Human Rights Must be Included in Talks to Ensure True Peace in North Korea

Statue of Kim II Sung

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.

“However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.”

CSW has been documenting the human rights crisis in the world’s most closed nation for almost two decades. Our report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, was one of the first human rights reports to call for a UN Commission of Inquiry, in 2007. We co-founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea in 2011. We led the applause for the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry when it came in 2013, gave evidence to its hearings, and have championed its recommendations since its report was released in 2014. Two years ago we released a new report on violations of freedom of religion or belief in North Korea – Total Denial – and earlier this year we published a ground-breaking new report on changes in the country over the last decade, titled Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance. And just before the summit, CSW joined over 300 other non-governmental organisations in sending a letter to Kim Jong-Un, urging him to make “lasting improvements to the dire human rights situation”.

“Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief.”

Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief. If you identify as a Christian in North Korea, you are risking a death sentence. Christians worshipping in secret risk certain incarceration in a prison camp, and possible execution.

Over the years, we have interviewed – and hosted – North Korean escapees, giving them platforms to tell their horrific tales of torture first-hand. It is therefore no surprise that they feel angry at the way last week’s summit proceeded. Kim Yong-hwa said that it was like “stabbing the heart” of North Koreans. Jung Gwang-il, who met President Trump earlier this year, says he feels let down.

To sideline human rights is disappointing enough, but for President Trump to salute a North Korean General, express admiration for the fact that when Kim speaks, North Korean people sit up, and declare that “I want my people to do the same,” is appalling. North Korean people have no choice, and if they are even suspected of anything other than absolute devotion to the ruling family, they end up in a gulag. Mr Trump said he was joking. But Mr President, gulags are no joke. And North Korea’s regime has incarcerated at least 100,000 people, perhaps twice that number, in prison camps that have been compared to Auschwitz.

Yet we in CSW are not opposed to the summit itself. Indeed, in principle we welcome engagement. We have long advocated engagement. In 2010, I travelled to North Korea with Britain’s tireless champion of human rights in North Korea, Lord Alton, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, to engage the regime. We published a report – Building Bridges, Not Walls – which advocated critical engagement. But human rights must be clearly on the table, as they were in the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union – a model for engagement with North Korea. For as Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said during his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel.”

It should not be forgotten that the Trump-Kim summit took place on 12 June, the 31st anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. That speech linked the security of the world with the basic human rights and freedoms of an oppressed people. “Freedom and security go together: the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace, said President Reagan.” Just as Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and “open this gate”, Mr Trump should deliver the same message to Mr Kim.

“Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion.”

Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion. In the meantime, we must increase efforts to increase the information flow into North Korea, to counter the regime’s propaganda and undermine its information blockade. As our new report, Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea after a Decade of Change shows, in the last ten years increased flows of information, through radio broadcasts and smuggling of DVDs and USBs with South Korean dramas on them, have enhanced awareness about the outside world, and about human rights. Together with economic changes, this has led to an opening of hearts and minds in North Korea – despite, not because, of the regime. In this new engagement, we must build on that.

As Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry, said in a recent article, “I am glad that President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore … But I cannot put out of my mind the people who came to the public hearings of the United Nations inquiry. They told their stories of suffering. They trust the world and the United Nations to right the wrongs. Their testimony is on the Internet. It haunts our world. But not North Korea where it is inaccessible to all but the elite around Kim. I will begin to respect his word when he opens up his isolated country to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the mass detention camps. Let him do this immediately and then I can join in the rejoicing for the self-proclaimed triumph of the Singapore Summit of June 2018.”

Real peace is impossible, unless the human rights and dignity of the people of North Korea are respected, crimes against humanity end and accountability established. That must remain the goal for which we work and pray.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader


North Korea and Human Rights: A State of Denial


“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 Koreaprovides 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.

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The Refugee Crisis: “What caused them to flee in the first place?”

On World Refugee Day, CSW explores one of the major root causes of the refugee crisis.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Image shot 06/2015. Exact date unknown.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The current refugee crisis has become a major news story with much of the focus placed on asking, “Where will they go?”

A seeming backlash against the unprecedented influx into Europe in particular has led some to respond: “Anywhere but here”, and has unleashed what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has termed  “widespread anti-migrant rhetoric”, which in turn has fostered “a climate of divisiveness, xenophobia and even… vigilante violence.”

Yet very few people have asked, “What caused them to flee in the first place, and how can we best address this?”

One key reason is the increase in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world. *Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.

“Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.”

These violations often take place in societies where other human rights are being abused and in situations generally characterised by an absence of rule of law, corruption, economic disparity and authoritarian rule.

Issues of race, ethnicity, political opinion and gender usually intersect with religious persecution; consequently, religion-based asylum claims often include other grounds as well.

Religious persecution takes many forms

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From the Darkness into the Light: the Hope for Justice in North Korea

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

We Must Use Every Creative Tool To Prise Open North Korea

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.

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