To Try or Not to Try: Human Rights Edition

“There’s not a lot of interest in or knowledge about human rights issues in North Korea. The problems which are described in the evidence are known vaguely by the international community but there is not the engagement with them.”                                                 –Justice Michael Kirby

Australian judge Michael Kirby chairs the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, UN’s first human rights investigation into North Korea. Formed in March of this year, the inquiry consists of Justice Kirby, Marzuki Darusman (UN special rapporteur on North Korea), and Sonja Biserko of Serbia. So far, the panel interviewed witnesses in South Korea, Japan, and U.K.; the panel is hearing accounts from North Korean defectors living in the U.S. starting today. The final report will be submitted to the UN in March 2014.

North Korea is not a member nation that formed the ICC. However, the UN Security Council can request investigation into non-signatories. The ICC is also looking to extend its remit in order to try those who are responsible for human rights abuse in North Korea. Pyongyang dismissed the inquiry as a “political plot” to overturn its leadership and refused to provide an account or allow entry for the inquiry.

The inquiry arrived amidst the whirlwind that is the year 2013—nuclear bomb threats, potential missile attacks, revived nuclear reactor, petroleum sale from the Middle East, huge potential for cyber warfare. For human rights watch, the year 2013 marks the reversal of a steady increase trend in North Korean refugees since 1998. This is likely attributed to recently tightened border control and increased instances of refoulement—in 2011, there were a total of 2706 refugees, 1509 in 2012, and 1041 in the nine months of 2013. Disregarding the international law principle of non-refoulement, (where states have an obligation not to return asylum seekers or refugees to a place where their life or liberty would be at risk) China has denied access for North Korean refugees under the pretenses that they are “economic migrants.” Not surprisingly, China remains North Korea’s biggest backer, along with Syria and Belarus.

What are some particular witness accounts?

Kim Song Ju, a North Korean defector who spent time in a detention camp, remembered how the prison guards told them, “once you get to this prison you’re not human, you’re just like animals.” This is made evident as prisoners were made to crawl through a 20-inch-tall cell door, along with being starved and abused by the guards.

Women who were returned from abroad are routinely checked for pregnancy in case the father of the child is a foreigner. One mother was forced to drown her newborn in a bucket because the prison guards suspected the father was Chinese. The racial purity element is particularly resonant to atrocities affiliated with World War II. 

Human rights violations in North Korea are occurring everyday—perhaps it goes unnoticed and is comparatively “under the radar” to what is happening in Syria and Burma—but nonetheless it is strikingly real, and perhaps more people should recognize the irony in how North Korea declared Switzerland’s refusal to sell ski lifts “a serious human rights abuse.”

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