The assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur airport two weeks ago is a reminder of the depravity and barbarity of his half-brother, North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, and the world’s most closed, and most cruel, dictatorship. That he was murdered was not a surprise – it was well-known that Kim Jong-nam was a marked man and attempts had been made before. After Kim Jong-un killed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in late-2013 it was recognized that he would stop at nothing to eliminate perceived threats to his power, even his own relatives. But that Kim Jong-nam was killed so publicly, in an airport, using female assassins and a highly toxic nerve agent, known as VX, is brazen in the extreme. The United Nations classifies VX as a weapon of mass destruction.
It is still difficult to know whether the assassination was specifically timed for a particular political reason, or whether it was opportunistic, taking advantage of Kim Jong-nam’s particular vulnerability at that moment. But that it was ordered by Pyongyang is hardly in doubt now – the behavior of North Korean officials since the murder suggests their involvement. The desperate attempts to have the corpse returned to North Korea before any autopsy, the diplomatic row that ensued with Malaysia, and the attempted break-in at the morgue all point to efforts at a cover up by this criminal regime. Lashing out not only at Malaysia, but at China – North Korea’s only protector in the world – points to a regime that is not only inhumane but increasingly unstable. To accuse China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” seems extraordinarily imprudent when it is only China – and perhaps Russia – that stand between the regime’s current impunity for crimes against humanity and prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
Three years ago, the United Nations published one of the most detailed and damning reports on North Korea’s appalling human rights record. A Commission of Inquiry, established by the UN and chaired by the distinguished Australian judge Michael Kirby, conducted a series of public hearings with at least 80 witnesses, as well as more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses, and concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” A catalogue of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions,” as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The “unspeakable atrocities” faced by up to 120,000 prisoners in the country’s system of prison camps “resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.” No official or institution is held accountable, the inquiry concluded, because “impunity reigns.”
The UN’s findings confirm what human rights organizations have been reporting for years. In 2007 Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published a report, “North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act,” which documented very similar abuses and reached the same conclusions. Last year, CSW released a new report specifically on abuses of freedom of religion or belief, titled “Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea,” which concludes that there is no freedom of religion or belief at all – anyone in North Korea who admits to any belief other than absolute loyalty to the ruling Kim family faces life in a prison camp or sometimes execution. The ruling family is the only dictatorship in the world that is a dynasty portraying itself as a deity to be worshiped. More than any other contemporary tyrant, North Korea’s regime rules like a medieval monarchy.
The regime rules through fear and propaganda. An elaborate system of “guilt-by-association” means prisoners in labor camps are not only those who commit political misdemeanors such as listening to foreign radio or possessing a Bible but also their relatives. The songbun system of social classification determines basic needs such as access to education, health care, and food rations. If you are in the “core” or loyal class, the elite, you have opportunities, but if you are in the “wavering” or “hostile” classes you face a life of dire poverty. Class is determined at birth by family background, and if your family has any history of religious belief, association with South Korea, or political dissent you are an enemy of the state.
Children in North Korea are taught to hate South Koreans, Japanese, Americans and the “West” in general. A new report, “Forced to Hate: North Korea’s Education System,” published by a non-governmental organization established by escapees called People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE) in December, provides an analysis of textbooks in North Korean schools and shows how history is turned on its head in the classroom to instill in North Koreans at an early age total devotion to the Kim dynasty and hatred of their perceived enemies.
The assassination of Kim Jong-nam should be a wake-up call to the international community, including China, that the North Korean regime is not simply a pariah to be ridiculed, but a dangerous threat to the world. It should also remind us that human rights and security are two sides of the same coin – the way the regime treats its own people and the way it threatens its enemies should compel an equally urgent response.
The UN Commission of Inquiry report put forward a variety of recommendations three years ago. Some of its recommendations have been implemented. Others have sat on a shelf. The principal one, referral to the International Criminal Court, has stalled because China threatens to veto it at the Security Council if it is proposed. It is time now to reconsider ways to address impunity.
With China increasingly unhappy with the regime it has until now protected, efforts should be made to persuade them to consider not using a veto and to allow a resolution referring Kim Jong-un to the ICC. If that fails, serious consideration should be given to other international justice mechanisms that could be used.
Last month a UN Group of Independent Experts, set up to explore approaches to accountability, proposed an ad hoc tribunal if an ICC referral proves impossible. “Investigation and prosecution of serious crimes is critical,” they argue. New UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana supports their call, urging the international community “to ensure that serious human rights violations, especially those amounting to crimes against humanity, do not go unpunished.” He called on the UN to implement the recommendations of the group of independent experts “without delay, ensuring that perpetrators of gross violations are held responsible and supporting all victims in their quest for truth and justice.”
There is at the very least a need for North Korea’s human rights crisis to be brought to the agenda of the Security Council once again, and for a concerted effort by the international community to ensure that this gangster regime answers for its crimes. North Korea is not a curiosity to ignore, it is a danger to be confronted.
Jose Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former President of Timor-Leste. Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist working for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.