Little is known about North Korea: The Hermit Kingdom tightly regulates the access of foreign visitors, presumably in order to both reduce the risk of being exposed for being the rogue state it is – but also to prevent any kind of meaningful contact between the North Korean population and foreign citizens, who may end up regaling them with stories of economic prosperity, technological superiority and a seemingly borderless international community. Arguably, the country’s citizens are completely unaware of things we take for granted, including the existence of the internet. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
In a week in which the poor record of the United States on its own intelligence service’s detention and interrogation programme was revealed for the entire world to see, another seven days passed by in which North Korea’s human rights record went completely unmentioned. If anyone deserves to be on trial for violations against international criminal law, it is the current leadership of the North Korean state, including (but not solely) the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un. Given the personal eccentricities of successive leaders of the Kim political dynasty and the ominous subtext of the nation’s nuclear weapons programme, it is easy to forget that North Korea is also a rogue state by virtue of one of the world’s worst human rights records ever seen. It makes the CIA excesses under President Bush look positively amateurish in their brutality. In its 2014 Country Report, Amnesty International put it succinctly: North Korea is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations, with “every conceivable human right” being kicked to the proverbial curb.
What does that look like? We’re talking about families being imprisoned for the alleged wrongdoings of their relatives – of course, said rule established by the current North Korean leader’s grandfather Kim Il-Sung (and most prominently practiced by the genocidal Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler during World War II) doesn’t apply to the Kim Dynasty itself. We’re talking about rampant torture, with sleep deprivation, kicking, beatings with iron rods and enforced sitting for hours. Women are routinely abused and raped in detention facilities, whilst the death penalty is applied quite liberally – with capital crimes including “crimes against the people” and “crimes against the state”, whatever these may or may not be. Political prisoners are held in forced labour camps, accounts of which are reminiscent of concentration camps erected by the Nazis or the Bosnian Serbs during their respective campaigns of genocidal conquest.
“Life” in these camps is abject misery, violence and terror. Political dissidents and their families are forced to work in mines, in the fields and forests. The detainees are deliberately starved, beaten, tortured, forced to eat grass and soil and given no medical attention if they become sick. Once the North Korean state no longer has any use for them anymore or they resist in any way, shape or form, they are executed on the spot – with no trial, no appeal, no due process and not even the pretense of the rule of law. There are reports of massacres in the concentration camps – given the brutality of the North Korean regime, they wouldn’t be surprising at all.
The totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime extends to the media: DVDs, flash drives with foreign television programmes are banned. The media is state-run, with no foreign press and ample brainwashing deifying the ruling family. You’re not allowed to leave the country without permission from the North Korean state. China, celebrated by much of the world as a rising power, assists the North Korean regime by sending back any refugees from North Korea – stories of escape exist, as North Koreans desperate to escape the murderous, barbaric tyranny of the Kim regime defy the odds to get to the Middle Kingdom.
However, many would-be escapees aren’t so fortunate: In one notorious instance, a North Korean guard forced a mother to drown her recently-born baby. Essentially, North Korea is a twenty-first century version of Nazi Germany. This is a premise confirmed by the extensive report of the Human Rights Council, published this February, in which it stated that North Korea was a state “where the commission of human rights violations and crimes against humanity is ingrained into the institutional framework”. The document also confirms (in para 426) the racist nature of the North Korean regime, a little-noted aspect in the reporting usually conducted about the country. Even though the report itself is long, you can glean its thematic thrust by reading the findings on 351 and then move towards pages 352-362 to the legal elements (in terms of criminal responsibility). The report is comprehensive and goes into detail about life in the North Korean dictatorship.
Finally, in a signal that someone is attempting to do something about this flagrant, manifest and egregious commission of crimes against humanity, the Council also suggested (in para 1202) that the Security Council either refer the violations to the ICC or set up an ad hoc tribunal (as happened for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Lebanon). However, given the fact that China (due to its own geostrategic interests) and Russia (essentially to make things difficult for the West, even though this is not a partisan issue) are most likely going to veto any Security Council action, the best hope would be a tribunal authorized by the UN General Assembly. But will an institution, whose Member Countries are, by and large, dictatorships or autocracies themselves, capable of doing the right thing in this instance?
But can the inner circle around the Kim dynasty, its acolytes and public officials ever be brought to justice. Let’s be honest: Whenever an ad hoc tribunal was set up (i.e. all the cases above), said establishment was made possible by foreign military intervention (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia), a request by a new government (Lebanon) or by consent among the P5 countries in the UN Security Council. In this instance, such unanimity is not forthcoming, courtesy Messrs Xi and Putin. China and Russia refused to sign Australia’s letter requesting that the Security Council be formally informed about the poor human rights situation. By effectively doing nothing, these particular countries (if not legally) are shielding an abuser of human rights and keeping it in the shadows.
Right now, the world’s options on North Korea are limited: After the illegal war in Iraq and its (justified, but nonetheless costly) military operations in Afghanistan, the United States is only beginning to recover. The American public’s appetite for war is understandably low, though the next President may very well have to get over that when it comes to North Korea. Whether it’s the country’s human rights abuses or its possession of nuclear weapons, the international community cannot tolerate further brinkmanship from what is essentially Rogue State Prime. The existence of concentration camps, massive human rights abuses and degrading, inhuman treatment for anyone except the privileged few is a blot on humanity’s conscience. If the world can discuss excesses under the Bush Administration, it should surely educate the wider public about the horrors going on in North Korea. Every day that goes by is a day of further tyranny for the North Korean people.
Every year, during the Christmas season, a South Korean group erects a makeshift Christmas tree using lights, with a cross on top – an affront to a country where its dictators play god every day. It was a symbol so threatening to North Korea’s dictators that they threatened to bomb the South Korean border to get rid of it. For a country in darkness, that’s a telltale sign of the fear of the outside. Hopefully, one day, the world can lead North Korea towards the light.