North Korea has been in the news again sporadically in recent months for a variety of reasons – speculation over Kim Jong Un’s health and weight loss, reports of starvation, COVID-19, and most recently a warning from the regime against South Korean cultural influences.
But earlier this week, a new report was published that reminds us of the most serious issue of all besides the regime’s nuclear program: its atrocious human rights record.
Seven years ago, a Commission of Inquiry established by the United Nations and brilliantly chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby concluded that Kim’s regime is committing crimes against humanity, the “gravity, scale and nature” of which “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The U.N. report documented a catalogue of atrocities including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions,” as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation. All of this should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In the past seven years, the international community has done almost nothing in response. The U.N. established a Field Office in Seoul to continue to document the crimes committed by the regime in Pyongyang, and a few discussions were held at the Security Council, but otherwise Kirby’s report was put on a shelf to gather dust.
This year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea in the British Parliament decided to shake the dust off the U.N.’s report, and investigate what has happened since 2014. The group, founded by Lord Alton of Liverpool in 2004 and currently chaired by Fiona Bruce, conducted an inquiry intended to follow-on from the U.N.’s investigation.
Its report, released this week at an event addressed by Kirby, is damning. Its major conclusion is that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in the country. Most of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations have not been implemented and there is clear evidence of continued killings, torture, sexual violence, slavery, and religious persecution.
It confirms that these continued atrocities amount to crimes against humanity, and it goes further, suggesting that “there are reasons to believe that some of the atrocities reach the threshold of genocide.” This is a big claim, one that the U.N. inquiry stopped short of making, although it left a question mark hanging over the issue. The APPG believes the targeting of three groups in particular – Christians, half-Chinese children, and the so-called “hostile” class in North Korea – might reach the definition of genocide, the crime of crimes that requires proof of intent to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
The testimonies in the report are all-too chillingly familiar for anyone who has followed North Korea for any length of time. But the brutality and inhumanity described is no less shocking. The report quotes the International Bar Association’s 2017 report, which described a prisoner who “was raped by a security officer, after which the officer stuck a wooden stick inside her vagina and beat her lower body, resulting in her death within a week of the rape.” In another case a female prisoner was raped and impregnated by a prison officer. “When the woman gave birth, she was taken to the punishment block, and her newborn baby was fed to prison guard dogs.”
Christians are especially singled out for the worst treatment. Possessing a Bible means certain incarceration in a prison camp and the most severe forms of torture, while those who are caught sharing their faith face execution.
Half-Chinese children also appear to be particularly targeted. North Korean woman who are trafficked to China and become pregnant by Chinese men would be subjected to forced abortion upon return to North Korea. There are even allegations of infanticide of half-Chinese children, according to the APPG inquiry. “There are strong suggestions that no half-Chinese children are permitted to live,” the report claims.
North Korean society is divided by the regime into multiple political classes: “loyal,” “wavering,” and “hostile.” Anyone with a religious background, lineage connected with South Korea, or a wealthy ancestry is categorized from birth as disloyal to the regime and therefore in the “hostile” class, automatically consigning them to a lifetime of discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, access to food, and other opportunities.
Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London who defected in 2016 and is now an elected member of the South Korean National Assembly, told the inquiry that under Kim Jong Un, the human rights situation is “getting worse.” Frequent purges of the elite have created “an unpredictable atmosphere” in the regime, Thae said.
The APPG sets out a range of recommendations in its report, aimed primarily at the United Kingdom but relevant for all like-minded democracies. It argues that the United Kingdom must “re-engage” on the human rights questions in North Korea “using all available avenues,” work with the new U.S. administration and other allies to push for renewed attention on North Korea’s human rights crisis at the U.N. Security Council, and revisit the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation to establish a “human rights contact group” for North Korea to ensure coordination and dialogue between concerned states.
Options for accountability for crimes against humanity must be reviewed, including the possibility of the referral to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad-hoc tribunal. States should consider exercising universal jurisdiction, and action at the International Court of Justice for North Korea’s breaches of the Geneva Convention should be an option.
Work toward transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation should be supported, and targeted sanctions continued and strengthened. Humanitarian assistance should be coordinated to ensure it reaches those who need it in North Korea, and survivors of sex trafficking and sexual violence should receive support in the country where they are found, and given protection and assistance, including asylum, where needed.
This report does a great service in bringing us up to date on the human rights crisis in North Korea, and in providing us all with a wake-up call: nothing has changed, little has been done, and there is much, much more to do. In a world full of many problems today, there can be few issues more grave and more deserving of our attention than the plight of North Korea’s 25 million inhabitants. This report has blown the dust off the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry report. Let us not permit the dust to gather again on either – let both reports serve as manuals for action.