February 19, 2014
Beijing is closing its eyes to the enormous suffering of the North Korean people.
Kenneth Roth
On Feb. 17, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report documenting atrocities that the North Korean government has been committing against its own people. For years, governments have largely ignored Pyongyang's domestic repressions -- at least when compared with the intense focus on its nuclear capabilities. That may have been politically tenable in the feigned ignorance of earlier times, but it is unconscionable now that a UN body has formally documented these crimes. The report got widespread publicity in the West, but Beijing is where it should receive the most attention.

Because their country provides substantial military and economic support to Pyongyang as it commits ongoing atrocities, senior Beijing officials could be found liable for aiding and abetting those crimes if the matter comes to court. The report, which explicitly fingered Beijing for its practice of forcibly repatriating North Korea refugees, is a rare case of a UN body implying that officials of a permanent member of the UN Security Council are complicit in crimes against humanity. (The Chinese foreign ministry rejected this charge as "unreasonable criticism.")

But Beijing's culpability is actually greater than the report states. No country has more influence over North Korea than China, which has long provided a lifeline of economic aid and political cover to the Kim dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and, since Dec. 2011, Kim Jong Un, while refusing to do anything about the horrendous cruelty being committed next door. If it wanted to, Beijing could use its considerable influence to press Pyongyang to curb its atrocities. Or Beijing could simply begin welcoming North Koreans who manage to escape, instead of its current practice of treating them as "economic migrants" and forcibly repatriating them to their homeland, where they frequently face detention, torture and sometimes even execution. Instead, Beijing violates international law. Forcibly returning North Korean refugees in these circumstances is a blatant breach of the principle of non-refoulement -- the most basic principle of international refugee law, which prohibits returning people against their will to face persecution.

Beyond its own conduct, Beijing seems determined to obstruct the workings of international justice. The commission, led by the respected Australian jurist Michael Kirby, found that North Korea's systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity and urged their prosecution. Although there is no immediate prospect of arresting Kim or the long-time leaders of the army and security apparatus, the report could impel change: in places like Yugoslavia and Liberia an international indictment was deeply delegitimizing, hastening the departure of brutal leaders and potentially deterring them from acting on their worst inclinations. If it convinced Pyongyang to close the prison camps where tens of thousands of North Koreans languish, that would be an enormous step forward.

The most logical venue for prosecution would be the International Criminal Court in The Hague (or a parallel tribunal, because many of the crimes were committed before 2002, the earliest that the ICC can assume jurisdiction.) Bringing the case to the ICC would require an UN Security Council resolution. But Beijing responded negatively to the commission's report. While refusing to answer the "hypothetical question" about how it would vote on the Security Council, Beijing said that submitting the matter to the ICC would "not help resolve the human rights situation" in North Korea. Even if other council members agree to act, China's potential veto is clearly a major obstacle.

Several factors shape Beijing's indifference. Most important is its dislike of international attention to human rights. China occasionally accepts UN peacekeeping ventures or even international tribunals to stop mass atrocities committed in the course of armed conflict, but it fears a precedent of international attention to peacetime repression, lest China's own conduct -- whether in the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet or among its dissident community -- be the next subject of interest. And despite the brutality of the Kim government, China worries that North Korea may collapse, sending a flood of refugees into northeastern China. A collapse would also mean that South Korea, a Western ally that hosts some 28,500 U.S. troops, would border China as part of a unified Korea.

These concerns are understandable, but also resolvable. Even if South Korea suddenly shared a border with China, Seoul would undoubtedly bear the bulk of the cost of reunification. And Beijing would most likely be able to negotiate with the United States to ensure that U.S. troops not be placed near China's border -- its main security concern.

Because it prefers the status quo, Beijing is closing its eyes to the enormous suffering of the North Korean people. The UN report should shake the conscience of anyone who reads it, including the Chinese: It describes a system of camps for 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in which inmates regularly endure public executions, torture, sexual abuse, and starvation as a tool of control and punishment. The number of contemporary victims in these camps would be substantially higher had hundreds of thousands not already perished there. The desperate inmates are reduced to an animal-like struggle for survival, while haunted by the unchecked sadism of their guards.

How can concerned people of the world persuade Beijing to change course? Just as Washington and Moscow have been pilloried for coddling friendly dictators, China should be held responsible for the suffering of the North Korean people. The commission's report has just raised the price of Beijing's indifference significantly. The fate of North Korea should be a regular part of all governments' private and public conversations with Beijing.

If China prevents the Security Council from engaging the International Criminal Court or a parallel tribunal, the General Assembly -- where there is no veto -- should set up a tribunal for North Korea under principles of universal jurisdiction. Such a tribunal would lack the coercive backing of the Security Council, but it would have more legitimacy than comparable universal-jurisdiction prosecutions carried out by individual governments. The five permanent members of the Security Council won't like this circumvention of their vetoes, of course. But China should learn that the cost of irresponsibly exercising power is the erosion of that power. And after the UN report, the world should no longer ignore Beijing's complicity in North Korean crimes against humanity.

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