Shin Dong-hyuk is the only man born in one of North Korea’s camps for political prisoners, called kwan-li-so, who is known to have escaped. In the camp, he was forced to do back-breaking labor and went hungry for days on end. Guards tortured him, hung him from his ankles and burned him with hot coals. At age 14, he watched as his mother was hanged and his brother shot dead.
Justice may seem slow in coming for Shin and the 200,000 people still enslaved in North Korea's camps, but we are one step closer. In March, after a year of pressure by Human Rights Watch and other groups, the UN Human Rights Council agreed to form a commission of inquiry to investigate North Korea's crimes against humanity.
When the commission of inquiry begins work in July, it will investigate abuses at kwan-li-so and other types of forced labor detention camps, and examine the serious allegations of extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, and the kidnapping of foreign nationals by the North Korean government.
The investigation will result in a comprehensive, official UN report that could pave the way for increased UN pressure on North Korea, including likely charges of crimes against humanity that can be taken up at the UN Security Council and ultimately referred to the International Criminal Court.
The establishment of the commission is the first beacon of hope for the people who have been imprisoned and tortured by North Korea's government. Human Rights Watch will work closely with the commission as it investigates these crimes and drafts recommendations to bring those responsible to justice.
For decades, North Korea has hidden its widespread and horrific abuses behind a wall of isolation and defiance. It has repeatedly and publicly denied the kwan-li-so exist. It has refused to acknowledge UN human rights resolutions or cooperate with the special rapporteur appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
The creation of this commission is a testament to what is possible when Human Rights Watch researchers report on closed countries, expertly circumventing government restrictions and exposing the truth. We interviewed people who fled the country, including those fleeing from forced labor camps and former North Korean security officials. We spoke with Hye Sook Kim, who had been released from a kwan-li-so and then fled the country, and Shin, who has also shared his experiences in his book, Escape from Camp 14, and in a documentary film about his life, "Camp 14: Total Control Zone."
Using this testimony, we built support with leaders in Japan, which presented the resolution along with the European Union. We also shared our research with the United States and Australia to ensure enough votes to establish the commission. The Human Rights Council adopted the resolution unanimously.
The UN high commissioner for human rights has called North Korea "one of the worst-- but least understood and reported-- human rights situations in the world." Human Rights Watch hopes the UN investigation will compel North Korea to completely stop its abuses, and that it will establish a path to international accountability for those who committed crimes if Pyongyang refuses to cooperate. In the meantime, Human Rights Watch will continue to work with North Koreans who have fled to China and other countries to document their stories and amass evidence of the government's crimes.