Harm in the Hermit Kingdom

UN Rights Commission: grave violations of human rights in North Korea

North Korean soldiers / AP
North Korean soldiers / AP
January 24, 2014

North Korea’s communist government is guilty of "grave violations" of fundamental human rights against its people, according to the head of a United Nations special human rights commission.

Michael Kirby, an Australian judge who is now the chairman of the UN human rights investigation of North Korea, said the inquiry was hampered by a lack of access to North Korea and China. Both nations’ governments refused to permit commissioners to visit.

Still, the testimony of scores of witnesses has painted a grim picture of cruelty and abuses for North Koreans facing widespread starvation, government torture, and generational imprisonment in concentration camps.

"My impression is very comfortably to a high level of satisfaction, that grave violations of human rights have been proved and will be demonstrated, when we ultimately analyze all of the testimony," Kirby said in a recent interview, noting that the conclusions are based on witnesses who "appear to be trustworthy and honest and courageous."

Those crimes included forced starvation, imprisonment in death camps, torture, rape, and other human rights violations under the totalitarian state.

Kirby said his long experience as a jurist who dealt with murders and other crimes did not prepare him for the heart-wrenching testimony from witnesses to the horrible conditions in North Korea under the current regime of Kim Jong Un and earlier under his father, Kim Jong Il.

"Well in my own country, I was a judge for 34 years and I thought I was beyond tears," Kirby said in an interview with the Free Beacon. "Just seeing the huge stress suffered by people who complain about violations of their human rights or about the loss of their children, their loved ones, is rather more searing than even the testimony of a horrible murder."

Kirby is chairman of the panel whose formal name is the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For the past year, the commission has been interviewing some of the 23,000 North Korean defectors in Asia, North America, and Europe who have testified to the abuses committed by the North Korean regime.

The commission is currently concluding its work and will soon issue a final report. Other commissioners include Sonja Biserko and Marzuki Darusman, a special rapporteur on North Korean human rights.

According to the UN, the commission has been investigating reports of human rights abuses that include forced starvation, torture, inhuman treatment; arbitrary detention; discrimination; freedom of expression, movement and religion; the right to life; and enforced disappearances, including abductions of nationals to other countries.

Among some of the disclosures uncovered by the commission are:

  •  A film smuggled out of North Korea reveals that many of North Korea’s 1.2 million soldiers are "seriously malnourished."
  • Nearly 30 percent of North Koreans suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition.
  • The wife of a South Korean solider who was taken prisoner during the Korean War testified how she wants to learn the fate of her husband, who if he were still alive would be 81.
  • A woman who escaped to China recalled how her young brother and grandmother in North Korea starved to death.

Kirby said the commission investigated the status of North Korea’s numerous concentration camps, including the fate of one camp near the Chinese border that once housed some 20,000 prisoners.

As part of the commission inquiry, the U.S. intelligence community was asked to provide satellite imagery to try and determine the fate of the prisoners.

"In order that we can have the best possible access that jumps the border," Kirby said of the imagery. "You can’t close your border today to the world community. You can pull up the draw bridge, close the gate, but the world can go in, through satellites and it can tap the testimony of brave people who have recently been in, you can share that with the whole international community."

A U.S. official confirmed that spy satellites were assisting in the UN investigation.

Greg Scarlatoiu, head of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said sources inside North Korea said that as many as 23,000 prisoners at the closed facility, known as Camp 22, in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, died during the transfer to other camps.

Scarlatoiu said the camp was closed by North Korea because it was close to China and there were concerns by the Pyongyang regime that inmates would escape to China and reveal details about the harsh life inside.

"If 23,000 prisoners died while being moved from the camp, that’s an atrocity," Scarlatoiu said in an interview.

North Korea also appears to be consolidating and increasing the numbers of prisoners at several other camps, he said.

Kirby said that under current leader Kim Jong Un, additional barbed wire and fencing was added along the North Korean border with China to stem the flow of defectors.

Kirby would not say if the commission would conclude that North Korea is guilty of more serious crimes against humanity.

"Our mandate requires us to report on accountability," Kirby said. "Accountability means accountability of identifiable people, who are still alive, for crimes that have been committed against international law. Some of those crimes are crimes against humanity, and therefore we are obliged by our mandate to consider and respond to that,"

Both North Korea and China, fraternal communist allies, refused to allow the commission to visit those countries, despite repeated appeals from the UN to do so.

Kirby said he is hopeful that a more permanent UN group can be set up to continue monitoring the human rights situation in North Korea after the commission completes its work.

"There may be a need for a human rights mechanism to be placed somewhere in the region close to North Korea," he said. "Not only to monitor the reports, but also to collect the stories and the documents."

Similar work was done in Cambodia as part of an earlier investigation into the killing fields of that country, he said.