By Benedict Rogers
One of the very few non-COVID-19 stories that hit the headlines last month was the rumoured near-death of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un. For almost three weeks the speculation grew that he was dying or had died, and the discussion around who would succeed him reached near-fever pitch. Would it be his sister Kim Yo-jong? But would conservative North Korea be ready for a female leader? Would it be a senior military leader? But then what would that do to the regime’s credibility in the eyes of the North Korean people, if the Kim dynastic succession was broken?
But then, almost as mysteriously as he disappeared, the man known as “the Dear Leader” re-emerged, opening a fertilizer plant outside Pyongyang. Precisely what had happened remains known only to the core leadership of the world’s most secretive state. There was no shortage of rumours. It was suggested that he may have had surgery, that he may have had coronavirus, that he may simply have escaped Pyongyang to avoid infection and even that he had been injured in a missile test. But will we ever know?
This episode highlights two important points.
The first is that North Korea is the most closed, isolated and repressed nation on earth – and as a result what we can know about it is limited. Even in the global pandemic, few people have details about the impact of COVID-19 on North Korea.
The idea put out in the regime’s propaganda that it has no cases of the virus is far-fetched and fanciful. The other half of the Korean peninsula, South Korea, despite being praised for its handling of the virus, has had over 11,000 cases and 263 deaths. The idea that North Korea, with a rudimentary health system and a 1,420-kilometre border with China, where the pandemic first began, would have no cases is not believable.
Indeed as John Choi writes in The Tablet, “thousands have been quarantined and categorized as ‘under medical observation.’” A report by Daily NK, a news site run by North Korean escapees, claims that 180 soldiers have died of the virus. China has offered North Korea help in fighting the coronavirus. So we know the virus is in North Korea. What we do not yet know is the extent to which the virus has hit the population – or the elite – and especially what the impact is on North Korea’s notorious prison camps.
Further doubts were raised by the publication of a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which analysed the impact of COVID-19 on access to food in 47 countries, including North Korea. According to the report, North Korea has suffered substantial food shortages this year, but the country’s borders remain mysteriously closed despite claims of no infections.
The second is that despite being the world’s most repressive state, accused by the United Nations of crimes against humanity, the response to North Korea’s human rights crisis remains woefully inadequate. When it does receive international media attention, it is the gossip about the Kim dynasty that captivates the headlines, not its brutal torture, public executions and gulags.
On the rare occasions when world leaders engage with Kim Jong-Un – such as recent talks with US President Donald Trump in 2018 and with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in – human rights are sidelined at best, and actively ignored more often. Where are the mass protests in the capitals of the world? Where is the outrage?
And yet six years ago a Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the “gravity, scale and nature” of the violations of human rights in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” A catalogue of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions,” as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Australian Judge Michael Kirby, identified the North Korean regime’s violations of freedom of religion or belief as particularly egregious. While all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are denied to the people of North Korea, there is – according to the UN inquiry – “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” The regime “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted.” Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity.”
CSW’s own research confirms this. Over the past 13 years we have published three key reports – North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act – which was one of the first human rights reports to call for a UN Commission of Inquiry; Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea; and Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea after a Decade of Change. Our third report found that, while there have been changes in other aspects of daily life in North Korea – and North Koreans have a greater awareness of the outside world, due to radio broadcasts, DVDs smuggled in across the border and other sources of information – there has been absolutely no change in the basic right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.
Any divergence from utter loyalty to the Kim dynasty is punished severely. 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.”
And yet the UN report sits on a shelf gathering dust, prospects for accountability stagnate and, on the rare occasions when we think of North Korea, we think of a curious fat man drinking cognac and wonder who will succeed him when he dies. We would do better to focus on the people of North Korea, to pray for their freedom, to support courageous North Korean exiles working for change in their country, to let their voices be heard and to insist that our leaders do not allow the findings of a UN inquiry to fade into the annals of history as a mere academic text. Six years on, it is not too late to turn it into what it should be – a manifesto for action, to help end some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities, and to hold the perpetrators to account.
Benedict Rogers is CSW’s East Asia Team Leader and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity.