SEOUL — The United Nations’ human rights chief declared recently that it was time for a ‘‘long overdue’’ investigation into what she called unparalleled rights abuses in North Korea. The probe, unprecedented in scope, could help establish whether the North’s leaders are committing crimes against humanity.
Navi Pillay’s January proposal has already drawn support from the United States. But the decision has proved sensitive in still-undecided South Korea, where leaders remain divided over whether to confront the North or try to somehow reduce tensions with it, even after Pyongyang detonated an underground nuclear device last week .
Relations between the two countries appeared to deteriorate further on Tuesday, when a North Korean diplomat, during a UN disarmament conference in Geneva, threatened the South with ‘‘total destruction.’’ That drew quick condemnation from South Korea and other nations.
Seoul’s support for the human rights investigation is critical, because farther-removed countries view Seoul as the leader on North Korea policy issues.
The decision on the Commission of Inquiry comes at a particularly delicate time for South Korea, where a conservative new president, Park Geun Hye, takes office later this month, having vowed to both re-engage with the North and ‘‘improve living conditions’’ for its 24 million citizens. The looming decision on the investigation highlights a fundamental South Korean quandary: Those two goals, though both reasonable, are often at odds.
Other countries ‘‘should understand the sensitivities faced by South Korea’’ when speaking out about human rights, said Song Min Soon, a South Korean foreign minister from 2006 until 2008, under liberal president Roh Moo Hyun. ‘‘Those countries, they don’t have a real need to sit down with North Korea. We do. The new South Korean government has a plan to talk with the North Koreans about denuclearization, economic issues. But if we lead efforts on the [commission], that won’t happen.’’
Park has blasted the North for conducting the much-anticipated nuclear test. But her incoming administration, according to analysts, is uneasy about burying any hope of civil ties with the North even before Park takes office. The nuclear test has only made South Korea’s decision on the UN investigation ‘‘more sensitive,’’ said one South Korean government official.
The North views any discussion of its human rights as a ‘‘grave provocation.’’
The commission could be voted on at the next UN Human Rights Council meeting in March. But if Park opposes it, she will heighten frustration among activists and thousands of defectors in her country, including the several hundred survivors of political prison camps who often accuse the South of being more concerned about the North’s weapons than about its people.
Since Pillay requested the investigation in January, South Korea has taken no official position on the proposal. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which technically is responsible for the decision, declined to comment.
UN officials and human rights advocates, as well as one Park adviser, said they are cautiously optimistic that South Korea will ultimately back the inquiry.
‘‘I think we will quietly support it,’’ said Ha Tae Keung, a National Assembly member with an interest in North Korea issues who advises Park’s transition team.
Other advocates say the nuclear test, coupled with the US support, has caused a momentum shift among members of the Human Rights Council, increasing the odds that South Korea ultimately will sign on.