Something amazing occurred in Geneva today. For the first time in the history of North Korea’s three-generation totalitarian rule, a U.N. body acknowledged the regime’s massive abuses and invoked U.N.
members’ obligations to address them.
The U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution urging North Korea’s human rights crisis be taken up at the U.N. Security Council and referred “to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism,”
which could include the International Criminal Court in the Hague or an ad hoc international tribunal.
The U.N. body’s resolution comes in response to the release of a special report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry for
North Korea, which was tasked by the Human Rights Council a year ago with investigating crimes against humanity in North Korea and making recommendations
for justice and action. The chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, Australian jurist Michael Kirby, delivered the commission’s
devastating final report to the Human Rights Council on March 17, detailing massive past and ongoing abuses by the regime.
Abuses documented include summary executions, enslavement, rape, forced abortions, abductions and disappearances, and intentional starvation. The report describes
a “systematic, widespread attack against all populations … who pose a threat to the political system” via a system of prison
camps, collective punishments, and executions – a penal system that exploits and kills. The crimes committed, the report
states, collectively amount to
“extermination,” a crime against humanity.
Accounts in the report are chilling. A former guard tells the commission that camp inmates “are not treated like human
beings. They are never meant to be released … their record is permanently erased. They are supposed to die in the camp from hard labor. And we were trained to think that those inmates are enemies. So
we didn’t perceive them as human beings.”
Another prisoner described being forced to dispose of more than 300 bodies during his time at a camp, and how authorities once
bulldozed a hill formerly used to bury dead prisoners, to turn it into a corn field: “As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still some still stockinged, rolled in waves
before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of friends vomited…. The guards then
hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface.”
The report describes camp prisoners, which included children and even babies born to
prisoners, only surviving “by hunting and gathering insects, rodents and wild plants”
or finding ways to divert food meant for guards. “The babies had bloated stomachs. We cooked snakes and mice to
feed these babies and if there was a day that we were able to have a mouse, this was a special diet for us. We had to eat
everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground. Any grass that grew in the
field, we had to eat.”
In presenting the report, the commission noted that the “gravity, scale and nature of
violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
Justice Kirby has compared the severity of abuses to those committed by Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, invoking the well-known international slogan “never again.”
The European Union, along with other council members including Botswana, Canada and Albania, have already decided to endorse the Kirby report’s recommendations, and together support efforts to have the Security Council refer North Korea to the ICC. The question now is whether other members of the international community – in particular the United States, Japan, and South Korea –
will agree to prioritize this effort.
Also read North Korea’s Rogue Leadership.