A decade ago, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published one of the first comprehensive reports on North Korea’s human rights disaster, with the conclusion that it amounts to crimes against humanity.
North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act was also one of the first reports to call on the United Nations to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Initially, we were almost alone in making this call – a voice crying in the wilderness, dismissed by some for pursuing an action that, it was predicted, would never happen. We were banging our heads against a brick wall, some said. We took the view that if enough of us bang our heads for long enough, we might dislodge some bricks.
Four years later, other human rights organisations were making the same call, and we founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, together with over forty other organisations from around the world, to campaign for a UN inquiry. In early 2013 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added her support to this call, and a few months later the UN Human Rights Council established an inquiry. What some said could never be done was happening.
Four years ago this month, the Commission of Inquiry published its findings, in the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of North Korea’s human rights situation so far. Chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, the inquiry found that the ‘gravity, scale and nature’ of the human rights violations in North Korea ‘reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world’.
Ten years on from CSW’s 2007 report, and things have changed in two ways. Outside North Korea, the human rights situation is much higher up the international agenda. Last week President Trump invited a remarkable North Korean escapee to the United States Congress for his State of the Union address, then met with North Korean survivors privately too. The UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly passed resolutions endorsing the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations, and the Security Council put North Korea’s human rights crisis on its agenda.
Little action has yet been taken to advance the recommendations – especially a referral to the International Criminal Court or an alternative justice mechanism to address impunity – and there is a danger, four years on, that the report will sit on a shelf gathering dust. We must not let this happen.
Life has changed inside North Korea too. So on 5 February CSW launched a new report – Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea After a Decade of Change – to bring us up to date.
Based on research that included a survey of more than 100 respondents, ranging from recent North Korean escapees and UN officials to human rights experts, we have found that in the past decade, although the regime has not changed, the people have.
In particular, there are changes in the economy, human rights and access to information. The changes should not be exaggerated – they amount to nothing more than very tiny flickers of hope. But in a situation of otherwise total darkness, flickers of hope and light matter.
In the economy, there has been a shift from dependence on the state-run public distribution system to widespread reliance on private trading, in what has become a ‘grey’ area of semi-tolerated markets. Illegal market trading, including smuggling across the border with China, has provided North Koreans with a lifeline. A few are benefiting from relative prosperity. The gap between rich and poor has become more visible, bribery and corruption are rampant, and as a result dissent is growing, albeit only inwardly and silently, not publicly. Yet while a few prosper, poverty, malnutrition and related diseases are still widespread. Care International reports that 18 million people – seventy percent of the population – are in urgent need of food.
Radio broadcasts into the country, smuggled USB sticks and DVDs have given North Koreans a new access to knowledge of the outside world. South Korean soap operas and dramas are more available, and so the regime’s propaganda about South Korea is being challenged. People can see for themselves that life in the South is more prosperous and more free. “When we watched dramas [from South Korea], we envied the people … and then we wished we could go outside,” one escapee said. “Then we might complain: why were we born here?”
As a consequence the motivation for defection has changed.
As one escapee told us, “in the beginning, people defected because they were starving. They went to China to find food. But it is different now. For example, I was doing ok in North Korea. I could live. But more and more people want freedom, opportunities and hope.”
In regard to human rights, it is essential that any changes are not over-stated. North Korea remains among the very worst abusers of human rights in the world. It is, as a previous UN special rapporteur described it, “in a category of its own”, a country in which every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated severely.
However, some anecdotal evidence suggests that international pressure may have made some small difference. In 2009, the term ‘human rights’ was included in North Korea’s constitution for the first time. Some recent escapees claim that when they were in prison they escaped beatings and torture, or endured less severe abuses, because prison guards told them an international inquiry was watching.
“There has been some improvement,” said one escapee. “I heard about the UN noise and fuss. Without this, no one would know about human rights at all.”
For freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, however, there is absolutely no change. Any sign of any belief other than total devotion to the Kim family is severely punished. One interviewee told us that a person found to be a Christian “would be immediately shot”. Another said that when it comes to religion, North Koreans “just shudder because punishment is very severe”.
How do we respond to these findings? We should be encouraged that international advocacy can make a difference. It is slow and pain-staking without doubt; it entails tiny steps forward accompanied by frustrations and tragedy of course – but the regime is not as immune to outside pressure as we may once have feared. Our report therefore concludes that we should go on making “noise and fuss” about North Korea’s crimes against humanity.
We must increase the flow of information into North Korea. And we must increase engagement with North Korean exiles, to empower and equip them to be the change-makers of tomorrow. We must learn from the changes that have occurred over the past decade, and support North Korea’s people – inside and outside the country – to bring more substantial, meaningful and genuine change to the darkest corner of the world. Finally, we must seek bold and creative ways to ensure that human rights violations end, the regime is held accountable for its barbaric crimes, and the tiny flickers of hope are fanned into a bright light that opens this closed country.
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader