Kirby calls for 'peaceful initiatives' on North Korea

Former High Court Judge and UN human rights inquiry chair Michael Kirby, left, with fellow inquiry member Marzuki Darusman after they were conferred with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star. Source: supplied for THE AGE WORLD 17th May 2017 Photo: Supplied
Former High Court Judge and UN human rights inquiry chair Michael Kirby, left, with fellow inquiry member Marzuki Darusman after they were conferred with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star. Source: supplied for THE AGE WORLD 17th May 2017 Photo: Supplied

Tokyo: Megumi Yokota was just 13 when she was captured by North Korean agents on her way home from school in Japan's Niigata prefecture.

Megumi, remembered by her parents as a perky girl who liked singing, animals and flowers, vanished after practising badminton with friends on November 15, 1977.

"We were overwhelmed with the disappearance," her mother, Sakie Yokota, told a UN human rights inquiry chaired by former Australian high court judge Michael Kirby.

"I called out her name - 'Megumi-chan, Megumi-chan' - and I looked for her continuously. But I could not even see her shadow ??? we almost went crazy."

The inquiry, commissioned by the UN's Human Rights Council, wrapped up in 2014 with damning findings that the North Korean regime was responsible for a litany of crimes against humanity and should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Mr Kirby recently returned to Tokyo, where he conducted some of the hearings, to be decorated by the Japanese emperor for raising awareness of human rights in North Korea, including the plight of Japanese citizens abducted by the regime's agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

He and a fellow inquiry commissioner, former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, were honoured with the insignia of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star.

Mr Kirby told Fairfax Media "it was an honour" to receive such recognition, but insisted the focus must remain on victims and their families.

"It's a very sad story of cruelty," he said. "We have met [families of abductees] on several journeys to Tokyo and we have had dinner with them and they've suffered greatly over the years, so I think the honour must be seen as signalling the respect the Japanese government and people have for the families of the abductees and their determination not to give up on the accountability of such wrongs."

The inquiry concluded that although many abductions and enforced disappearances were linked to the Korean War of the 1950s, hundreds of nationals of Japan, South Korea and other countries were subsequently taken away between the 1960s and 1980s.

Kidnappings on Japanese soil were mostly carried out in the countryside near the coast, while agents also targeted boats in at-sea abductions. The victims were often used to help train North Korean spies in the Japanese language and had their identification documents seized.

In the case of Megumi Yokota, it would take another 20 years for her parents to learn, following publication of a book about North Korean abductions, that the regime might have been involved in her disappearance.

Finally, in 2002, Japan's then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi travelled to Pyongyang to meet with then North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who admitted that 13 Japanese citizens, including Megumi, had been taken by special forces in "a reckless quest for glory" and apologised for the "regretful" incidents.

The exact number of abductees is a matter of dispute, along with how many are still alive, but five were allowed to return to their families in Japan in 2002. The regime claimed Megumi had died at the age of 29 and it sent back remains that were purportedly hers. DNA analysis, however, cast doubt on the regime's account.

"The biggest impact is the shock that they've felt and the long-running nature of the saga that they've been exposed to," Mr Kirby said of the abductees' families.

Megumi's parents were among 80 witnesses to testify at public hearings, and the three-member panel also based its findings on more than 240 private interviews with victims and other witnesses and 80 formal submissions.

The North Korean regime did not cooperate with the inquiry, whose 370-page report documented cases of "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation".

There have since been signs of limited cooperation. Early this month, Kim Jong-un's regime allowed the first visit by an independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council.

Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, said she appreciated being granted the six-day study tour - but added that she had been unable to meet with some key ministries and institutions and had also been blocked from visiting a mental health facility.

Earlier this year a new report prepared by experts for the council renewed the call for an ICC referral, but the UN Security Council - on which North Korea's key ally China and Russia both have the power of veto - has yet to do so.

Mr Kirby said while "one never knows" about the prospect of an ICC referral, his inquiry also recommended that the UN establish a field office in the region to collect information that could ultimately be used to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights violations.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a meeting of the country's National Security Council at the presidential Blue House in Seoul this month.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a meeting of the country's National Security Council at the Blue House in Seoul this month. Photo: AP

"That was agreed to by the government of South Korea and that field office continues to gather information, sometimes by people who have fled to South Korea, and there is an enormous amount of material that is available because there are 29,000 persons called defectors in South Korea who can give their particular stories of their own suffering."

Mr Kirby suggested South Korea's newly-elected president Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer who favours greater engagement with North Korea, would bring a new perspective given he is the son of a refugee from the North.

Mr Moon declared after being sworn into office that he would be prepared to travel to Pyongyang for dialogue if certain conditions were met.

"He will adopt new strategies and policies which may open up new potentialities," Mr Kirby said. "Business as usual has not got us very far on accountability for human rights and therefore one hopes that out of these developments in the region will come new approaches."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, has consumed world attention with his regime's recent missile launches.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, has consumed world attention with his regime's recent missile launches. Photo: AP

The Trump administration has vowed to increase pressure on the regime after a series of North Korean missile tests, the most recent on May 14, but US President Donald Trump has also not ruled out meeting Mr Kim. Mr Moon is planning to review the recent deployment in South Korea of a US-installed missile defence system that has angered China. North Korea policy is set to dominate talks when Mr Moon and Mr Trump meet in June.

Asked whether everyone needed to be on the same page, Mr Kirby said: "There's no reason why there couldn't be a series of approaches. The approach of the past hasn't actually fulfilled a great deal in terms of particular outcomes. On the contrary, North Korea has used the last 10 years developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Something new is needed."

If there was a revival of six-party talks involving China, the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia, as recommended by the inquiry, that may open the way to practical progress.

"Certainly, the current situation is unacceptable," Mr Kirby said. "Doing nothing on human rights in North Korea is not an option compatible with the UN charter and UN human rights law. So out of the present uncertainty must come progress.

"But exactly how it will come remains to be seen and depends on seizing peaceful initiatives, including through dialogue between the most important players."

This story Kirby calls for 'peaceful initiatives' on North Korea first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.