A new report from a United Nations panel, due to be released on Monday, found that crimes against humanity have certainly been committed in North Korea and recommends referring the situation for international action.
The report is the result of a year-long effort from a U.N. Commission of Inquiry towards the communist country’s human rights abuses, the first of its kind to take such a deep-dive into the subject. The resulting document provides “evidence of an array of such crimes, including ‘extermination,’ crimes against humanity against starving populations and a widespread campaign of abductions of individuals in South Korea and Japan,” the Associated Press reports. While the report itself is still being kept under wraps until its release, the AP spoke with an individual familiar with the report and confirmed with a U.S. official.
Evidence gathered, the report will conclude, “create[s] reasonable grounds … to merit a criminal investigation by a competent national or international organ of justice.” Setting aside the unlikely event that a national court takes up the matter, the most likely venue for such an investigation would be the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague. Established in 2002, the Court has the mission of investigating individuals for crimes against humanity and genocide, which has lead to the indictment of sitting leader Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and former president Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D’Ivoire.
As North Korea is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document, the Court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to act on the commission’s report. For that, the Prosecutor has to wait for a referral from the United Nations Security Council. While the Council has become more open towards such referrals than in the past, as in the case of Libya in 2011, the chances of North Korean leaders such as Kim Jong Un appearing at the Hague has one serious obstacle: China. Beijing is not only one of Pyongyang’s closest allies, they hold a veto on the Security Council on all substantive matters — including ICC referrals.
“The odds are close to zero,” David Bosco, an assistant professor at American University and author of a recently published book on the ICC, told ThinkProgress when asked about Beijing possibly allowing for such a referral. Bosco pointed to a preliminary investigation the Court opened after North Korea shelled an island controlled by South Korea in 2010, killing two soldiers, and wounding another 17 soldiers and three civilians. The fact that South Korea is a party to the ICC could have allowed ICC to work independently, Bosco said, but Chinese officials warned the prosecutor away from looking into Pyongyang.
Given Chinese — and likely Russian — disapproval, Bosco “[doesn’t] think there’s any chance” the ICC will be investigating the DPRK. “This is looking like one of those things that goes down the memory hole after a few months, unfortunately,” he concluded.
Early reports of the panel’s findings have been trickling out since last September, when Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge and the panel’s leader, briefed the U.N. Human Rights Council on what it had heard so far in its dozens of interviews with refugees and defectors. “We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” Kirby said of his team’s work. “Women and men who exercised their human right to leave the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and were forcibly repatriated spoke about their experiences of torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention.”
“They had to live on rodents, grasshoppers, lizards and on grass and they were subject to cruelty,” Kirby told the BBC World TV in September, speaking about children interviewed during the panel’s investigation. “All in all it is a very horrifying story, the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen or read of since the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia] and the Nazi atrocities during the second world war,” Kirby continued.
Records of North Korea’s appalling human rights record have been on the rise in recent years, as the Internet has allowed for greater proliferation. Satellite imagery taken last year showed that one of North Korea’s many prison camps has been greatly expanded over recent years, likely due to an increase in occupants. These camps — which are viewable on Google maps — are home to up to 200,000 alleged political prisoners and others who require “reeducation.” Former prisoners’ graphic drawings depicting the horror of life in these camps likewise quickly went viral.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in China to discuss, among other issues, the Korean peninsula with Beijing. The focus of his meetings, however, has been on North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons program, not the human rights abuses occurring in the Hermit Kingdom.