Skip to main content

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.")

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country