Transitional Justice on the Korean Peninsula: An Interview with ICTJ’s Ruben Carranza


In February 2024, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights hosted an event in Seoul, South Korea, marking the 10th anniversary of the release of the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). The two-day event featured members of the COI, North Koreans who testified at the COI hearings, and resource persons who spoke about various forms of accountability that could be pursued involving the human rights violations discussed in the report. 

ICTJ Senior Expert Ruben Carranza spoke at the event and discussed lessons learned involving nonjudicial forms of accountability. He contrasted the selective application and weaponization by certain governments and  pointed out that transitional justice ought to apply not only to human rights violations against North Koreans but to the legacies of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed across the Korean peninsula during Japanese colonization, World War II, the Korean War, as well as under Korean dictatorships in the North and South. He cited the truth commissions, reparations measures, and criminal trials undertaken by South Korean leaders and activists to address the legacies of sexual slavery during World War II, human rights violations, and corruption committed by the country’s military dictator.  

In this interview with ICTJ’s communications intern Amaya Lilles, Ruben Carranza talks about why a broader approach to transitional justice on the Korean peninsula is necessary and how transitional justice measures can help promote peace and possible reunification on the peninsula.   

Amaya Lilles: Since the COI released its report 10 years ago, what has changed in terms of how the international community deals with the human rights situation in North Korea? What else can the international community do to address the ongoing violations? 

Ruben Carranza: The Commission of Inquiry report was a landmark report. One of the key reports that, until today, even 10 years later, captures the extent and range of human rights violations that have taken place in North Korea. It highlights not only these violations but also the exacerbating effects of sanctions imposed by Western countries, particularly the United States. 

Despite the report's comprehensive nature, implementing its recommendations has been challenging. North Korea's lack of cooperation and the politicization of accountability by Western countries have hindered progress. The ongoing military tensions and the absence of a peace agreement between North and South Korea further complicate the situation. The U.S. still maintains military bases in the South, and North Korea remains on a war footing, anticipating military action from surrounding countries. 

The focus on criminal prosecutions as the main form of accountability is problematic. Many who support the COI recommendations emphasize prosecutions, but North Korea is not under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Like the U.S., Israel, India, and Russia, it refuses to be covered by the Rome Statute. This reliance on state willingness to prosecute is a significant barrier to achieving justice for human rights violations. Transitional justice should not only address human rights violations against North Koreans but also consider historical war crimes and crimes against humanity committed across the Korean peninsula. 

Amaya Lilles: Have the COI's findings affected how South Korea approaches the human rights situation in North Korea and its strategy for a future reunification? 

Ruben Carranza: The UN COI report has become a weapon for promoting a militaristic approach to relations with North Korea rather than a tool for justice and accountability, as seen in the current right-wing government's use of existing truth commissions to target South Korean human rights activists promoting reunification. This perversion of transitional justice undermines its value and truth-seeking efforts, as it is selective and focuses only on violations by North Korea. 

The United States has also promoted a selective approach, focusing on North Korean violations while ignoring war crimes committed against Koreans in the South and during Japanese colonization. This undermines comprehensive transitional justice and gives impunity to certain actors. For example, the International Center for Transitional Justice has worked with communities on Jeju Island in South Korea, seeking truth about massacres committed around the beginning of the Korean War. Reports from survivors indicate complicity of both South Korean soldiers and U.S. forces in these massacres, yet the United States ignores them as transitional justice issues, focusing only on North Korea. 

It's important to remember that in South Korea, there is a strong movement for peaceful reunification. Past leaders, especially after the military dictatorship, prioritized negotiated outcomes with the North, integrating human rights discussions into broader reunification goals. However, some political leaders are more focused on conflict and confrontation, very selective in their approach to transitional justice involving Korea. 

Amaya Lilles: Have the COI’s recommendations led to any positive outcomes for victims? If so, what are they? 

Ruben Carranza: At the very least, the recommendations have made it clear that human rights violations committed by the North Korean government are not limited to the most visible violations, at least those most visible in Western media. It's not only civil and political rights violations that may be taking place within North Korea, but also violations of social and economic rights, such as the right to food and health care.  

At the same time, however, many of the COI recommendations, for example, lifting economic sanctions against North Korea—which exacerbated the lack of access to food among North Koreans—are being ignored to the detriment of North Koreans in general. Victims of violations of the right to food in North Korea are victims not just of the North Korean government, but also of the U.S. for imposing sanctions on North Korea. 

The COI also points out that these sanctions have limited the ability of North Korean workers working abroad to remit money back to their families in North Korea. Without intending to do so, both North Korea and the United States are actually reinforcing and exacerbating human rights violations they commit on North Koreans. 

Another outcome for victims, particularly those who have fled the North to China, has been the involvement of right-wing religious groups that give them shelter whenever they cross to China, but make it a condition that they convert to the religion of these organizations. You cannot remedy the human rights violations that they fled from by then violating their right to their own beliefs; you are requiring them to convert just so they have somewhere to turn to. This proselytization by mainly right-wing Christian groups is antithetical to the very idea of human rights itself. 

As a result, these are obviously not positive outcomes for victims. 

Amaya Lilles: South Korea has had several truth commissions, prosecutions of former military dictators, and reparations programs established by the state or ordered by its courts for various victims of World War II-era war crimes and post-war dictatorships. What are the most important lessons in transitional justice that can be learned from Korea? 

Ruben Carranza: The most important lesson from all these transitional justice processes is that Koreans in general have actually carried out, in many cases, effective and meaningful transitional justice measures, mostly on their own and largely reflecting their own interests and priorities. What this means is that an organic and context-specific transitional justice approach is more effective and has more political traction than any so-called transitional justice measure imposed or driven by a foreign power, particularly a power like the U.S. with militarization as its goal. 

The second and important lesson is that South Korea has been able to pursue transitional justice mainly involving South Korean victims even with the specter of an unresolved conflict with the North and continuing tensions with a dictatorship across the demilitarized zone. Transitional justice can not only happen while this conflict is still effectively ongoing, it is possible to pursue transitional justice without exacerbating the conflict.  

The third important lesson from South Korea's transitional justice experience is that you can have many truth commissions, different reparations programs, and prosecute dictators for both corruption and human rights violations across several periods, which means you're not limited to one try; you're not limited to one attempt. You learn your lessons and build from there. 

Amaya Lilles: There are still demands for truth, justice, and reparations, including from the women survivors of sexual slavery and victims of forced labor carried out by Japan during World War II involving Koreans. How do these demands affect the current political and security situation on the Korean peninsula and in the region? 

Ruben Carranza: The United States has played a very nonconstructive role in diluting demands for justice from survivors of sexual slavery and forced labor by Japan during World War II. In contrast to its support for transitional justice in Europe after World War II, such as the trials and reparations for Holocaust victims, the U.S. has refused to support reparations for Korean comfort women and forced labor victims. This reflects the U.S.'s priority on its military alliance with Japan and South Korea against China, North Korea, and Russia over justice and accountability. 

This military focus makes it difficult for Korean victims to demand accountability from Japan. When victims have tried to put up comfort women statues, Japan pressured South Korea, with the U.S. mediating an outcome that was rejected by the victims' advocates. The current right-wing South Korean government follows the U.S. military agenda, sidelining transitional justice and acknowledgment of World War II war crimes. 

Japan has refused to enforce a South Korean court judgment ordering a Japanese corporation to pay compensation to forced labor victims and continues to deny the rape and sexual slavery committed against Korean and other Asian comfort women. 

Amaya Lilles: In December, the High Court in Seoul ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to 16 women survivors of sexual slavery on the grounds of international customary law, but Tokyo maintains that it has no obligation to do so. How significant is this legal victory, both for the victims and in terms of international accountability for human rights violations? 

Ruben Carranza: The fact that South Korean courts can still acknowledge these war crimes, and that the dwindling number of comfort women—survivors of sexual slavery by Japan—can still hear and witness this acknowledgment, is important in itself. It may not lead to compensation and it may not lead to Japan finally offering an unequivocal apology. But I think it's important within South Korea and possibly in other countries where you still have a few remaining comfort women survivors to hear their own courts acknowledge what they went through and the injustices that they suffered, in many cases for years in silence. 

At the same time, it also tells us that transitional justice between states is often governed by the same double standards that we are now seeing elsewhere in the world, where countries that preach human rights and international law, that talk about a rules-based order, in fact, don't apply it to themselves and have no interest in pursuing justice and accountability when their own military, economic, and political interests are at stake. This hypocrisy is evident in Japan and the U.S. ignoring this court decision. The case of South Korean comfort women unable to enforce a judgment for reparations against Japan is another clear example of double standards that are a hindrance to meaningful transitional justice. 

Amaya Lilles: What role can nonjudicial accountability and reparation measures play in the Korean context? Are there any examples of such measures? If so, how effective have they been? 

Ruben Carranza: First of all, it's often unfortunate that we face a dichotomy between judicial and nonjudicial accountability measures as it assumes that justice happens only through courts. In many post-conflict and post-dictatorship countries, courts are weak, politicized, and controlled by elites, making judicial accountability unrealistic. In such cases, transitional justice often relies on nonjudicial institutions. Truth commissions and reparations can provide meaningful justice outside of court orders. 

In Korea, examples from the South, like truth commissions covering violations during Japanese colonization or trials of former military dictators, evolved organically and were feasible at their time of creation. Reparations programs, such as those for victims of the Gwangju massacre and political detainees during the dictatorships, were incremental and expanded as political space widened. 

These examples show that transitional justice can play a constructive and meaningful role in addressing human rights violations in the North and the conflict on the Korean peninsula. It allows Koreans to address issues of history, conflict, and ideology among themselves, promoting dialogue, coexistence, and potential reunification. Nonjudicial measures focus on reconciliation, which is crucial for the Korean peninsula, rather than retributive justice which prosecutions provide. Reconciliation in this context is a key goal of transitional justice. 

Amaya Lilles: Alongside its economic development, South Korea's cultural influence has grown in recent years, driven by the rising popularity of Korean film, music, and technology in many parts of the world, particularly among young people. Are there ways Koreans, and specifically young Koreans, can harness this cultural influence to advance justice and accountability for past human rights abuses on the Korean peninsula and in other countries? 

Ruben Carranza: Transitional justice focuses on accountability for past human rights abuses, but if it takes too long, these legacies tend to be forgotten. Forgetting becomes the enemy of justice and accountability. When people are deliberately made to forget, impunity takes over. One way to combat forgetting, to push back against deliberate efforts to revise history or erase historical memory, is by using culture. But it should be popular culture, reaching more people rather than just cultural workers, academics, or museums and universities. Pop culture plays a significant role. 

One of the best examples for Korea is K-Pop group BTS, who have a song about the Gwangju massacre. Just juxtaposing those two says something about how Korean pop culture has not only become economically important but also culturally significant globally, helping to promote justice and accountability in the country. Even with a right-wing government attempting to erase memories of past dictatorships or the Korean War, South Korea's cultural renaissance can preserve historical memory. This culture of remembering can bridge gaps created by political agendas and help young people in Korea remember and address past injustices. 

While it's uncertain how South Korean culture impacts discussions in the North, the culture of promoting peace and accountability should resist the militarization of transitional justice. South Korean culture, more progressive and globally influential, contrasts with countries that use cultural exports to justify military agendas. This global influence of South Korean culture has significant potential to advance justice and accountability both within and outside the country. 


PHOTO: A group of comfort women rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in August 2011 to demand justice from the Japanese government for the sexual slavery they experienced during World War II. (Claire Solery/Wikimedia)