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North Korea’s Brutality Laid Bare

More UN Security Council Members Should Impose Sanctions on Pyongyang

A North Korean soldier stands guard at the entrance of a women’s prison near Chongsong, North Korea, May 31, 2009. © 2009 Reuters

Ji Hyeona, a North Korean woman detained by Chinese authorities and forcibly repatriated after each of her first three attempts to flee North Korea, described her harrowing experiences at the United Nations today. In her deeply moving testimony, she explained how North Korean officials beat her and fed her only rotten food before she finally managed to reach South Korea on her fourth attempt. As she described how she was forced by the bowibu (North Korea's Ministry of State Security) to abort her first child after being captured a third time, and how her little sister was trafficked and sold into slavery after a failed escape attempt, her voice broke and faltered.

Ms. Ji recounted her horrific ordeal at an event organized by UN Security Council members. The event followed a key debate at the council on North Korea’s human rights record – the fourth time in four years the council has voted, despite objections from China and Russia, to hold such a debate. Spotlighting North Korea’s appalling human rights record at this apex UN body serves as a reminder that crimes against humanity cannot be ignored.

North Korea’s cruelty – described by the UN as, “unparalleled in the modern world,” – sees millions of its people suffer grave human rights violations at the hands of their own government, including torture, murder, enslavement, and rape.

Unsurprisingly, these annual UN discussions are a thorn in China’s side, and compel Beijing to try and defend the indefensible. At the council today, China once again tried to block the meeting by insisting that the human rights situation in North Korea does not pose a threat to international peace and security. But the bulk of the council disagreed.

China also deserves greater scrutiny for its role in supporting the Kim regime and facilitating North Korea’s egregious abuses. China has recently intensified its crackdown on North Korean refugees fleeing through China to find protection in a third country. As Ms. Ji described in stark detail, North Korean refugees have been tortured in Chinese detention, but face even worse treatment upon their forced return to North Korea. China should uphold its legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the UN Refugee Convention.

Some UN member states have already taken action on this: the United States has sanctioned individual members of the North Korean regime on human rights grounds three times. Evidence from North Koreans suggests that abuses have sometimes been reduced as a direct consequence of these human rights sanctions. Other states should follow suit.

The UN Security Council should consider similar measures, but also press for criminal accountability, including before the International Criminal Court, so that victims may one day receive the long overdue justice they deserve.

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