A United Nations human rights inquiry has concluded that the brutality of the North Korean government “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” After detailing the multitude of crimes committed by the regime against its own people, the panel said that it would refer its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution and warned North Korean leader Kim Jung Un that he could be tried for crimes against humanity.
That assessment is long overdue: The crimes and abuses of the Pyongyang government are well known; the only thing that has been missing is official acknowledgement of them.
Sadly little will come of this path-breaking report: China has objected to its content and conclusions, and will likely veto its consideration by the United Nations Security Council.
In May 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council created a three-member panel to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea. Chaired by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, the commission held public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington, where it heard first-person accounts from dozens of victims and witnesses, and took private testimony from several hundred others.
Predictably, the commission was not allowed into North Korea. Nor was it able to visit parts of China that border North Korea or even Beijing to talk to experts and officials.
Nevertheless, the panel’s work went on, culminating in a damning 400-page report released last week. In it, the Commission of Inquiry concluded that North Korea “does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule by a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.”
Widespread and systematic human rights abuses that include starvation, torture and execution “shock the conscience of humanity,” wrote Kirby. The commission provides detailed descriptions of the political and security apparatus of the state that is used to “terrorize the population into submission.” While the report does not accuse the regime of genocide, it did charge it with crimes of “extermination,” murder, enslavement, torture, rape and persecution because of victims’ race, religion and gender.
The report also acknowledged the abduction of foreign citizens from Japan and South Korea, acts that are “unique in their intensity, scale and nature.” It said that, since 1950, the “State’s violence has been externalized through State-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations. These international enforced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.”
The commission concluded that the abuses perpetrated by the Pyongyang government were not excesses, but rather “essential components” of the state and were committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.”
“The suffering and tears of the people of North Korea demand action,” said Kirby at the release of the report. The panel believes that an international tribunal — either one already in existence like the ICC or an ad hoc institution such as those convened to investigate crimes in the Balkans and Rwanda — should be established to hold the North Korean leadership responsible for the crimes it has committed.
That is unlikely. While the report was applauded by human rights activists around the world, and its conclusions were supported by governments from Seoul to London, the government of North Korea rejected the work “categorically and totally,” calling it “an instrument of political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system by defaming the dignified images of the DPRK and creating an atmosphere of international pressure under the pretext of ‘human rights protection.’ “
More significant, perhaps, is China’s rejection of the commission’s work. As always, the Beijing government refuses to countenance any intervention in the sovereign affairs of another country, and certainly not one with which it has such a long and close relationship.
Chinese officials continue to insist — against all evidence — that “constructive dialogue and cooperation” are the means to deal even with habitual, systemic human rights offenders like North Korea.
That Chinese policy, in particular the forcible repatriation of North Koreans fleeing the regime, ultimately supports the Pyongyang government, making Beijing complicit in its abuses.
There can be important progress even without forwarding an indictment to the ICC or some other tribunal.
The report calls for the creation of a structure within the Human Rights Council to collect and keep evidence of human rights violations. That mandate would keep international attention focused on North Korea and remind its leadership — and others — that their actions have consequences and that they do not enjoy impunity.
The most valuable contribution this report can make is exposing the enormity of North Korean crimes and demonstrating that this is a systemic problem of horrific proportions.
It puts the regime’s abuses on the record, forcing their recognition by the international community. It will instill hope in human rights supporters that their work counts and provide some small solace to victims of the barbaric regime that their suffering was not in vain.
The burden is now on the rest of the world to maintain its vigilance, to not be cowed by China and to maintain pressure on the Pyongyang government to make meaningful reform. Japan should take a leading role in such efforts.