SEOUL, South Korea — Setting fire to life-size cutouts of North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il in the streets of Seoul is one of the more creative ways activists have protested against the hermit kingdom’s unpopular human rights record.
But challenging a leader who has managed to completely isolate his country from the rest of the world is no easy task. After years of picketing and publishing booklets, groups in South Korea have set their sights higher: taking Kim Jong Il to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
More than 100 civic groups in South Korea recently launched a movement called the Anti-human Crime Investigation Committee and have declared their intention to take North Korea’s leader to the international court, which can prosecute individuals for their involvement in war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
“We’ve been fighting for human rights in North Korea for over 10 years now. What we’ve learned in that process is that North Korea tends to react only when the international community takes notice,” Do Hee-youn, the head of the umbrella committee, said.
The court, since it began operating in 2002, has taken A former rebel leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thomas Lubanga, into custody for forcibly conscripting child soldiers, and unsealed an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. It has two additional ongoing investigations in Uganda and the Central African Republic.
Do and his partners have gathered 212,200 signatures from the public since launching the movement in July and has also held a meeting with officials from the ICC at The Hague.
The committee says Kim should be held responsible for crimes against humanity that include the operation of political prison camps, conducting public executions and killing newborn babies with deformities — among a long list of other atrocities.
But is the battle against the Stalinist state’s leader at all realistic? Most have shrugged off the idea as another effort that will go up in smoke, but the activists say they want to place their bets on the impossible.
“Of course, in all campaigns we have our highest goals and our lower goals,” Do said. “The highest goal is to have Kim Jong Il stand in court for the crimes he has committed,” he said, “but we’re going to take things slowly.”
The ICC can only prosecute someone who is a citizen of, or has committed a crime in, a member state. — which North Korea is not. A state can voluntarily accept the court's jurisdiction, but as long as the Kim dynasty rules, the chances are almost nonexistent.
An exception is if the U.N. Security Council unanimously orders an investigation, as with President Bashir of Sudan. But with North Korea's ally China holding a Security Council veto, the odds of that happening to Kim Jong Il are slim. And even Bashir will not be arrested unless he leaves the country or the Sudanese government gives him up.
“It’s most likely a symbolic movement,” Park Ki-gab, a law professor at Korea University, said. Given the issue of jurisdiction with North Korea, Park believes the Security Council is still the committee’s best bet.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted in November a human rights resolution sponsored by the U.S. voicing concern about detention and torture among other human rights abuses in North Korea. But for an ICC investigation, the issue would need unanimous approval from the Security Council.
“With China there, do you think it’s going to be at all possible?” Park said. The stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang is also not a favorable condition for the activists. Addressing human rights issues could potentially cause the North to cut itself off from the international community instead of engaging in dialogue for denuclearization. “It’s a different world when you’re talking legal issues and politics,” the professor said.
Do is more optimistic. In the recent meeting with officials from the ICC, he said, the group was told as long as there is concrete evidence of abuses that the court’s prosecutors will review their case.
The activist said his committee has more than 100 witnesses ready to talk to prosecutors if necessary.
“If the court starts to at least look into the issue, Kim Jong Il will start realizing that he can face consequences,” Do said. “There are also people within North Korea that are against the leadership. We’re trying to send them a message.”