“There is no excuse”: The international community must finish the work of holding North Korea to account

Content warning: This blog contains descriptions of rape, sexual violence and violence against infants

By Benedict Rogers

Almost exactly twenty years ago, CSW began to investigate the human rights situation in North Korea, and in particular the persecution of Christians.

It is fair to say that we were one of the very first human rights organisations to sound the alarm about the gravity and scale of human rights atrocities in the world’s most closed and most repressed nation.

The tragedy is that twenty years on, little has changed and the world continues to turn a blind eye.

Dislodging the bricks

In 2007 we published one of the first and most comprehensive studies of the atrocity crimes in North Korea, in a report titled North Korea: A Case to Answer, a Call to Act. In so doing, we became one of the first organisations to call for the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity.

Initially, we were almost a lone voice. Diplomats, policy-makers, journalists and even other human rights groups said it was a waste of time. “You are banging your heads against a brick wall. The UN will never hold an inquiry into North Korea’s crimes,” I was told. I took the view that if enough of us banged our heads against the brick wall for long enough, we just might dislodge some bricks, even if we get a headache in the process. So we persisted.

In due course, others became convinced, and joined us in this call. But I realized that disparate, uncoordinated, ad hoc activity was never going to achieve our goal, and so I proposed forming a coalition to coordinate efforts. That’s how, ten years ago in Tokyo, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity (ICNK) was born, bringing together over 40 organisations from across North America, South America, Europe and throughout Asia, including South Korea and Japan. The world’s three biggest human rights organisations – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) – joined us, giving the movement extra impetus.

From there, the momentum grew. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in North Korea strongly supported the call for an inquiry. And in 2013, the UN Human Rights Council did what the naysayers said would never happen – they established a Commission of Inquiry on North Korea.

The inquiry, brilliantly chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, held hearings around the world, in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington DC, receiving testimonies from over 80 victims and witnesses and evidence from experts. A year later, they published their damning report, which concluded that Kim Jong-Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity, the “gravity, scale and nature” of which “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The UN inquiry’s report documented a catalogue of atrocities including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions”, as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation. All of this should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A wake-up call

Yet despite that groundbreaking report, North Korea’s regime continues to commit widespread, systematic and extremely grave violations of human rights and little has been done to hold the regime to account. As our report three years ago titled Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea After a Decade of Change shows, some things in North Korea have changed – people have more access to information about the outside world, from smuggled DVDs and foreign radio broadcasts, for example – but little has changed in terms of human rights, especially for Christians who continue to face intense persecution.

That is why a new report, published last week by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea in the British Parliament, is so important. It provides a wake-up call, a reminder, a new alarm bell to the world about the gravity of the human rights crisis in North Korea.

Intended as a follow-on to the UN Commission of Inquiry, the APPG concludes that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation, that the UN and the international community has failed to implement most of the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations and that killings, torture, sexual violence, modern day slavery and religious persecution continue to this day.

These atrocities, the APPG believes, continue to amount to crimes against humanity, and “there are reasons to believe that some of the atrocities reach the threshold of genocide”. This is a big claim, but a legitimate one which requires further investigation. The APPG believes the targeting of three groups in particular – Christians, half-Chinese children, and the so-called “hostile” class in North Korea – might reach the definition of genocide, the crime of crimes which requires proof of intent to destroy, “in whole or in part”, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The testimonies in the APPG’s report are shocking, but consistent with every other report over the past two decades. The APPG cites the International Bar Association’s 2017 report, in which a prisoner described how she “was raped by a security officer, after which the officer stuck a wooden stick inside her vagina and beat her lower body, resulting in her death within a week of the rape.” Another example was cited, where a female prisoner was raped and impregnated by a prison officer. “When the woman gave birth, she was taken to the punishment block, and her newborn baby was fed to prison guard dogs.”

Christians are especially targeted. Possession of a Bible results in certain incarceration in a prison camp and the most severe forms of torture, while those who are caught sharing their faith face execution.

Half-Chinese children are also singled out. North Korean woman who are trafficked to China and become pregnant by Chinese men would be forced to have an abortion upon return to North Korea. Allegations of infanticide of half-Chinese children have been made, according to the APPG inquiry. “There are strong suggestions that no half-Chinese children are permitted to live,” the APPG claims.

The regime has long divided North Korean society into political classes, from “loyal”, “wavering” to “hostile.” Anyone with a religious background or South Korean ancestry is categorised from birth as disloyal to the regime and therefore in the “hostile” class, consigning them upon birth to a lifetime of discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care, access to food and other opportunities.

No excuse

The APPG’s report provides recommendations for the British government and the international community. It argues that governments must “re-engage” on human rights in North Korea “using all available avenues”, work with the new US administration and other allies to push for renewed attention on North Korea’s human rights crisis at the UN Security Council, and revisit the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation to establish a “human rights contact group” for North Korea to ensure coordination and dialogue between concerned states.

Mechanisms for accountability for crimes against humanity must be reviewed, including referral to the International Criminal Court or an ad-hoc tribunal. Countries should exercise universal jurisdiction where possible, and action at the International Court of Justice for North Korea’s breaches of the Geneva Convention should be considered.

Transitional justice, truth and reconciliation initiatives should be developed, and targeted sanctions strengthened. Humanitarian assistance should be coordinated to ensure it reaches those who need it in North Korea, and survivors of sex trafficking and sexual violence should receive support and protection.

North Koreans continue to face grave dangers today. China continues its abhorrent policy of forced repatriation of North Korean escapees, in total breach of international humanitarian norms.

I recently co-signed a letter to the Foreign Secretary, together with North Korean exiled activist Timothy Cho and Lord Alton of Liverpool, urging him to intervene to pressure China to stop sending people back to their deaths. As Human Rights Watch report, over 1,000 North Koreans are currently detained in China, at risk of being sent back to certain arrest, torture and possibly execution in North Korea.

In 2010 I visited North Korea for the first and only time, with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox. We went because we believed that the situation was so grave, every tool should be tried – from pressure and condemnation, to attempts at constructive, but critical, dialogue. It was like walking into the pages of George Orwell’s 1984 – a regime that, as the first UN Special Rapporteur put it, is “sui generis” – in a category of its own.

The UN Commission of Inquiry – which CSW fought so hard to secure – shone a light on the darkest corner of the world. The APPG’s report has amplified that light. Both reports should now serve as manifestos for action. There is no excuse now for the international community to ignore the litany of crimes committed by Kim Jong-Un and his father and grandfather any longer.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK).