Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only known escapee of North Korea’s notorious Camp 14, made a powerful and eloquent plea today to the international community: “Save our brothers and sisters who are suffering without freedom in North Korea.”
That he made this plea on a panel in New York seated with Secretary of State John Kerry, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan, and the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, makes clear that the status quo over North Korea is finally changing. The upcoming session of the UN General Assembly provides a unique opportunity to push North Korea to answer for its crimes.
For too long, the international community has given North Korea a free pass on its deplorable human rights record. It’s not that there has been any doubt about the Pyongyang regime’s capacity for brutality, but the extent of its brutality was not fully known.
Today’s meeting is the latest in a series of events that have followed the release of the damning report of a UN-created Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, released earlier this year, which revealed crimes against humanity without “any parallel in the contemporary world.” Among its recommendations, the commission urged the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
Unsurprisingly, the regime steadfastly refused to engage with the Commission of Inquiry during its investigation, and when presented with its findings before the UN Human Rights Council, told the body to “mind [its] own business.”
But the UN Human Rights Council didn’t take that advice, adopting a resolution in March that urged the UN Security Council to consider referral to the “appropriate international justice mechanism.”
The UN Security Council holds the key to any meaningful action on North Korea. Until now, the council has exclusively focused on North Korea’s nuclear program. But the Commission of Inquiry report makes it impossible for the international community, including the council, to return to “business as usual” on North Korea.
The current session of the UN General Assembly, in its annual resolution on North Korea, offers a much-needed opportunity to put pressure on the Security Council to take up the human rights situation in North Korea. Support from global south states in particular is critical both to isolate North Korea and to demonstrate that even states outside of Asia are concerned about the nature, scale, and gravity of abuses in North Korea. Uruguay should follow Chile and Panama’s lead in co-sponsoring the resolution; other Latin American and Caribbean states should do the same. Similarly African states like Botswana have a key opportunity to show that Africa stands with victims of horrific abuses wherever they occur.
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry report has shed some much-needed light on one of the globe’s darkest corners. Now is the time for the UN membership to respond so that North Korea’s countless victims don’t descend back into darkness.