World Review | UN has to act on North Korea’s crimes against humanity

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UN has to act on North Korea’s crimes against humanity

UN has to act on North Korea’s crimes against humanity
Mr Justice Kirby's 400-page UN dossier details North Korea's crimes against humanity (photo: dpa)

TWO inextricably linked events are harbingers of significant change in North Korea, and they pose significant questions to the international community about how best to respond, writes Lord Alton.

The first was the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un and seen as the power behind the throne. His death, in December 2013, was a sign of Kim Jong-un’s ruthlessness, his weakness and fear.

Jang Song-thaek had to be killed because he had questioned an ideology which has paralysed economic development, incarcerated hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and conferred pariah status on North Korea. His execution was the most high profile of a succession of killings. It was symptomatic of a system which routinely murders and imprisons its own people, and which subjugates them through indoctrination and propaganda.

Two months later on February 17, 2014, comes the unprecedented publication of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report calling for North Korean leaders to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

The COI, after a year collecting evidence from North Korean escapees, compared the country’s egregious violations of human rights with those of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. It has called for the case to go to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Mr Justice Kirby, the Australian judge who chaired the Commission, gives graphic detail in a 400-page report of atrocities and crimes against humanity in North Korea.

‘These crimes entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.’

Judge Kirby says that North Korea’s leadership and its regime must be held to account and brought to justice.

The North Korean regime is reflected by executions, purges, a reign of terror, falsifying of history, show trials and a network of gulags which incarcerates between 200,000 and 300,000 people. An estimated 400,000 have died in prison camps in the last 30 years. There is an attempt to obliterate all political dissent and religious belief.

The free world now knows exactly what happens inside North Korea and the scale of brutality, thanks to this United Nations’ report.

The case against North Korea has been built on first-hand witness statements of North Koreans who escaped. Some 30,000 are now living in democratic countries and access to their testament has been a game-changer for the COI.

Part Two of the COI report relies heavily on these personal stories. It cites evidence given by individual victims and witnesses, including the harrowing treatment meted out to political prisoners, some of whom said they would catch snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies. Others told of watching family members being murdered in prison camps, and of defenceless inmates being used for martial arts practice.

It is now ten years since I urged the British Parliament to highlight human rights violations in North Korea with the same emphasis placed on security issues.

I have chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea in the House of Lords in the UK and felt frustrated that the world has pursued that dangerous option of doing nothing at all for the last 10 years.

The witness statements the COI has received tally with the eye-witness accounts given to my committee.

These stories are of religious persecution, lack of freedom of movement, lack of labour rights, non-implementation of legal codes, lack of a fair trial, lack of judicial oversight of detention facilities and severe mistreatment of repatriated persons - mainly repatriated from China.

A consistent picture emerged at the parliamentary committee hearings of appalling violence against women in detention facilities and chilling accounts of life in prisons and labour camps. The individual stories brought home the enormity of the suffering behind individual statistics. The COI report also brings many of these dark stories to light.

The COI says in its conclusions that ‘the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity. This raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community’.

It tells the international community that it ‘must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the Government of the DPRK has manifestly failed to do so’.

Observers say the Korean Diaspora - which includes three to four million Korean Americans - must take a more prominent role - as the Jewish community galvanised international opinion about life in the Soviet Gulags - and create a worldwide movement for change.

As it comes to consider the COI report, the United Nations Security Council - and especially China – has to decide what action to take on North Korea.

The United Nations deserves to be held in universal contempt if it now fails to show the necessary resolve to act on the findings of its own Commission of Inquiry.

Lord Alton

David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons (MP) in the United Kingdom for 18 years and is now an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher but, in 1972, was ...

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