There has never been any doubt that disparity and poor living conditions have plagued the North Korean people, but the extent to which the world knew of such poor conditions has always been very slight due to the North Korean government’s secrecy, isolation, and reclusive nature. However those factors have finally been circumvented and a much larger (unfortunately horrific) insight has been granted to the international community, thanks to a report released by the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights.
The report is the result of over a year’s worth of investigation by the Commission of Inquiry panel, headed by Michael Kirby, and it includes testimony from over 300 North Koreans regarding the abuses by Kim Jong Un’s regime against the North Korean people. The panel has described its findings as “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations [that] have been and are being committed by [North Korea], its institutions and officials.” Kirby has even described the alleged abuses by the North Korean regime as being very similar to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II. As a result of these findings, the panel has recommended that Kim Jong Un and his regime be referred to the International Criminal Court via the United Nations Security Council.
The significance of this report and its release to the world cannot be overstated, especially considering the vast amounts of testimony that is included. Among the many testifiers was Kim Kwang-Il. He was caught smuggling pine nuts and was sentenced to a North Korean gulag (a system of harsh, often deadly labor camps prominent during the Soviet era) where he spent between two and three years of his six year sentence. He managed to escape to South Korea where he published a book about his endeavors, accompanied by drawings of various torture methods Kwang-Il was forced to endure along with the other North Korean citizens also detained there. His descriptions and portrayals of the various torture methods are nothing short of disturbing.
Here is an example from his testimony to the United Nations panel: “There is this torture that happens before you come to the prison camp. At the detention center, we are on our knees and there is a glass and we are supposed to be in the same position until the glass is filled [with sweat]. We are supposed to think there’s an imaginary motorcycle and we are supposed to be in this position as if we are riding the motorcycle… Everybody in the detention center goes through this kind of torture.” When reading Kwang-Il’s testimony and simultaneously looking at his sketches of the various torture methods, the realization of just how terrible and horrific conditions are in North Korea begins to manifest itself, and Kwang-Il is only one of hundreds of testifiers.
So what will become of this United Nations report? Will Kim Jong Un be forced to answer to the International Criminal Court for his, and all the past crimes and human rights violations against his own people? It is hard to say because there are number of factors to be considered. Perhaps the most important factor is that, as was previously mentioned, Kirby and his panel have recommended that the United Nations Security Council refer the issue to the International Criminal Court. This is important because North Korea’s only ally, China, is one of five permanent members of the Security Council and would likely veto any effort by the other four countries to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, not to mention the report has implicated China as defying an international obligation known as refoulement (expelling people that should be recognized as refugees from the country they are trying to escape to [in this case North Koreans trying to escape to China and being sent back to North Korea]). So already, Kirby’s panel’s major course of action (its recommendation to the Security Council) has hit a major roadblock, one which will undoubtedly lead to tensions between the world’s powers, but only time will tell.
There was a general mentality after World War II regarding the knowledge of the Nazi concentration camps, that if only the world had known exactly what atrocities were being committed by the Nazis, it could have addressed and acted on the situation sooner and prevented so much suffering. Using Nazi Germany as a comparison to any situation is extreme, but having it be used by someone of Kirby’s caliber to describe a report he oversaw for a year seems to be a pretty good indication of just how bad this North Korean situation really is. Furthermore, it will be very interesting to see how the world’s authorities react.
To think that such a human rights crisis could be ignored by the world is almost as bad as the actual crisis itself but such atrocities have gone on without being addressed or punished due to geopolitical complications (Syria could be argued to be a contemporary example). Nonetheless, these atrocities have happened and continue to, at least according to the 300 or so witnesses who testified about them, so hopefully there will be action taken to have North Korean answer in an international criminal court for what it is reportedly doing to its own people. Kirby sited something similar to the aforementioned Nazi analogy during his presentation of his panel’s findings and added: “There will be no excusing the failure of action because we didn’t know — we do know.”
Opinion By Taylor Schlacter