A Truth Commission may secure justice for a future North Korea

Monday 6th March, 2017

“Why must the process of planning a Truth Commission happen now? A fine line exists between historical amnesia and mass retribution. All forms of transitional justice must deal with imperfect realities, but on balance a Truth Commission appears the most suitable modus vivendi for North Korea’s future.”

This is an excerpt from a discussion paper titled A Truth Commission For A Future North Korea, by James Burt/European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. 

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Truth will ultimately prevail where there is paints to bring it to light. – George Washington

Existential change will soon come to North Korea. Whether change comes by way of collapse, rebellion, or reform is not known; but the execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, Hwang Pyong-so’s visit to Incheon in October 2014, and declining diplomatic cohesiveness are just minor indicators of a much larger, if less perceptible, erosion of institutional consistency in Pyongyang.

Those who now prepare for change in North Korea operate beyond a burden of proof. They prepare for change not in the hope that it may come, but with the knowledge that North Korea can no longer exist. Consensus or debate with academics or commentators is inconsequential. As transformation on the Korean peninsula fast approaches, it is in the interests of key stakeholders to take immediate steps to address a series of challenges that will soon face a new North Korean leadership likely to be bereft of compass points.

Because the scale of the coming task is vastly more complex than narratives of unification or democratisation suggest, realism and effective preparation for the responsibilities that will befall a new leadership ─ including preparation for mitigating mass refugee flows, managing factional violence, securing nuclear stockpiles and conventional arms, and averting humanitarian disasters ─ will be required.

In this context, a reckoning of justice will rank low on the first-day agenda for a new Pyongyang leadership and regional powers. The need for justice will, for better or worse, be naught in comparison to securing nuclear stockpiles or negotiating with powerful actors.

Yet this does not mean that justice for tens of millions of long-suffering North Koreans should be postponed to a distant future. The recent case of South Sudan reminds us that any newly established government that fails to adequately address historic abuses can quickly suffer under the weight of its own history and leave a legacy of social, economic, and political instability. Regional powers can ill afford for the same fate to befall North Korea.

In preparation for change, the international and exiled North Korean communities must begin planning a transitional justice mechanism that suits the unique difficulties of North Korea and accompanies any efforts for justice at the International Criminal Court. Victims, living in both North and South Korea, will require a mechanism that recognises North Korea’s abuses as sui generis and that swiftly leads North Korean society past sixty years of authoritarian rule towards a stable and peaceful future.

One path to justice is a Truth Commission. Focusing on victim testimony rather than justice per se, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of South Africa’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, imagined the process as a ‘third-way’ between the mass trials of Nuremberg and Tokyo and the wholesale amnesties of transitional justice processes in Latin America. Unlike criminal trials, a Truth Commission would reach out to tens or hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to fully document and acknowledge their experiences.

Why must the process of planning a Truth Commission happen now? A fine line exists between historical amnesia and mass retribution. All forms of transitional justice must deal with imperfect realities, but on balance a Truth Commission appears the most suitable modus vivendi for North Korea’s future. Putting theory in practice requires not just effective planning, but also sufficient time ─ a commodity that will soon be in increasingly short supply. It is incumbent upon key stakeholders in a future North Korea and those who today work to protect North Korean human rights to prepare for tomorrow’s North Korea. Access to justice is just one facet of this great task.

 

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