Documenting North Korea’s Human Rights Violations


While it is widely believed that North Korea has engaged in atrocious human rights violations for many years, the details and scope of this abuse have been hazy due to state monitoring of foreign visitors and laws preventing natives from leaving. Most knowledge of the human rights situation in North Korea comes from the few refugees that have managed to escape, resulting in a poorly documented and unaggregated series of accounts.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, a three-person panel assisted by nine human rights investigators, has attempted to change that. This week, it published a 400-page report detailing and documenting abuses of human rights in North Korea, based on the testimonies of over 320 witnesses in public hearings and private interviews. Although the commission was not allowed to enter North Korea, it interviewed North Korean escapees in South Korea, Japan, the UK, and US with firsthand experience of the atrocities.

It found overwhelming evidence of crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, arbitrary imprisonment, deliberate starvation, and suppression of free thought. The report concluded with a grave statement: “Systematic, widespread, and gross human-rights violations have been and are being committed by [North Korea], its institutions and officials. The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have a parallel in the contemporary world.”

Only historical comparisons can be made of the human rights situation in North Korea. In a press conference following the release of the report, Michael Kirby, head of the three-person special commission, said the North Korean atrocities were “strikingly similar” to those committed in Nazi Germany. He cited the account of a prison inmate in North Korea who was forced to burn starved bodies and use the remains as fertilizer. Another witness, according to the report, spoke of forced abortions of babies (unanesthetized and sometimes including rusty instruments and beatings) that might have had Chinese fathers, evoking Nazi-like doctrines of racial purity.

Kirby stated that the newfound information published in this report demands the international community to act immediately: “There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know.” Kirby said that hundreds of North Korean officials could potentially be tried.

The Commission of Inquiry has encouraged the UN to refer North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Kirby has even personally written a letter to Kim Jong-Un warning him of the potential trial. Although North Korea is not a signatory to the treaty establishing the ICC, the UN Security Council can extend the court’s reach in exceptional cases. Unfortunately, China, a P5 member of the Security Council with veto power, has already said it would not allow human rights charges to make it to the ICC. China has been criticized for sending back North Koreans who have fled the country despite potential mistreatment and detention upon return, a violation of refugee law.

Although it is unlikely the case will ever reach the ICC, if it does, it could be an opportunity for the relatively new court (founded in 2002) to establish its legitimacy and teeth. Even if it doesn’t, this report is a vast improvement on the previous bank of knowledge on human rights violations in North Korea and will ultimately make for more informed decisions in both international and national policy toward the country.

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