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A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is burned by protesters during an anti-North Korea rally marking the second anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death in Seoul on Dec. 17, 2013. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is burned by protesters during an anti-North Korea rally marking the second anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death in Seoul on Dec. 17, 2013. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Globe editorial

The prison state known as North Korea Add to ...

North Korea’s nuclear test site is located not far from Hwansong gulag, the country’s most notorious prison camp, also known as Camp 16.

World leaders routinely and rightly warn of the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The country has conducted at least three nuclear tests at this facility in recent years, and leader Kim Jong-un shows absolutely no intention of dismantling its existing weapons or facilities. On his trip to Beijing last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded the alarm, urging China to “use every tool at its disposal” to persuade North Korea to denuclearize.

But where is the outrage over Camp 16, and the rest of North Korea’s concentration-camp-like prisons? The prospect of a North Korean nuclear strike is a terrifying hypothetical; the horror of North Korea’s prison camps is a daily reality. A recent report by Amnesty International, based on witness reports from Camp 16, paints a brutal portrait. Guards force prisoners to dig their own graves before killing them with hammers. Women and children are systematically raped and murdered.

Camp 16 is one of four numbered political prison camps, which are believed to house between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners. According to a new report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, conditions inside are comparable to the worst of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The UN report is a catalogue of the atrocities. One particularly disturbing passage describes the experiences of jailed women who are forced to drown their own babies, or undergo forced abortions through beatings, or surgical procedures without anesthetic.

The report says that the Pyongyang regime is carrying out widespread crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

These are crimes under international law, and so the report urges the UN Security Council to refer Kim Jong-un and his regime to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. That’s unlikely to happen, given China’s veto, its status as Pyongyang’s only ally and its long-standing reluctance to press its pariah-state neighbour.

World leaders have been willing to urge China to pressure North Korea over its nuclear-weapons program. Surely they can also ask Beijing to condemn the world’s most inhumane prison system.

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