“The North Korean regime controls and monitors the usage of the very words. The concept is not even taught. I had never even heard of the term "human rights" when I was in North Korea.” - Shin Dong-Hyuk
The North Korean façade is under pressure. The leadership has been condemned for human rights abuses, and may be subject to proceedings by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for “crimes against humanity”. The findings of a United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry into systematic violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were released in February 2013 and attested to the scale and nature of human rights abuses that have ocurred. Michael D. Kriby, a commissioner in the Inquiry, stated that the abuses in North Korea were without “parallel in the contemporary world”. North Korea however, has flatly denied the commission’s findings and issued a counter-report, declaring that North Koreans “feel proud of the world’s most advantageous human rights system”.
In response to the recent developments, the North Korean representative to the United Nations called the condemnation "an insidious plot to destabilize the country by its enemies", with the US in the lead. They have been trying to do all within their power to halt the movement of a recent resolution condemning their violations which would subsequently reccomend referring the state to the ICC. It seems as though North Korea’s faux-utopianism is faltering, or is at least being challenged more readily by the international community.
For too long has the isolated state been able to keep its human rights violations shrouded in mystery. The authoritarian state has arguably done well in staying out of reach. The regime in is well known for its brutality, but little has been observed as they reject visitation by any official inquiry. In a society where the very concept of "human rights" does not exist, neither does the safety and security of its people.
Shin Dong-Hyuk was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp and remains the only person to escape alive. He has brought the world disturbing accounts of the camps, including various forms of torture, inhumane living conditions and degradation. Through his gruesome sketches of the camp, he recounts eating rats, snakes and being pushed to the point of physical exhaustion. It was not long ago that North Korea admitted that “labour detention centres” exist, and that they were intended to rehabilitate the incarcerated “through (changing) their mentality and to look on their wrongdoings." However, the true scope of the camps was revealed by the UN Commission of Inquiry, which provided the most detailed and authoritative account of the plethora of violations that have ocurred. The abuses included torture, rape, murder, forced abortions and inhumane treatment of the approximately 120,000 people.
North Koreans are punished for any alleged signs of “defection,” violating their right to freedom of thought. If caught trying to escape they face the “three generations of punishment” rule, whereby three generations of the defector’s family are sent to prison camps. Among those who manage to escape from North Korea, many are women. As if their liberation from an oppressive regime was not enough, some estimates claim that 90% of these women become victims of human trafficking. Traffickers exploit Chinese deportation policies, fear of returning to North Korea, and an absence of the UN High Commission for Refugees in order to recruit, imprison, transport, and sell North Korean women into prostitution, enslaved marriages and forced labour. A price is set on their bodies, and they are sold as commodities. They are in high demand, as the three Chinese provinces closest to North Korea have a male to female ratio of 14:1 as a result of the ‘one child policy’. Escaped women experience psychological and physical violence, abuse and exploitation from their new enslaving families and husbands, who assume control of all aspects of their lives. As more women continue to flee the country, the risks they face if successful are arguably as horrific as if they had stayed.
Evidently, average North Korean citizens suffer from a lack of basic freedoms. The report clearly states that the state possesses a monopoly on information, social organization and details how indoctrination of citizens happens from an early age. Most of these issues are well known or come with little surprise, but have not been officially recognized and condemned until now. Repression is an effective tool in maintaining the utopian image they so desperately cling onto. It is without a doubt unjustifiable to commit such gross violations on any scale, but the sheer magnitude of the North Korean case sets it apart in the modern day world. Citizens suffer from starvation while the leadership sips fine cognac behind closed doors.
The North Korean leadership has lashed out particularly emphatically towards the US, the EU and Japan. The latter two have drafted a resolution condemning North Korean human rights violations, effectively bringing the issue to attention of official international bodies. Will it have the impact they are hoping for? If the world is to see an improved North Korea, it is clear that the current state of affairs cannot continue unopposed. The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the de-humanising way in which North Korean citizens are forced to live. It was a bold move to suggest that the Security Council vote on referring the case to the ICC, as both Russia and China have interests in North Korea and veto rights. If either opposes, the justice we hope for may not be obtained. As questionable as the international legal system is, we can only hope that there will be significant consequences should the case go through to the ICC.
It is unclear if North Korean leaders would actually appear in front of the Hague. It would prove extremely difficult to force their appearance without entering North Korean territory. The issue then arises, how can such an isolated state be held accountable for their actions?
In my eyes, any action taken will be reduced in scale if China does not alter its policies. China provides North Korea with more than 70% of itscrude oil requirements. Additionally, food, aviation fuel and other trade between the two states made the sum of Chinese-North Korean trade in excess of $1.3 billion last year. Arguments are made both for and against Chinese support, as the discontinuation of support may be what topples the system and leaves it in ruins. Regardless, the UN needs Chinese political cooperation, and with the issues out in the open it will be difficult to justifiably support a state accused of conducting unrivaled human rights abuses.
What is clear from recent events, however, is the extent of North Korea’s discontent. Threats of new nuclear tests have been issued, and may be the beginning of a new phase. Whether it represents some form of retribution, threat, or a last resort, a fourth nuclear test may be looming and would complicate diplomatic affairs even further. The report may be revolutionary, but it is a step in the right direction. The fact that it is the strongest attempt made to document abuses in North Korea to date renews our hope in the possibility of justice.