Tessa Morris-Suzuki Rare Earth, politics and human rights.

Aug 6, 2014

On 5 July 2014, the ABC’s PM program ran a report which revealed that “a leading Asian human rights activist has urged the Federal Government to investigate a Queensland-based resources company and a prominent Australian geologist over mining deals with North Korea that he believes may breach United Nations sanctions”. (http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2014/s4061381.htm)

The report looked at a project by the firm SRE Minerals to develop rare earth mines in North Korea. The prominent geologist in question is Brisbane based scientist Louis Schurmann. This scheme has come under attack from Japanese activist Ken Kato, head of an organisation known in English as “Human Rights in Asia”, and in Japanese as the “Asian Investigation Organization” (Ajia Chosa Kiko). Kato, as PM reported, has lodged a complaint with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, stating that Schurmann’s activities may be in breach of UN sanctions because “rare earths are an indispensable material for guided missiles”.

The activities of SRE Minerals in North Korea should certainly be discussed in the public realm. If this project is likely to contribute to North Korea’s missile program, it is clearly an international problem. On the other hand, UN sanctions do not ban all economic contact with North Korea. Further information and debate is needed to determine the rights and wrongs of this project.

But that debate must also include a careful look at the background of Ken Kato’s “Human Rights in Asia”. This is not (as one might assume from its English title) a broad based major human rights organisation, but rather a body that targets virtually all its criticism at North Korea, with an occasional barb at China. Kato describes himself on his blog, not as a “leading human rights activist” but as a “conservative lobbyist” (hoshukei robi katsudoka), which is clearly what he is. (see http://kenkato.blog.jp/)

His organisation exists in the space that emerged following the 2002 revelation that a number of Japanese citizens had been kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Five of these victims have returned to Japan, but an uncertain number – at least eight and almost certainly more – have never returned. North Korea officially claims that they all died, but negotiations between the Japanese and North Korean governments are now underway, and it seems likely that further revelations about the fate of the remaining abductees may come to light in the coming months, and that some may still be alive in North Korea.

Meanwhile, various groups have emerged in Japan claiming that hundreds of other Japanese missing people were in fact abducted by North Korea, and that Japan must force the DPRK to return them all. Kato’s group is one of these. For the past several years it has been conducting an campaign to “strangle” North Korea until it “spits out” the hundreds of abductees whom Kato believes it is still holding. The campaign involves persuading the group’s members to lobby organisations and foreign governments which, it thinks, are engaged in any activities from which North Korea might earn foreign currency. An article appearing on the Internet under Kato’s name states that the only way to deal with North Korea is to confront its leader with a choice between “being killed in a coup d’etat or returning the abduction victims”. (http://kakutatakaheri.blog73.fc2.com/blog-date-201203.html)

The activities of “Human Rights in Asia” are not exclusively focused on North Korea. For example, in 2011, under the heading “Save our Sacred Territory”, Kato appealed to his readers to send messages to the New York Times condemning it for publishing an opinion piece in which a commentator (who was otherwise very critical of China) expressed the personal view that China has a viable claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Now, under the heading “We Did It! A Huge Step Forward”, his blog is proclaiming vitory in its Australian campaign.

The issue of human rights in North Korea is an enormously important one – too important to let it become entangled in such messy nationalist politics. We need a careful and calm debate about the rights and wrongs of economic engagement with North Korea, not a campaign initiated and dominated by self-proclaimed conservative lobbyists.


Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific Japanese history professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow.

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