North Korea is in the news again for the same old reason — nuclear tests. The United Nations Security Council was right to pass a resolution; the world is right to be deeply concerned.
There is also another reason to take action on North Korea: It has possibly the worst human rights record in the world. In the world’s most oppressed nation, there is no freedom of speech or religion; in the world’s most closed nation, no freedom of information; in the world’s darkest nation, little light, politically, spiritually and even physically. If you look at a satellite map of the Korean Peninsula, the South is lit up brightly; the North, where electricity is almost as scarce as hope, the map is almost completely black.
North Korea is ruled by the only dictatorship that is both a dynasty and, in its own mind, a deity. An estimated 200,000 people are in dire condition in North Korea’s prison camps, or kwan-li-so. Extreme torture, sexual violence, slave labor, starvation and execution are commonplace.
Abuses are so widespread and severe that the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, described the country as “sui generis — in a category of its own.” He called on the United Nations to take up the case “at the pinnacle of the system” and urged the international community to “mobilize the totality of the U.N. to … support processes which concretize responsibility and an end to impunity.” Until very recently, his calls fell on deaf ears.
Momentum is now gathering pace, however, for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea. For the first time, factors favorable to achieving this have come together, providing a window of opportunity. But that window is narrow.
The current composition of the U.N. Human Rights Council means that such a proposal, at the approaching session in March, stands a good chance of being passed. So it is now a matter of leadership and initiative. A government, or a group of governments, most likely from Europe but with strong backing from Japan, South Korea and the United States, needs to respond to the challenge and put forward a recommendation.
Governments that choose to act can be confident that they have some very credible support. The current rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, has called explicitly for an investigation into “egregious” violations. Earlier this month, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said that one year after Kim Jong-un took over there is “almost no sign of improvement,” and argued that “an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst — but least understood and reported — human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue.”
The international legal expert William Schabas and the former chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic, Geoffrey Nice, support an investigation. In his Senate confirmation hearing, John Kerry, the nominee to be the next secretary of state, said the Obama administration should be more vocal on behalf of North Korean political prisoners.
Late last year, 179 North Korean escapees wrote to foreign ministers of many countries, urging them to establish a commission of inquiry. Over 40 human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have backed the idea. Legislators around the world have spoken out in favor. Most recently, Japan and Australia have joined calls for an inquiry. It is no longer a fringe issue.
Yet what would such an inquiry achieve? It is likely that North Korea would not cooperate, and very unlikely that if an inquiry recommended a referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council would take that step.
Even if it did, the fact that Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir still roams free despite a warrant for his arrest hardly instills confidence that action could be taken to hold Kim Jong-un to account.
Nevertheless, these are not arguments for inertia. Even if, as is likely, Pyongyang won’t play ball, there are thousands of escapees from North Korea who would give evidence. Investigators, who would be respected world experts acting with the full authority, credibility and resources of the U.N., could assemble and assess evidence.
Simply attaching the tag “crimes against humanity” — if that was the conclusion — might put pressure on Pyongyang to temper its behavior. A commission of inquiry would make recommendations for what the U.N. and the international community should do.
Some may argue that an investigation would threaten any lingering hope of dialogue. I disagree. I have long advocated critical engagement, rather than isolation, because our objective should be to prise open the world’s most closed nation, not turn the key in the lock. In 2010 I traveled with two British legislators to Pyongyang to talk to the regime about human rights.
But central to that dialogue must be concern for human rights. Just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan put concern for Soviet dissidents firmly on the table, the world today needs to look North Korea in the eye and challenge Pyongyang over its gulags. Critical engagement, investigation, information, and accountability go hand in hand.
A commission of inquiry would put North Korea’s horrific human rights record where it belongs — at the center of the international agenda.
It is time to shine a light on one of the darkest corners of the earth.
Benedict Rogers is the East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.