A thick layer of dust coats everything inside the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital, which was unlocked this week for the first time since 1998. Photos of this ‘time capsule’ were published by the BBC, which, along with the world’s media, is charting the remarkable thaw in relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two nations went to war in 1998 but maintained a war footing due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow demarcation of their common border, in accordance with a 2003 ruling.
Just over a week ago, US President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un, leader of the world’s most repressive regime which has been accused by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry of “crimes against humanity”. It was historic – the first time a sitting American President and a North Korean dictator had met face-to-face.
On the surface, in words attributed to Winston Churchill, “jaw jaw” has to be better than “war war”. It is good that the two men have moved from talk of “fire and fury” and whose nuclear button is bigger to discussion of denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Perhaps a new era may be dawning.
However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.
Germano Nati Gojo, an Eritrean politician, was arrested at his home by security agents as he listened to the radio on his veranda. One agent stood outside the gate. The other entered and said: “Sir, we need you on a work-related issue”. Saying nothing, Germano Nati Gojo stood up, went to change his clothes and left with them. His two younger children, then aged 16 and 12, witnessed this. The family has not seen or heard from him in 17 years, despite inquiring.
His eldest son, Yona Germano Nati, addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2018. He spoke of how his father had joined the struggle for independence of Eritrea in 1976, shared the story of his father’s enforced disappearance in September 2001, and described their poignant last meeting prior to the arrest, during which his father expressed his readiness to be jailed alongside his pro-reform colleagues who are now known collectively as the G 15.
“There is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” That was the conclusion reached by the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea over two years ago. Indeed, the UN inquiry went further, noting that the regime in North Korea “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”.
Loyalty to the Regime is expected
Our new report – Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea – provides further evidence that freedom of religion or belief is a human right that is “largely non-existent” in the country. The ruling Kim dynasty is deified. Pictures of the three generations of dictators – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un – are displayed in private homes and public spaces, cleaned daily and inspected regularly by the authorities to ensure they are in the best condition. Allowing one of these photographs to decay or gather dust is akin to a blasphemy. Anything less than total loyalty to the ruling family is severely punished.
Today, marching, singing and dancing will flood the capital of one the most notoriously secretive and closed nations in the world. 15 April is the “Day of the Sun” in North Korea, one of the most important national holidays in the country because it venerates the late founder and perpetual leader, Kim Il-Sung.
Despite the awesome displays of colourful dance events and firework displays to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s perceived achievements in creating the ‘revered’ nation, the reality is far from being a day in the sun, but more a descent into darkness.
The ‘Great’ Leader Who Founded a Despotic Regime
Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Father’ of North Korea, was highly instrumental in establishing one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Between the late 1940s and early 1990s he oversaw the creation of a country ruled by fear. The Workers’ Party he founded crushed dissent, abducted foreign nationals, created an extremely discriminatory and hierarchical ‘songbun’ caste system, and forcibly detained hundreds of thousands into a hidden prison system, which still subjects North Koreans to forced labour, torture and even execution. Both his son, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong-Un have continued the brutal legacy.
Human Rights Violations Committed with Impunity
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea concluded that the leadership of North Korea has and continues to commit “systematic and appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale that is unparalleled in the modern world.” These abuses are tantamount to crimes against humanity and include public executions, torture, forced labour, sexual violence, food deprivation, incarceration in political prisoner camps (kwan-li-so), and the denial of the freedom of expression, thought and religious belief.
The songbun and prison camp systems are key features that maintain these human rights violations. Songbun classifies North Korean citizens into three classes, the “core”, “wavering” and “hostile”; it determines all aspects of one’s existence in North Korea, such as education, housing and employment. Once citizens are deemed “wavering” and certainly “hostile” they are forcibly removed from society and plunged into the hidden and torturous conditions of the prison camps.
Citizens who believe in or are found to be practicing a religion or belief are classified as part of the hostile class. Christians are especially singled out and commonly incarcerated in the infamous and remote kwan-li-so prison camps. The families of Christians are subject to “guilt by association”: whole families, up to three generations, can disappear into these camps. Hundreds of testimonies have painfully recalled the appalling conditions and human rights violations they are subject to, including forced labour, torture, starvation, and rape.
Shining a Light on Injustice
The COI’s landmark report is a tool for the international community to usher in the dawn of justice in North Korea. The UN Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly and the European Parliament have passed resolutions endorsing the Inquiry’s recommendations, and the Security Council has had formal discussions about North Korea’s human rights abuses. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has opened a field office in Seoul, as recommended by the COI. It aims to “strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and to “maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives”.
Despite these efforts, there is more to be done by the international community to change the situation in North Korea, as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, highlighted in January 2016. A referral to International Criminal Court is necessary to establish accountability and work towards justice. The international community must work together with determination and cooperation towards action. Nevertheless the dawn of justice has arrived and a concerted effort will enable North Korea and its citizens to truly enjoy a day in the sun.
By CSW’s North Korea Desk Officer
Exactly two years ago, on 22 February 2014, the United Nations (UN) finally shone a light on the darkest corner of the world, North Korea. Its year-long Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, published a damning report concluding that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the horrific human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and that the catalogue of abuses amounting to crimes against humanity should lead to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
International community calls for justice and concrete action
In January 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, said it is “now imperative to pursue criminal responsibility” of the North Korean leadership. “Not much has changed in the country almost two years after the report of the Commission of Inquiry,” he added.
The European Parliament also passed a resolution calling for an end to impunity and for those responsible for crimes against humanity to be brought before the ICC and be subject to targeted sanctions.