Damning report

The report shines light on one of the humanity’s darkest corners and reveals the unspeakable brutality of a regime against its own people.

North Korea’s nuclear proliferation activities and belligerent threats on its southern neighbour are news that has been hitting the international headlines. The world is familiar with such activities of the pariah state. But not much information flows regarding what is happening  inside the country.

The hermit state maintains a strict and rigid information control system and any violation of these result in harshest of punishment, including public execution. North Korea rarely allows outside surveys on its human rights situation. A report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights released on February 17, 2014 reveals the grim rights record of Pyongyang. The report calls for an international criminal investigation into the North Korean regime.

The three-member panel found evidence of an array of crimes, including ‘extermination,’ crimes against humanity against starving populations and a widespread campaign of abduction of individuals in South Korea and Japan. The three-member commission, led by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby came up with the report which is the first official inquiry into the history of atrocities committed
inside North Korea.

The 372-page report shines a bright light on one of the humanity’s darkest corners and reveals the ‘unspeakable’ brutality of a regime against its own people, comparable with Nazi abuses uncovered after World War II. The hard evidences that the three-member panel gathered can be appropriately used for the eventual prosecution of the North Korean leaders after the regime collapses. The report documents truths which show that the leadership in Pyongyang has been resorting to systematic use of rape, murder, and torture, mainly because its popular support base is either weak or simply does not exist.

The report says that an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people still remain in political prisons, many of them put there simply after a close relative showed weak loyalty to the Kim dynasty. The report observes that the list of atrocities over decades amount to crimes against humanity.

The investigators have said that the massive human rights violations in North Korea amounts to crimes against humanity which should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The report is the result of a year-long investigation marked by unprecedented public testimony by defectors, which were held in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the US. In a letter that Kirby wrote to Kim Jong-un on January 20, 2014, he cautioned that he may be personally responsible for crimes against humanity. “Any official of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who commits, orders, solicits or aids and abets crimes against humanity incurs criminal responsibility by international law and must be held accountable under that law.” The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will debate the report on March  17, and the 48-member body will also consider the recommendations.

China’s stand

The UN report is so damning that it may hasten the collapse of North Korea. The question is, will China, North Korea’s only ally, continue to keep supplying food aid to its isolated neighbour and keep it afloat? China continues to use North Korea as a tool to keep US influence in the region under control. For China, the strategic significance of North Korea is huge and this is unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

Beijing is aware that the UN report will damage its reputation and therefore refused a request by the three-member investigation team to interview exiled North Koreans near its border.

China takes the position that ‘constructive dialogue’ with the North Korea was the only answer. What is then the next step? After endorsing the report, the UN Human Rights Council will ask the UN Security Council to refer the evidence to the International Criminal Court. In all probability, China will veto the request. The next logical step would be for the 48-member Council to push for an independent judicial panel, similar to those created for prosecuting human rights violations in Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. This route is again not that easy.

North Korea has rejected the “unfounded findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding crimes against humanity” and would “never accept that”. North Korea denounced it as politically motivated by “hostile forces” trying to discredit it and change its socialist system.

The Commission conducted public hearings with more than 80 victims and other witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington and has recommended that the UN Security Council refer the findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, North Korea’s longtime ally, China, will likely block any proposed referral to the ICC. Being a permanent member, China enjoys veto power and can easily exercise it to bail out its ally.

Against this background, can one expect some hope for the situation to improve in North Korea? One optimistic view is that Pyongyang sometime shows sensitivity to international opinion as the recent reunion of families amidst planned US-South Korea military drills demonstrated. Or was it a move to soften its image tarnished by the Kerby report? Or is the leadership worried of a possible revolt by the lower-level officials in the country who find the Kerby’s findings difficult to digest?

North Korean system seems to be having its internal contradictions as was the case in the Soviet Union before it disintegrated. Does it mean that the report will facilitate collapse of the regime and if that happens, are there any contingency measures to cope with the new situation? Or will the report embolden the regime to be more ruthless to strengthen its hold on power? These are some hypothetical questions but the way the regime is conducting its business, a regime collapse could be a possibility but its inevitability would be delayed so long as its possession of nuclear weapons remains as deterrence.

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