“Rule #1 in the camp: you should never ask why you were there. Many of those who asked were publicly executed.”
Listening to Mrs. Kim Hye-sook share the horror of life as an inmate in one of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps at a packed event at the UN earlier yesterday, it was hard not to be affected by the brutality that defined her life for nearly three decades. Arrested when she was just 13, Mrs. Kim only found out after her release that she was imprisoned because her grandfather – whom she had never met – fled to South Korea many years before. She was guilty by association.
Her testimony is one of hundreds that prompted the UN-established commission of inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to conclude that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials.” Yesterday’s event, cosponsored by Australia, Botswana and Panama, offered a salient reminder to the UN membership that the nature and scale of suffering in North Korea – encompassing somewhere between 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners and others – demands that the international community stand united in condemning these abuses.
A draft resolution authored by European Union and Japan to the UN General Assembly acknowledges possible crimes against humanity in North Korea “pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State for decades.” The resolution calls on the UN Security Council to consider further action, including referral to the International Criminal Court and the imposition of sanctions for the worst human rights violators.
Since the commission issued its report in February, North Korea has been on the defensive. Last month, it issued its own human rights report which incredibly denied any human rights violations. More recently, North Korea circulated to UN member states a counter-resolution commending its own efforts at dialogue and requesting international bodies, including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – an institution that leaders in Pyongyang reportedly threatened months before – to provide cooperation.
This newfound engagement is a far cry from North Korea’s decade-long defiance of UN human rights calls and rebuffs to the international community’s efforts to engage. But no one should confuse a shift in North Korean tactics in New York and Geneva with a change in behavior in Pyongyang. It’s telling that North Korea refused to engage with the commission of inquiry and still denies unconditional access to Marzuki Darusman, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. At yesterday’s event, North Korea’s version of “dialogue” was on full display: a denial of the commission of inquiry’s findings and a willingness to engage with the world only on its terms.
UN member states should remember the testimony of victims like Mrs. Kim when casting their vote for the upcoming EU-Japan led resolution on North Korea. Overwhelming support for the resolution will show that the world stands with the victims in North Korea, and in doing so, help isolate North Korea and its allies who prefer to look the other way.