Shin Dong-hyuk was 14 in 1996 when prison guards suspended him from the ceiling of an underground torture chamber by his hands and legs, all because his mother and brother had tried to escape. The flames of a charcoal fire scorched his back; a steel hook pierced the flesh of his groin; he lost consciousness.
Shin is the only known inmate to have escaped from one of North Korea’s top-security prison camps, where he had lived since birth (his parents were among the few granted conjugal rights).
He escaped by clambering over a would-be escapee whose dead body provided a safe channel through an electrified wire fence. He was 23 when he first glimpsed the world outside.
Shin’s terrible story is told in a new book by the journalist Blaine Harden, “Escape from Camp 14.” It describes the atrocities he witnessed in detention — the executions of his own mother (hanging) and brother (shooting) and the fatal beating of a nine-year-old girl — as well as his own tortures and struggle for survival.
Like many of the 200,000 prisoners of the North Korean political prison camps, Shin was not incarcerated for anything he did. His uncles had allegedly collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War.
Shin fell afoul of North Korea’s “guilt-by-association” law, which allows for the collective punishment of as many as three generations of the family of a “political enemy.” Some inmates — like Shin — are actually born in the prison camps, to live and die in captivity with no prospect of release.
For decades, international human rights groups and the United Nations have documented these abuses. The current U.N. special rapporteur for North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, has described the humanitarian situation in North Korea as “dire” and has reported an “absence of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights” for the people of North Korea.
Although the U.N. Security Council may ignore its special rapporteurs, it would be much harder for it to do nothing if faced with the conclusions of a formal commission of inquiry. Several of the international criminal tribunals were preceded by such commissions. Could such a commission work for North Korea and force the United Nations to act?
Even if North Korea continues its blanket denials and refuses to cooperate, the evidence is available. Among authoritative works built on the accounts of former detainees is a 2003 report, “The Hidden Gulag,” by David Hawk. It published striking satellite imagery of the political prison camps showing fencing punctuated by guard towers at the outer perimeters. A second edition was released a few weeks ago.
North Korea itself will not engage in any public process — trial or truth commission — that could expose what it has done. But its leaders are not blind to the effect that threatened or actual judicial intervention has had in the Balkans, Rwanda, Cambodia and most recently Libya. Leaders indicted by a tribunal become prisoners in their own state and pariahs outside it.
The power to get something done now lies with the U.N. Security Council. Because North Korea has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, prosecution in that court can only be started by a Security Council resolution.
A U.N.-sanctioned commission of inquiry is the goal of more than 40 organizations that have joined to form the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.
The coalition includes some of the world’s foremost human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights among them — and groups from a wide range of countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia, Peru, Belgium and Canada.
The situation in North Korea is a clarion call for the Security Council and other U.N. members to show courage in a case of political complexity. There can be few places in the world where the human rights situation is more egregious and yet more overlooked than North Korea.
Geoffrey Nice was the chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, and William Schabas, is professor of international law at Middlesex University, London.