A United Nations panel has served notice to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that he may be personally held liable in court for crimes against humanity committed by state institutions and officials under his direct control. A letter conveying this notice forms part of a report by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, released Monday after a year-long investigation.
The report is viewed by rights activists not only as the most detailed and authoritative body of data on the state of human rights in North Korea, but also as a milestone in the international debate on that country, one of the world’s most reclusive and isolated.
In the letter, dated Jan. 20, the panel chairman, the retired Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby, summarized the investigation’s findings of crimes against humanity committed by officials that could be inferred to be acting under Mr. Kim’s personal control.
Addressing Mr. Kim, 31, Mr. Kirby wrote in the letter that his panel would recommend that the UN Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court to make all those responsible for crimes accountable, “including possibly yourself.”
“I hope that the international community will be moved by the detail, the amount, the long duration, the great suffering and the many tears that have existed in North Korea to act on the crimes against humanity,” Mr. Kirby said on Monday, speaking to reporters in the UN’s Geneva offices.
“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action,” Mr. Kirby said. “Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.”
North Korea denounced the report – and the entire process leading up to it – as a fabricated concoction of lies and deceits by North Korea’s enemies, including South Korea and the United States.
A statement from the North Korean Mission in Geneva, quoted by Reuters, said that such rights violations “do not exist in our country” and that the findings were “an instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.”
The North Korean authorities repeatedly denied the panel’s request for permission to visit the country to investigate abuses. The report relied heavily on testimony from North Korean refugees, escapees and asylum seekers.
The panel’s 36-page summary and a 372-page annex detail what the report describes as a wide range of crimes against humanity. The report also criticizes the political and security apparatus of the North Korean state, asserting that it has used surveillance, fear, public executions and enforced disappearances “to terrorize the population into submission.”
“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,” the report asserted, referring to North Korea by its official name. The report stopped short of alleging genocide but specified among others the crimes of “extermination,” murder, enslavement, torture, rape and persecution on grounds of race, religion and gender.
The report also reported in detail on the abduction of foreign citizens, notably from Japan and South Korea, observing “these international forced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.”
In many instances the abuses constitute crimes against humanity, the report asserted, adding “these are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components” and have been committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.”
Human-rights activists had pushed for the creation of the panel in a bid to broaden what had been the international community’s focus on North Korea’s nuclear program and bellicose security policies to the near exclusion of its human-rights record.
North Korea’s practice of what the report called “crimes that shock the conscience of humanity” for decades “raises questions about the inadequacy of the international community.”
“It really opens up a whole new chapter in the international reaction to North Korea,” Lee Jung-hoon, South Korea’s ambassador for human rights, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not just an investigation and a report and that’s the end of it. It’s giving a road map and blueprint to end this thing. There’s a very strong sense of urgency.”
There appears to be little immediate prospect of winning approval for International Criminal Court prosecution, however. Approval is necessary from the Security Council’s permanent members, which include North Korea’s long-time protector, China.
Still, Mr. Lee said, “just the fact that they are getting the vocabulary of crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Court and Kim Jong-un on the same page is a huge step forward in the debate on North Korean human rights.”
The panel also listed some other possible options for prosecution, including the formation of an ad hoc tribunal such as those convened to investigate crimes in the Balkans and Rwanda. It also called for the Human Rights Council to establish a structure to keep up the collection of evidence of human-rights violations.
Torture, murder, enslavement, starvation: what the report says
Torture chambers and prison camps
There has been a drop in the political prison camp population over the past few years, but this may be partly due to an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody” – through starvation and neglect, arduous forced labour, disease and executions, the report by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said.
The Korea Institute for National Unification estimates that 80,000 to 120,000 people are detained in political prison camps today, based on recent satellite imagery and first-hand testimony. The activist group Committee for Human Rights in North Korea puts the figures at 80,000 to 130,000. North Korea has a population of about 25 million.
“Torture is an established feature of the interrogation process,” the report said, citing testimony about a “torture chamber” at a detention facility of the State Security Department equipped with a water tank, shackles used to hang people upside down and long needles driven underneath prisoners’ fingernails.
Among the most shocking stories gathered by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea were those from political prison camps, evoking the darkest chapters of world history.
“One of the witnesses from one of the camps told of how his duties included gathering up the bodies of those who had died of starvation and putting them in a pot and burning them,” said the commission’s chair, former Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby. The former inmate then took the ash and remaining body parts to be used as fertilizer in nearby fields.
“When you see that image in your mind of bodies being burned, and of parts of bodies, unfortunately it does bring back to those, certainly of my age, memories of the end of the Second World War,” the 74-year-old Mr. Kirby told reporters.
Deprivation of food and starvation
North Korea has used food as “a means of control over the population” and “deliberate starvation” to punish political and ordinary prisoners, the UN report said.
In the 1990s, the report said, North Korea suffered famines as a result of floods and the collapse of support and hard currency from the Soviet Union. The death toll from the famines was more than 200,000 people, with some estimates placing it as high as three million.
“The commission finds that decisions, actions and omissions by the State and its leadership caused the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted permanent physical and psychological injuries on those who survived,” the report said.
As well, starvation is used as a means of control and punishment in detention facilities.
The report portrays a country that makes military spending – “predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme” – its priority, even during famines. And it will likely continue to do so.
“The commission is concerned that structural issues, including laws and policies that violate the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger, remain in place, which could lead to the recurrence of mass starvation,” the report said.
China’s role and foreign abduction
The report estimates that more than 200,000 people have been abducted by North Korea from other countries, especially South Korea and Japan – a policy attributed to wanting to get information about the countries and to bring in women for North Koreans to marry.
As well, the UN investigators told North Korea’s main ally, China, that it might be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea to face torture or execution. The report said that people who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to “torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence.”
Mr. Kirby wrote to China’s UN ambassador in Geneva saying there is evidence that Chinese officials have in some cases shared with North Korean officials “information about the contacts and conduct” of North Korean nationals subject to repatriation.
Ambassador Wu Haitao’s reply, dated Dec. 30, said North Koreans enter China illegally for economic reasons and some are engaged in “criminal acts such as theft, robbery, illegal harvesting.” Some North Koreans repeatedly enter China illegally, demonstrating that the allegation that repatriated citizens face torture is “not true,” Mr. Wu’s letter said.
The UN commission cited estimates that there are 10,000 to 25,000 children born of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. “The status of most of these children appears to be effectively stateless, as the Chinese families have been discouraged from registering such children because of the illegal status of their mothers,” it said.
Luxury goods and ‘parallel funds’
North Korea “continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods,” the report said.
Such imports are in violation of Security Council sanctions and have included high-quality cognac and whisky and equipment for a 1,000-person cinema, it said. There have been attempts to import Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment and dozens of pianos.
“Luxury good expenditure by the DPRK rose to $645.8-million in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of $300-million a year under Kim Jong-il,” the report said, citing a British newspaper report in October, 2013.
North Korean authorities also engage in legal and illegal activities to earn foreign currency, channelling it into “parallel funds” outside of the regular state budget, it said.
“They are kept at the personal disposal of the Supreme Leader and used to cover personal expenses of the Supreme Leader, his family and other elites surrounding him, as well as other politically sensitive expenditures,” it said.
Revenue from criminal activity, including drugs, has been estimated to be as much as $500-million a year in 2008, amounting to a third of North Korea’s annual exports at the time, the report said.
A former North Korean official, not identified in the report, provided information on the “illegal activities of DPRK embassies around the world. They were engaged in activities such as the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamic countries or the internationally prohibited trafficking of ivory from African countries to China,” the report said.
With reports from AP, AFP, and Reuters