The Kim Regime’s Atrocities and the Road Ahead

NED President Carl Gershman’s article as it appeared in the World Affairs Journal on March 5th.

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the report of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea. UN reports often have very limited impact and resonance. But this report was different. Its impact has already been significant, which is testimony to the quality of the work done by the three commissioners—the Australian judge Michael Kirby, who chaired the body; the Indonesian lawyer and politician Marzuki Darusman, who is also the UN special rapporteur for North Korea; and the Serbian human rights defender Sonja Biserko.

The COI heard the testimony of 200 witnesses who had been able to defect from North Korea. While most of the witnesses did not testify publicly for fear of endangering family and associates in North Korea, 80 of them were prepared to give their testimony at public hearings. Their statements were filmed, uploaded on the Internet, and available for viewing around the world.

Never before has the international community been able to hear such comprehensive testimony about the suffering of people in North Korea and the terrible crimes committed by the regime there. The main reason for the lack of information on North Korea is that until recently, the country was a completely closed system. There was no literature on the internal nature of the system. There was only a very small handful of exiles. But with the terrible famine in the 1990s and the breakdown of the public distribution system, people began to escape, even though trying to do so is extremely dangerous and can lead to death or harsh detention if someone is intercepted or forcibly repatriated. Over the past 15 years, about 27,000 North Koreans have been able to defect, and they have become an unprecedented source of information about the North Korean system and society. There are also now satellite images of North Korea that are especially valuable in identifying prison camps whose existence is denied by the regime.

The COI heard testimony from such defectors, and the 372 pages of detailed findings that accompany its 36-page report are a devastating indictment of the North Korean system. The report documents the regime’s all-encompassing indoctrination machine that is used to incite hatred against official enemies. It describes the state surveillance that follows the private lives of every citizen. It explains the loyalty-based songbun caste system that divides the population along lines of perceived political loyalty and religion, with the lowest castes receiving the harshest treatment and the least food. It doesn’t shrink from providing a detailed account of the North Korean gulag, the system of prison camps where three generations of entire families are sent for the alleged political crime of a single family member. It notes as well that the prison camp population “has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide,” leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The report also criticizes China for its “rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating” North Koreans who have crossed the border illegally, and it insists that they be recognized as refugees fleeing persecution. It concludes that the testimony and other information it received “established that crimes against humanity have been committed” in North Korea “at the highest level of the State.”

One indication of the report’s influence is that the North Korean government has launched what the human rights specialist David Hawk has called a “furious” diplomatic response, something it has never done before in reaction to criticism of its human rights abuses. Before now, Hawk notes, the regime had maintained that human rights issues were “non-existent” since “there could be no human-rights problems in their people-centered socialist system.” Now, the regime has officially responded to the COI by issuing an eight-page “detailed report” of its own attacking the US for having “fabricated” anti-regime actions in the UN that “are naturally compelling the army and people of the DPRK to launch the toughest counteraction to cope with them.” It has also threatened to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal in response to the report, and it has organized a mass rally in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, the capital, denouncing the UN resolution and vowing “to mercilessly retaliate against the US and its allies.”

Showing that it had been flustered and disconcerted by the COI report, the regime has also launched a charm offensive, sending its foreign minister to the UN General Assembly for the first time in 15 years and a high-level diplomat to Brussels with offers to the European Union of renewed dialogue. It has also received James Clapper, the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, in Pyongyang, and allowed him to escort two American political prisoners, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miler, back to the US.

What has probably contributed to the North Korean regime’s consternation is that the COI report includes an extensive and comprehensive list of recommendations that open with a call for Pyongyang to “undertake profound political and institutional reforms without delay.” Other recommendations call upon the Security Council to refer the human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, and upon China to end its policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees. Overall the recommendations are very ambitious, and three in particular suggest practical ways of expanding international engagement on the issue.

The first is the recommendation to form a contact group of donors and other countries with friendly ties to North Korea who would raise human-rights concerns in their ongoing bilateral relations. Scandinavian and other Western countries are obvious candidates for such a group, and they’re doing it already. I believe the main idea is to involve countries from the Global South—Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America—to show that human rights is not just a concern of the advanced democracies of the West. This would also include encouraging global democracy networks, like the nongovernmental World Movement for Democracy and the intergovernmental Community of Democracies, to raise the issue of North Korean human rights with their members and participants. Countries like Indonesia and Mongolia are natural candidates for such a group, but there are many other countries that could be involved, and the growing interest of the UN in the issue should encourage other countries to participate. The contact group might start by focusing on less politically sensitive issues like better access to educational opportunities for young North Koreans, access to immunization and better health care, and adequate nutrition for pregnant women and children.

The second is the recommendation that states in the region should initiate something like a Helsinki process. The idea of developing a collective security system for northeast Asia that, like the one used for Cold War Europe, would include broad provisions for cooperation in humanitarian and other fields and also freer movement of people and information, has been around for some time. Had the six-party talks succeeded, such a process might have evolved out of one of the working groups. South Korea has now proposed the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, or NAPCI, which is a framework for multilateral security cooperation. It is still at a very early stage, and a realistic next step might be trilateral consultations among South Korea, the US, and Japan, involving both government officials and policy specialists, to consider the feasibility of a collective security system that would have a “basket three” human-rights dimension in addition to provisions dealing with security issues and economic cooperation. It is useful to remember that the initial agenda for the Helsinki process began with discussions among NATO allies over the course of three years. Such a process might also offer a way to make progress on other recommendations of the COI, such as getting China to respect the principle of non-refoulement and stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees; and fostering both inter-Korean dialogue and people-to-people dialogue between North Korea and other countries.

Finally, there is the recommendation to establish a structure to ensure that those most responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable for their actions. Transitional justice is a central issue in every transition. It consists of measures both judicial and nonjudicial, including criminal prosecutions and truth commissions, to redress the legacy of massive human rights abuses—to punish those most guilty, to give a truthful and comprehensive accounting of the abuses, and to recognize the rights of the victims. The hope is that by striving for accountability and truth, a society can find a way to rebuild civic trust and the rule of law. Inevitably there will be punishment for crimes committed. But retribution is not enough. There must also be reconciliation.

The abuses in North Korea have been so massive that it is hard to imagine what a process of transitional justice would look like. That, of course, is for the future. For now, there are two immediate tasks. First, because the North Korean regime is aware of the growing international concern about the crimes it has committed and may seek to destroy evidence, it is necessary to collect as much evidence and document as many crimes as possible. Second, it is important for those involved in the cause of North Korean human rights to begin studying the issue of transitional justice and to examine how it has been dealt with in post-Communist and other countries that have experienced transitions over the last three decades. Among the people who can provide guidance on how to undertake such an examination are commissioners Darusman and Biserko, each of whom has played a pivotal role in dealing with issues of transitional justice in their own respective countries. Such an examination will help people concerned about North Korea start thinking through a complex issue that will have to be addressed in the future if there is an opening. It would also be useful to find a way to communicate a nuanced and informed understanding of transitional justice to elites in North Korea, among whom there must be people who realize that the current system is doomed but who can’t imagine how they could survive a process of transition.

It’s possible to conclude that the system in North Korea is so repressive that such a transition is impossible. But I don’t believe that’s true for three reasons. The first is the stunning success of South Korea, which is an existential rebuke to the North and shows that its system has no future. The second is that the isolation of the society and control system in the North are beginning to break down as a result of a number of factors. Among these are the increased movement of people across the border, the growth of local markets to replace the public distribution system, and greater access to information provided by shortwave radio broadcasts and the growing presence of data storage and messaging devices that are raising the consciousness of people at the grassroots level. The third is that the world—informed by the COI report, satellite photographs of the camps, and many other reports, books, and films—is more aware than ever before of the terrible abuses taking place, leading to new pressures for change that will only grow.

The prospect for change in North Korea is enhanced by the role being played by civil-society organizations—many of them South Korean human-rights and free-media groups, and now also organizations run by North Korean defectors. The COI report benefited from the sustained human-rights advocacy of these groups, and it also invigorated these groups, many of which are actually reaching people in North Korea with information about the outside world and messages of hope. The COI report, therefore, not only got the international community to think more about how to build pressure, networks, and coalitions for human rights in North Korea. It also got human-rights and civil-society groups to think about how to strengthen the awareness within North Korea of the outside world and to provide information about the meaning of human rights and the kind of change that the UN is now calling for. If people within North Korea are aware of the growing international pressure for change, they will begin to find ways to express their own views, despite all the dangers and obstacles they face. In the end, change will come not only from outside pressure. It must also come from within.

One way or another, a transition in North Korea is coming. The COI has made that more likely by putting the well-being of the people of North Korea on the agenda of the international community, something that’s never been done before. With its recommendations, it has also provided a road map that can be used in helping the people of North Korea achieve freedom. The task now is to keep up the pressure, implement the recommendations, and find ways to connect with the North Korean people. Though the COI has ended its work, the commissioners are all committed to staying engaged and building support for their recommendations. An important process has begun, but the real work lies ahead.