One cheer for Turtle Bay for stating the blindingly obvious, where concerns over human rights usually takes the form of exclusively bashing Israel. The United Nations committee investigating North Korea condemned the Kim Jong-un regime in unusually blunt and blistering terms, blasting the police state as without “any parallel in the contemporary world,” and called for the regime to face charges in the International Criminal Court:
“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the leaders of North Korea against their own people, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared Monday in a report that goes on to accuse that nation’s communist regime of “crimes against humanity.”
According to the U.N. investigators, “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” They conclude, for example, that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished” in prison camps over the past five decades.
The High Commissioner’s report calls on the U.N. Security Council to “refer the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court.”
“The United Nations must ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are held accountable,” the report concludes.
Strong words, and surprising in the context of international diplomacy. Perhaps one reason for the language is the fact that this came from a commission of inquiry rather than the standing Human Rights Council, which usually wastes its time on Israel while its own members conduct some of the same human-rights violations that the DPRK does. This commission bypassed the HRC, and in one way stands as a stunning indictment of that commission’s focus and work. After all, where has the HRC been on North Korea all these decades?
The press release for the report summarizes the horrors the special commission of inquiry found, but which will surprise no one:
The report noted that the DPRK consists of a rigidly stratified society with entrenched patterns of discrimination. Discrimination is rooted in the songbun system, which classifies people on the basis of State-assigned social class and birth, and also includes consideration of political opinions and religion, and determines where they live, work, study and even whom they may marry.
Violations of the freedom of movement and residence are also heavily driven by discrimination based on songbun. Those considered politically loyal to the leadership can live and work in favourable locations, such as Pyongyang. Others are relegated to a lower status. For example, the distribution of food has prioritised those deemed useful to the survival of the current political system at the expense of others who are “expendable.”
“Confiscation and dispossession of food from those in need, and the provision of food to other groups, follow this logic,” the report notes, adding that “the State has consistently failed in its obligation to use the maximum of its available resources to feed those who are hungry.”
Military spending – predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme – has always been prioritised, even during periods of mass starvation, the report says. The State also maintains a system of inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation that inevitably produces more avoidable starvation among its citizens.
Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and forced sex work outside the DPRK. Many take the risk of fleeing, mainly to China, despite the high chance that they will be apprehended and forcibly repatriated, then subjected to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases sexual violence. “Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed,” the report states.
The Commission urged all States to respect the principle of non-refoulement (i.e. not to forcibly return refugees to their home country) and to adopt a victim-centric and human rights-based approach to trafficking, including by providing victims with the right to stay in the country and access to legal protection and basic services.
“Crimes against humanity have been, and are being, committed against starving populations. These crimes are sourced in decisions and policies violating the universal human right to food. They were taken for purposes of sustaining the present political system, in full awareness that they would exacerbate starvation and contribute to related deaths.”
The Commission also found that, since 1950, the “State’s violence has been externalized through State-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations. These international enforced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.”
Sounds like great fodder for the ICC, but there’s just one problem: North Korea is not a participant in the ICC, which therefore has no jurisdiction over it. (Neither is the US, due to concerns about exploiting the ICC to target our peacekeeping troops.) The Kim regime in Pyongyang barely recognizes the UN at all, let alone the ICC.
This amounts to little more than a strongly-worded memo. The only way to enforce this would be at the point of a gun, and no one wants another war on the Korean peninsula. At best, it puts more pressure on China to squeeze its client in Pyongyang for more reforms, but don’t expect that to bear much fruit. The only way this regime collapses is from the inside, and the window on that possibility is closing while Kim continues to consolidate power in the family tradition of killing other members of the family.