GENEVA — The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea published a report detailing the horrific crimes against humanity committed by the regime against its own citizens. Australian Judge Michael Kirby, chair of the report, presented the 372-page document at a press conference in Geneva.
The “historic report” shed light on violations of a terrifying scale, the gravity and nature of which “do not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a press release.
Evidence for the report was meticulously amassed through testimonies of over 100 people, which included victims, witnesses, experts and revealing satellite imagery.
Kirby described that what astounded him most was the regime’s persistent denial that political prison camps exist, especially given the compelling testimony and validation furnished by international satellite images. He reiterated that the imagery provided by Google Earth displays what looks like prison camps, in the exact locations as described by the North Koreans who testified at the UN COI.
While the number of prisoners in the hidden gulags have decreased as a result of release or deaths, the Commission estimates some 80,000 to 120,000 remained imprisoned in four political prison camps (kwanliso). According to North Korean defectors, the camps consist of two areas. No one has ever been released from the total-control zones, where those who have committed serious crimes against the regime are imprisoned. It is commonplace for entire families to be imprisoned for political crimes committed by their relatives, simply because of guilt by association, and it is not unusual for entire families to be punished up to the third generation.
In ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso), the majority are imprisoned without trial and subjected to forced labor, starvation, torture and rape by guards or fellow prisoners. Such brutalities are committed with total impunity.
Those who are imprisoned in political camps, or have tried to escape the State or are Christians – they become the primary targets of attack – and are considered enemies of the State who challenge its political leadership. Much of the discrimination is the result of the classification of people based on the songbun.
The Commission described that crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated in North Korea “because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”
Chair Judge Kirby said “a country which so grossly abuses the human rights of its people is inevitably an unstable danger to its neighbors, the region and the world.”
“Because all lines of authority stop at the Supreme Leader in North Korea,” Kirby wrote to Kim Jong-un and forewarned him that he may have to face trial at The Hague for his responsibility in the crimes against humanity.
Kim Jong-Un is recognized by the regime as the head of the Korean Worker’s Party, the Korean Security Agency and the Politburo. His followers take notes of every word the Supreme Leader says. This is deemed in the “personality cult as gospel, so a great deal of the responsibility must lie with this person,” Kirby told reporters when clarifying COI’s standpoint.
“If you’re at the centre, then you have power to change things,” Kirby reiterated.
North Korea countered with a two-page statement written in English, and claimed the report was an “instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system” and defaming the country, according to Reuters.
The Commission also recommended that China and other states respect the principle of non-refoulement, stop deporting defectors back to North Korea, extend protection to those in need of asylum and allow them to have access to any consular and diplomatic representations willing to accord them nationality or any other forms of protection. It also urged that China legalize the status of North Korean women and men, who married or have a child with a Chinese citizen, with the rights to birth registration and Chinese nationality.
Kirby mentioned that while the UN has yet to make a final decision on the report regarding human rights in North Korea, it received compelling endorsements in the debates in the Human Rights Council in April. Thirteen out of the 15 members of the UN Security Council attended. Two of the permanent members, China and Russian Federation, were absent. Eleven made speeches and 10 out of 11 supported the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court.
The Australian judge does not think that Kim Jong-un would appear at The Hague voluntarily, but there are sufficient grounds to begin the indictment process on human rights violations, “some of them rising to the extremely serious level of crimes against humanity.” He added, “it is important and urgent to set that process in action.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized, “It is vitally important to maintain the momentum on addressing the serious violations that this remarkable report documents in such a comprehensive manner. The spotlight on human rights in the DPRK should not be dimmed as the news headlines fade away.”
As the numbers of Chinese mobile phones smuggled into the North are on the increase, Kirby believes that it is possible that some of the North Koreans may have read the report findings.
“I hope, now that the COI report has been translated into the Korean language, it will become increasingly available to the citizens of DPRK,” he said.