, Feb 27, 2014 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge A common North Korea meme.
  • A common North Korea meme.

There's something fascinating about North Korea. A country with a government that controls almost all of the available information, ruled by a family dynasty of repressive dictators, is so foreign to western society it begs to be examined. It's kind of like a wreck on the freeway -- we just can't help but slow down and stare.

Of course, North Korea isn't something we can simply drive past. A United Nations panel recently found the country's boyish leader Kim Jong-un personally liable for crimes against humanity, and recommended that he be referred to the international criminal court. The regime has also been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades.

The Commonwealth Club of California hosts a discussion Friday about North Korea with Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar from the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. As a primer for the event, SF Weekly caught up with Dr. Gloria Duffy, the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Club. Duffy is an expert on U.S.-North Korean relations, and a former nuclear arms treaty negotiator.

We spoke in her office.

What are the practical implications of the UN committee's report? Could Kim Jong-un actually be called before the international criminal court?

Of course he could. The real question though is whether the recommendation of the commission will pass the security council, which is necessary for the matter to come before the international criminal court. The permanent members of the security council have to refer it on to the court, and of course China is one of the permanent members of the security council. So the question is: would China veto it or not?

click to enlarge Kim Jong-un
  • Kim Jong-un

Is there any chance this report might push China to intervene further in North Korean politics?

China is important to North Korea. In trade, assistance, and in general. Whether China does or does not support the North Korean regime can make a difference, financially, economically and in other ways to North Korea. I think China is likely to be a little bit concerned about this, in that they have some issues internally with regard to human rights. So they're probably not overly thrilled by North Korea being called out, and yet they don't want to be embarrassed by their relationship with North Korea.

I think it would incline them to put some pressure on North Korea, quietly, to improve their policies. They probably wouldn't want this to go to the international criminal court. The problem with that is the abuses that are detailed are widespread and horrible. It would require a complete change in attitude and approach by the North Korean government to stop those type of abuses. They involved thousands and thousands and thousands of victims, and a whole system of prison camps. Whether China's quiet pressure could make a difference is unclear.

The details and sketches in the report are pretty graphic. Do you believe it's an accurate depiction of life in North Korea today?

What the report describes is extremely widespread human rights abuses by the government: deportations, torture, prison camps, starvation, forced abortions, rape, it's just very widespread abuse by the North Korean government against the population -- far beyond normal due process and punishment for crimes.

The way the human rights commission did their research, they didn't just take one person's story. They cross checked and corroborated it from many different witnesses, most of whom have defected or escaped to South Korea. They interviewed a lot of people and it seems as though the testimony is conclusive because there are so many different people who report the same kinds of things.

So yes, it does appear that that's what life is like. It's not just a few cases.

click to enlarge A photo released Monday of the Korean Peninsula at night, with the north shrouded in darkness. - © NASA NASA / REUTERS/REUTERS
  • A photo released Monday of the Korean Peninsula at night, with the north shrouded in darkness.

What can the American government do to help?

My guess is the U.S. government is going to support bringing this issue to the security council to recommend that the international criminal court take on this case. That's what we should do. Push it in every way.

Should Americans be concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons programs?

They're on the path to developing a nuclear weapon that can be delivered or launched against countries in the pacific basin and even, eventually, against the pacific U.S. That's what they're trying to do. So definitely, we should be concerned.

The North Korean regime is developing nuclear weapons because of the type of regime that it is, though, and if that can be changed, the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons will diminish or go away. It's because it's a bellicose, insular, isolated regime of the sort that represses its people and does anything possible to hold on to power. If that regime were no longer there, the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons would be a lot less.

What are the chances of a popular uprising in North Korea, a "Korean Spring" if you will?

Like the Kiev situation?


Well this kind of repression that the report documents helps to prevent that. Because the population is so controlled, so threatened, so lacking in communication with the outside world, so lacking in food, that it would be very hard for them to rebel -- and that's of course why the government keeps it that way.

The more information gets into North Korea from the outside world, the more likelihood there is of an uprising. Right now, though, I would say it's so controlled that the likelihood is small.

Last question: What's up with Dennis Rodman?

(laughs) You know it's just the personality of Kim Jong-un. He likes celebrities, he likes movies, he likes fast cars. This is just part of his hunger for contact with celebrities and I don't see it as any kind of serious diplomacy or anything like that. It's kind of an ego thing for him.

And it's going to take a lot more than Dennis Rodman to open up the North Korean society and improve the human rights situation.

The Commonwealth Club presents Robert Carlin: The Two Koreas: Bad Decisions, Bad Consequences, Friday, Feb. 28 at 12 p.m. at the Commonwealth Club of California, 595 Market St., S.F. Tickets are $7-$20; call 597-6700 or visit

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Devin Holt


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