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North Korea Offers UN Visit, But Motives Questioned

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea says it is prepared to allow what would be an unprecedented visit to the country by United Nations human rights officials, but many analysts are questioning the sincerity of the offer.

The proposal was made this week during landmark talks between North Korean diplomats and Marzuki Darusman, a special U.N. human rights investigator on North Korea.

The unexpected offer was seen as an important step for the highly secretive and authoritarian government, which was accused in a recent U.N. report of committing crimes against humanity.

But the invitation comes with an important condition: Pyongyang wants a proposed U.N. resolution to drop language recommending it be tried for its alleged rights abuses at the International Criminal Court.

The resolution is being presented this week to the General Assembly. It is expected to be easily approved during a vote next month.

Many analysts see North Korea's proposal as a last-minute attempt to fend off the vote, and many doubt Pyongyang really intends to provide unfettered access to U.N. observers.

"I wouldn't make that swap," said Robert Kelly with South Korea's Pusan National University. "Because once they agree to drop [the ICC referral], then the North Koreans will do what they always do with agreements: they'll start to hem and haw and pick away at the details."

There are also doubts about whether the inspectors would be allowed to access the sites of North Korea's worst alleged abuses, such as its notorious prison camps. Without any such assurances, Kelly said, North Korea's bargain is unacceptable.

"You've got to get some really serious guarantee that it's going to be a big party that will go to North Korea, that they're going to have a lot of access. And how do you guarantee that access before so that it doesn't get flim-flammed when they're on the ground?" Kelly asked.

For his own part, Darusman on Tuesday said any potential visit to North Korea "can't be a visit just for the sake of visiting… Any visit would have to be undertaken with a view to allow the rapporteur access into any location, institution that would be a primary concern of the international community.”

Darusman said he agreed to speak with the resolution's sponsors, Japan and the European Union, about dropping the ICC referral. But EU and Japanese officials have not said whether this is a possibility.

If Pyongyang's offer is rejected, it is unclear what moving ahead with the nonbinding U.N. resolution could accomplish, beyond simply embarrassing North Korea's leaders.

If the resolution were to be taken up by the Security Council, it is almost certain to be vetoed by China, North Korea's only major ally. As a result, most analysts concede it is highly unlikely the resolution could result in North Korean leaders being prosecuted.

But Kelly thinks important progress has been made, nonetheless, even if the only tangible result is forcing China to veto the resolution.

"It puts moral pressure on China," he said. "China worries about its reputation in the world."

"If we can sort of leverage that and say to China, 'Look, your global image is being tarred by the fact that you're North Korea's patron and everybody knows it, you're bailing out the world's worst autocracy,' hopefully we can use that as leverage for China to draw some distance," he continued.