How do you deal with someone you suspect of being among the most evil leaders ever to have stalked the earth? Do you brand them a tyrant and then send in the tanks? Do you send them a pack of exploding cigars?
Or do you send them a polite letter, respectfully reminding them of their responsibilities as head of state, and pointing out that at some future date, they could be rendering themselves liable to prosecution?
That seems to have been the tactic of Michael Kirby, the chair of the UN panel investigating human rights in North Korea, which issued a devastating report on the extent of the regime’s barbarity yesterday.
As we report in today’s paper, Mr Kirby, a retired Aussie judge, is well aware of the practical difficulties of ever getting Kim Jong Un into any international criminal court, but he did decide to drop the Supreme Leader a line nonetheless to set out his concerns.
The tone of the letter is pretty gentle, given that Kirby is accusing Kim of crimes against humanity. He starts off by politely requesting Kim to take “all reasonable and necessary measures” to stop such horrors, and reminds him that even if he isn’t carrying them out in person, anybody called Supreme Leader may later find it hard to claim that they weren’t fairly high in the chain of command.
A prosecution, Mr Kirby goes on to add, could “render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for crimes against humanity”.
Given its slightly bureaucratic language, you might think that Mr Kirby was taking Kim to task over a minor violation of planning law, rather than slaughtering and torturing his own people. And of course, unlike a parking fine from the council, or a letter from the Inland Revenue, there is no section in italics saying You must do this no later than four weeks today.
Mr Kirby is sensible enough, clearly, to know that as long as Kim has nuclear weapons and Chinese support, the international community is unlikely to bring formal enforcement proceedings, however much they might like to.
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As such, both the letter and the report attracted a few sarcastic jokes yesterday. After I posted details on my own Twitter feed, the reactions ranged from “Ooh, a strongly worded letter!” through to “I bet Kim’s shot the postman for delivering that.” There was a consensus that the world already knew about North Korea’s atrocious record, and neither the UN report nor Mr Kirby’s letter was going to change much.
That, though, I think, is to do Mr Kirby a misservice. Because while his panel may lack any teeth – as, indeed, does the UN security council in this case, with China sitting on it – he has at least made sure that his bark is bad, if not his bite.
For in his press conference yesterday, Mr Kirby abandoned his diplomatic language altogether, directly likening Kim’s regime to that of Nazi-era Germany or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. No other country in the modern world violated its citizens rights in such a systematic way, he said, and it was time the wider world had a reminder.
“At the end of the Second World War, so many people said if only we had know the wrongs that were done,” he said. “Now the international community does know.”
This is strong stuff, especially by UN standards. UN panels of inquiry frequently fudge their words a bit, or avoid too much direct criticism for fear of upsetting the diplomatic applecart. But Mr Kirby, a retired Australian judge, has at least gone for a bit of Aussie plain speaking, and in the process reminded everyone that Kim’s disgusting gangster state – a “shock to the conscience of humanity” – should be a matter of concern to us all.
Too often, the North Korea’s hereditary tyrants have been seen as just cartoon crackpots, people too mad to be taken seriously. We focus on Kim Jong Un’s mistresses and dreadful haircut, on his dad’s fondness for fortune tellers and funding North Korean Godzilla films, rather than just cold-blooded killers they very clearly are.
Hence we don’t get too fussed when Kim kills a hapless close relative in spectacular fashion, or find it too distasteful that Dennis Rodman, the US basketball player, counts him as a personal friend.
Mr Kirby may not be able to stop North Korea’s atrocities. But he has done the world a favour in reminding us that when we talk about Kim Jong Un, the best comparisons are Hitler and Stalin, not some Thunderbirds villain whose eccentricities belie the snuff movie he is starring in.
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