Yesterday with a vote of 116 yes, 20 no, and 53 abstentions, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the resolution on human rights in North Korea passed last month by the Third Committee. The resolution adopts the report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) released last February. The resolution also refers the matter to the Security Council, recommending sanctions and referral to the International Criminal Court.
Some debate was offered, particularly by the DPRK. The North Korean diplomat rejected the resolution, stating it was politically motivated and not based on any real concern for human rights. He also pointed out that the COI never visited North Korea, even though they were initially not allowed by the North to visit the country, and that the report is based on “fabricated testimony” from numerous defectors and refugees. He referred to these individuals as criminals guilty of crimes in the DPRK. The official also threatened retaliation if the resolution was passed.
The resolution did pass and will now go to the Security Council. In order for an item to be placed on the agenda, 9 of the 15 members must vote yes. Procedural matters like setting the agenda are not subject to veto. Individuals with knowledge of this matter have stated they believe the 9 votes have been obtained and expect the Security Council to take up the matter yet this month.
The five permanent members of the council are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these countries can veto by voting no on a substantive matter.
There is much speculation that China will veto anything that moves through the council pertaining to North Korea. However, China has numerous economic ties with the US, South Korea, the EU, and other western countries and are under considerable pressure to support human rights in North Korea. Given their strong ties to North Korea, it is unlikely we will see a yes vote from China, but we could see them abstaining, which would not veto the matter.
Russia, however, has been very close with the DPRK as of late. That relationship had cooled since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the past year has brought forgiveness of DPRK debt owed to Russia, agreements on the repatriation of “illegal immigrants” found in either country, and visits by high-level diplomats. The two countries are also in talks over a pipeline that Russia wants to build through the DPRK to South Korea. Next year Kim Jong-Un has said he will visit Russia on May 9th for the 70th anniversary of Victory Day commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany (celebrated one day earlier as Victory in Europe or V-E Day in the United States and other countries) and Putin is set for a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang on August 15th to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day commemorating the end of Japanese occupation of Korea and the end of WWII (celebrated as Gwangbokjeol in South Korea, Victory Day in the United States, and Victory over Japan or V-J Day in other countries). Take all of that together with Russia’s recent interactions with Ukraine, the EU, and the US and it is conceivable that Russia could vote no and veto any action against the DPRK.
The other current members (that do not have veto power) are: Argentina (2014)
Australia (2014), Chad (2015), Chile (2015), Jordan (2015), Lithuania (2015), Luxembourg (2014), Nigeria (2015), Republic of Korea (2014), and Rwanda (2014). Australia and South Korea are obvious candidates for supporting action against North Korea, but their term ends at the end of 2014, with five new states becoming members in January. Of the current members of the Security Council, all voted for the General Assembly resolution except China and Russia, who voted against, and Nigeria, who abstained.
Even if the Security Council is not able to take action before the end of the year, they will likely take it up again in the New Year. So long as two of the five new countries will vote yes, the outcome will likely be the same – pending possible veto from Russia or China.
Some experts actually believe it may be more beneficial to have North Korea on the agenda without taking immediate action. Once a decision is reached, with or without a veto, the outcome is no longer subject to speculation. Being on the agenda carries the threat of action that could have implications on other international talks with North Korea.
Referring the North to the International Criminal Court, although significant, is unlikely to change the landscape of North Korean issues. The DPRK is not a member state. In fact, of the permanent members of the Security Council, the US and China are also not member states of the ICC; Russia is a signatory to the ICC, but has not ratified it and could easily choose to not to be bound by the court. Kim Jong-Un is unlikely to ever set foot in a courtroom or see any punishment absent being detained by authorites, which is also unlikely to happen.