The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, human rights advocates, and some States are publicly supporting the creation of an expert committee to more fully investigate and address the human rights situation in North Korea. Recent reports by victims have revealed shocking allegations, but relatively little is known about the extent of suspected abuses, given the restrictions on intergovernmental and non-governmental monitors’ access to the country.
Calls for the Establishment of an Investigative Mechanism
Citing the continuously deteriorating state of basic human rights within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) has called for an international investigation to increase understanding of and accountability for that government’s serious, systematic abuses.
“For years now, the Government of DPRK has persistently refused to cooperate with successive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the DPRK appointed by the Human Rights Council, or with my Office,” the High Commissioner stated. “For this reason, and because of the enduring gravity of the situation, I believe 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.” [OHCHR] Though human rights violations within the notoriously isolated nation have been the subject of review and criticism in the past, this call signals an intensified level of scrutiny and emphasizes the importance of preventing international attention from remaining principally focused on sanctioning the DPRK for its emerging nuclear weapons program.
The High Commissioner’s concerns echo those of Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. The Special Rapporteur for the DPRK was established by the former UN Commission on Human Rights in April 2004. Since then, the position has been extended annually, with the most recent extension granted on March 22, 2012, through Resolution 19/13, in which the Human Rights Council also “[deplored] the grave, widespread and systematic human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in particular the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens.” (Read more about UN special rapporteurs and other special procedures here). Mr. Darusman has been Special Rapporteur since August 2010.
Marzuki Darusman’s predecessor, Vitit Muntarbhorn, described the human rights situation in the DPRK in his outgoing report as “sui generis (in its own category), given the multiple particularities and anomalies that abound. Simply put, there are many instances of human rights violations which are both harrowing and horrific.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, A/HRC/13/47, 17 February 2010, p. 20. Importantly, the government of North Korea has refused to acknowledge, meet or otherwise cooperate with the Special Rapporteur since its establishment in 2004:
The [North Korean] Government has so far refused to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur, denying him entry into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In addition to requesting meetings with the Permanent Representatives of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, in May 2012 the Special Rapporteur requested a meeting with a high-level delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea visiting Indonesia, but received no response. The Government has refused to grant the Special Rapporteur meetings with the Permanent Representatives of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations, contending that the resolutions establishing the mandate represent politicization, selectivity and double standards in the area of human rights.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, A/67/370, 13 September 2012, p.3.
The UN Human Rights Council last year adopted Resolution 19/13 expressing serious concern for the human rights situation in North Korea, and is now coming closer to establishing a Commission of Inquiry. The UN High Commissioner’s call for a global investigation sets the stage for the possible adoption of a resolution at the March session of the Human Rights Council, whose forty-seven Member States act by simple majority vote. In November 2012, the Special Rapporteur urged the international community set up a stronger investigative tool on North Korea. [OHCHR]
The purpose of a Commission of Inquiry would be to provide “an in-depth investigation into violations of human rights.” See Human Rights Watch, Q & A for Activists on a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea. If established, the commission would be composed of independent advisors mandated to establish the facts and make recommendations on how to respond to human rights violations. Id.
Though the UN already employs a Special Rapporteur to North Korea, in the words of Human Rights Watch, a Commission of Inquiry would provide “additional resources and heightened political commitment” and “develop greater details on the specific nature of the abuses, the fate of victims, and the need for accountability.” [HRW] Because “the Special Rapporteur has limited resources to carry out full investigations into the violations of human rights in the [DPRK],” many believe the establishment of a commission to be especially important. Id.
The UN Human Rights Council’s prior use of commissions of inquiry has led to some progress in recognition of, and accountability for, human rights violations. “Previous commissions of inquiry include that for the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan, which led to a recommendation to the UN Security Council that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court. That resulted in a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir. Other examples include Syria, where it was concluded that war crimes and crimes against humanity are taking place, and Burundi, Rwanda, and Libya.” [Christian Science Monitor]
Approval of a commission of inquiry will be challenging, though recent indicators point to the possibility of success. Both the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions condemning North Korea in 2012 by consensus, unopposed even by China, the North’s closest ally. [NYT] Japan, traditionally cautious in censuring the neighboring DPRK, decided to publicly support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry. [HRW] Kanae Doi, the Japan director at Human Rights Watch, believes the move was partially in response to North Korea’s abduction of at least 17 Japanese citizens, though unofficial numbers point toward 100 or more unlawful civilian captures. Id. The United Kingdom is viewed as another potential sponsor of the commission. [WSJ]
The new International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, composed of 41 international non-governmental organizations, was launched in September 2012 to advocate for the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry on North Korea. Coalition members include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights.
Scarcity and Human Rights Abuses
The DPRK is a country inhabited by 24.4 million people. Of these, the United Nations estimates 16 million—or over 65 percent of the population—suffer from varying degrees of “chronic food insecurity and high malnutrition rates.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Doc. A/67/370, p. 12. Amnesty International has reported that “[m]uch of the population suffers prolonged food deprivation […] as the Public Distribution System ration of cereals was reduced […] to just one third of a person’s minimum daily energy requirements.” See Amnesty International, The State of the World’s Human Rights, p. 204. As such, the DPRK has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population. Even so, there is “evidence of chronic food insecurity in spite of considerable international humanitarian assistance.” International Food Policy Research Institute, 2012 Global Hunger Index, p. 18.
In addition to food shortages, the nation suffers from a near total lack of continuously running electricity. The New York Times reports of “chronic shortages of fuel [and] electricity” in the DPRK, “leaving millions unemployed.” Outside the capital city of Pyongyang, much of the country exists in a state of dilapidation. The Special Rapporteur has stated that the country’s economic troubles have a direct correlation with “the ability of a State to fulfill and deliver economic, social and cultural rights.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, p. 11. Escaping to a better life in China has become increasingly difficult for would-be defectors because the “North Korean government has recently erected miles of electrified fencing at the border and sent as many as 20,000 additional guards.” [NYT]
Prison Labor Camps
Though reports of starvation, crumbling infrastructure and widespread poverty are alarming, the most serious of North Korea’s human rights abuses are associated with the nation’s numerous forced labor camps. The High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that more than 200,000 people may be held in the camps, where conditions “include torture, rape, slave labour and other forms of collective punishment” and where access to food, medical care and adequate clothing is lacking. [UN News Centre] In December 2012, the High Commissioner met with two survivors of the camps and recounted their stories:
Their personal stories were extremely harrowing. They described a system that represents the very antithesis of international human rights norms. […] The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world seems to have completely bypassed DPRK, where self-imposed isolation has allowed the Government to mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.
She insisted development of the DPRK into a nuclear state “should not be allowed to overshadow the deplorable human rights situation in DPRK, which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world.” [OHCHR] Signaling an alignment with Pillay’s statement, United States Secretary of State nominee Senator John Kerry recently declared during the opening remarks of his confirmation hearing that America should be “speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea.” [Yonhap News Agency]
North Korea’s prisons are divided into two distinct groupings. The first are “forced-labor colonies where thousands of prisoners — some political, some convicted felons — are worked, many to their deaths, in mining, logging, farming, and industrial enterprises, often in remote valleys located in the mountainous areas of North Korea.” David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag, p. 10. The second type of prisons consist of “a system of smaller, shorter-term detention facilities along the North Korea–China border used to brutally punish North Koreans who flee to China — usually in search of food. Id.
DPRK officials continue to “[i]mpose severe restrictions on the rights to freedoms of opinion, expression and assembly, despite constitutional guarantees of these rights.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, p. 7. This is in direct conflict with the DPRK’s Universal Periodic Review submittal, which states, “All citizens have freedom of opinion and expression. Citizens have freedoms of assembly and demonstration under the Constitution. Citizens have freedom of association by virtue of the Constitution. The State provides conditions for free activities of democratic political parties and social organizations.” DPRK, National Report Submitted in Accordance With Paragraph 15(a) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, Aug. 27, 2009, p. 9.
Many DPRK prisoners are jailed because they have allegedly spoken out against the government. Political prisoners are common, as “North Korea operates a ‘self-criticism’ justice culture. At all levels of society, a meeting is held regularly among the community where people are encouraged to name their own flaws and accuse others. Those reported for crimes that are perceived to be political by authorities can end up in the camps.” Amnesty International, North Korea: Political Prison Camps, 2011, p. 8. Under the fifty-year-old system of guilt by association (yeon-jwa-je) established during the reign of Kim Il Sung, alleged governmental dissenters, along with three generations of their relatives, are imprisoned and punished to eliminate “the seeds” of bad families. [Washington Post]
Despite first-hand testimony and detailed satellite imagery provided by Google Earth, Pyongyang denies the existence of any camps (“the term ‘political prisoner’ does not exist in DPRK’s vocabulary, and therefore the so-called political prisoners’ camps do not exist”). OHCHR, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, A/HRC/13/13, Jan. 4, 2010, p. 7. A comprehensive infographic detailing DPRK’s five major prison camps lists, in great detail, the atrocities committed at each of the prisons. At Kwanliso 15, perhaps the DPRK’s most famous labor camp, average winter temperatures plummet to -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) with no blankets reportedly provided to prisoners. Amnesty International, North Korea: Political Prison Camps, 2011, p. 3. The prison only has one toilet per 200 people and, with no adequate access to medicine, disease is widespread. Id. Sanitation issues abound. During an interview with Amnesty International, one former inmate recalled, “We never could take a shower during the years as prisoners. Over time, our skin had a thick layer of dirt. After our release, it took months for us to remove the thick layer of dirt and lice.” Id. An estimated 40 percent of inmates die of malnutrition. Id.