World must act on North Korea rights abuse, says UN report

The international community must act on evidence of widespread crimes against humanity in North Korea, say the authors of a long-awaited UN report.

A panel of experts mandated by the UN’s Human Rights Council said North Koreans had suffered “unspeakable atrocities”, and that those responsible, including leader Kim Jong-un, must face justice.

The panel heard evidence of torture, political repression and other crimes.

Pyongyang refused to co-operate with the report and rejects its conclusions.

Testimony given to the panel from defectors included an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.

The UN commission said leader Kim Jong-un had failed to respond to an advance copy of the report, and a letter which warned him he could be held personally responsible for abuses.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the independent Commission of Inquiry, said the report “calls for attention from the international community”.

 South Korean protesters burn anti-North Korea placards during a  protest marking Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16

The North’s leaders are frequent targets of angry protests in the South

“At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’,” he said.

“Well, now the international community does know… There will be no excusing of failure of action because we didn’t know.”

“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well this is a time for action.”

‘Unspeakable atrocities’

The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says the report is one of the most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations.

It says that the “gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

The report says that in North Korea:

  • there is “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in North Korea
  • “entrenched patterns of discrimination”, rooted in the state-assigned class system, affect every part of life
  • discrimination against women is “pervasive in all aspects of society”
  • the state “has used food as a means of control over the population” and deliberately blocked aid for ideological reasons, causing the deaths of “hundreds of thousands” of people
  • “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners” have died in “unspeakable atrocities” in prison camps in the past 50 years
  • security forces “systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear”

“In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity,” says the report.

 Crowds bow to the statues of North Korea's late leader Kim Jong-il, right, and his father Kim Il-sung near Pyongyang, Feb. 16

North Koreans pose for family pictures in front of a portrait of the late leader Kim Jong Il during a flower exhibition in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, Feb. 16

“These are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded.”

It says the UN “must ensure that those most responsible for the crimes against humanity” are held accountable, through a referral to the International Criminal Court, or a UN tribunal.

The UN should also adopt targeted sanctions “against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity” and increase its monitoring of rights abuses in North Korea.

North Korea declined to participate in the panel’s investigation, and said it “categorically and totally rejects” the findings.

Its response came in a two-page statement sent to Reuters from its diplomatic mission in Geneva.

“The DPRK [North Korea] once again makes it clear that the ‘human rights violations’ mentioned in the so-called ‘report’ do not exist in our country.”

Mr Kirby said there was “a very good way to answer the many charges and complaints – and that is to allow the door to be opened” to the international community so they could see the situation for themselves.

 Streets of Pyongyang

Kim Jong-un

Since Kim Jong-un took over, his regime has threatened nuclear war and conducted a deadly purge

Although this information has been in the public domain for years, the panel’s inquiry is the highest-profile international attempt to investigate the claims.

Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who has campaigned to stop crimes against humanity in North Korea, said the report “puts a huge burden on the United Nations to then take the next set of steps”.

“And so the real question now is, what next?”

China, North Korea’s only ally, would be likely to block any attempt to refer the North to the International Criminal Court.

And an ad-hoc tribunal, like those set up for Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Cambodia, would appear unlikely without co-operation from elements within the country.

The panel will formally present its findings next month, when the Human Rights Council will decide which recommendations to support.