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Commission Chairman Michael Kirby
Associated Press/Photo by Anja Niedringhaus
Commission Chairman Michael Kirby

UN commission: North Korean people subjected to ‘unspeakable atrocities’

North Korea

A United Nations panel released a report Monday that minced no words in detailing the “unspeakable atrocities” committed against the people of North Korea and called for an international criminal investigation. In an unusual move, the report also directly warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that an international prosecution will “render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for crimes against humanity.” 

The 372-page set of reports and supporting documents is the product of a yearlong investigation by the independent, temporary commission established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013. The council tasked the commission with investigating the wide range of ongoing human rights violations in North Korea, all of which trace back to “policies established at the highest level of state,” according to the report. It is the most extensive and serious attempt yet to gather such evidences against today’s most authoritarian state. 

The commission compiled its report from about 80 public witness testimonies in Seoul, South Korea, Tokyo, London, and Washington, D.C., more than 240 confidential interviews from victims and witnesses, and 80 formal submissions from various entities. North Korea ignored the commission’s repeated requests for access, including a direct letter to Kim Jong Un urging him to stop further crimes against humanity. It even warned he would be held personally responsible if it could prove he knew about human rights violations and failed to prevent them. 

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After the first hearings in Seoul, however, North Korea broke its silence. Its official news agency derided the witnesses as “human scum” and accused them of slander. Although barred from conducting actual investigations inside the country, the commission was able to verify the witnesses’ credibility and consistency through hundreds of highly specific, first-hand testimonies and other supporting materials, such as internal documents, satellite images, videos, and photographs.

The report’s graphic details of the systematic, widespread, and gross crimes are gruesome and horrible to read. One of the gravest violations involves the country’s political prison camps, where an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people are held and subjected to lifelong hard labor, torture, disease, starvation, propaganda, rape, forced abortions, and infanticide. “The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report notes. 

Both China and North Korea announced their opposition to the report on Monday. North Korea, predictably, denounced it as a bundle of “faked evidence” in “a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.” It compared the commission to “a marionette running here and there in order to represent the ill-minded purposes of the string-pullers”— specifically, the United States, Japan, and the European Union. 

China, North Korea’s main ally, denied that North Korean defectors face torture after forced repatriation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Monday that any “disputes” over human rights issues shouldn’t be brought to the International Criminal Court, because such dialogue should be “based on equal footing and mutual respect.” The report will most likely not make it to international court because China is one of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. 

“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action,” said commission chairman and retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, who was “deeply moved” by the victims’ harrowing testimonies. “Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.” 

Look for more details about the UN report on North Korea in an upcoming issue of WORLD magazine. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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