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February 22, 2014

UN Report Helps Cross-Border Korean Reunions

by Daniel Schearf

An unprecedented United Nations report this week, condemning North Korea for crimes against humanity, may have helped ensure cross border reunions of families divided since the Korean War. But political analysts warn the report may also encourage Pyongyang to further build up its military and nuclear weapons programs.

Emotional reunions began Thursday as South Koreans and North Koreans meet with relatives inside North Korea, most unseen or unheard from in six decades.

Pyongyang postponed the reunions, the first since 2010, in September and many feared it would again.

But a historic U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported detailing North Korea's human rights abuses gave it a strategic reason to continue, said Lilian Lee with the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

“The North Korean government is holding these family reunions, not in spite of the COI report, but also partly because it helps them keep down the criticism and the response from the South Korean government,” said Lee.

The U.N. report said rights abuses under leader Kim Jong Un were widespread, systematic, and designed to maintain political power. It said Kim and other leaders were guilty of crimes against humanity and urged prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

South Korea Ministry of Unification spokesman Kim Eu-do said they supported the U.N. commission and improving rights in North Korea but he stopped short of calling for its leaders to be brought to justice.

“And our government will continue to expand our cooperation with international human rights organizations and the international community for the improvement in North Korean human rights," he said.

But the short term gain of family reunions could give way to longer-term tensions, warned Daniel Pinkston, Deputy Northeast Asia Director with the International Crisis Group.

He said North Korean leaders may fear the U.N. report was a step towards sanctioned military action similar to what led to the downfall of Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi.

“Advisors and analysts in Pyongyang could make compelling arguments about these parallels and the need to strengthen their military, to strengthen their nuclear deterrent," said Pinkston.

Rights activist Lee said Botswana's decision to end diplomatic relations with North Korea over rights abuse sent a strong signal that it was in its best interest to change its behavior.