A new United Nations report
accuses North Korea of “unspeakable atrocities," many of which amount to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea is calling for an international tribunal to investigate the alleged crimes and to bring those most responsible to justice.
The chair of the three-member commission said Monday that the panel gathered abundant evidence from more than 80 witnesses and satellite images. Many of the witnesses were defectors who survived prison camps and escaped across the border and through China.
“We had testimony, which is quoted in the report, which tells the stories of the prison camps -- of the starvation, of the great famine and of the deployment of inadequate resources … of the babies who are born stunted and who remain stunted … of abductions, of the public executions, and of the fact that many people simply disappear -- they disappear either into the prison camps or into public executions or private and secret executions,” he said.
Even before details were released Monday on the panel's historic one-year investigation, leaks to the media showed it found gross violations.
They include summary executions, rape, torture, forced abortions and enslavement.
The U.N. report said religious minorities and political dissidents suffer the most, with up to 120,000 living in town-sized prison camps.
Lee Jung-hoon, South Korea's Ambassador for Human Rights, said the U.N. report is the first reliable and legal evidence of atrocities in North Korea.
He said the report also specifies that North Korea’s crimes can be labeled as genocide, which means the crime can be applied to the leadership of North Korea, including Kim Jong Un.
There are no exemptions to this crime, Lee said. So, even if the two Koreas are reunified within 5, 10 or 50 years, the leaders of North Korea can still be punished.
North Korea refused to allow U.N. investigators to visit the country and rejected the panel's formation as slander against it.
Despite the call for prosecution, there is little chance North Korean leaders will face justice.
A U.N. Security Council decision would be needed to send the case to the International Criminal Court, and North Korea's main backer, China, has veto power.
During the investigation, Beijing ignored the U.N. panel's request to visit its border area with North Korea.
China's Foreign Ministry Monday said submitting the U.N. report to the ICC would not help resolve human rights in North Korea.
However, Lilian Lee, with the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, is still optimistic. She pointed out that the mere existence of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) was once dismissed as impossible.
"So I don’t think that we can count out any legal mechanism taking place because of one or two specific countries. You know of course it may not happen right away. And, just like it took many years for the COI to establish itself for North Korea, we can probably assume that it can take many more years for any sort of justice system to take action," Lee said.
The commission sent the report to Pyongyang in January but never received a reply.
The report's findings will officially be presented March 17 to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The report is being made public as relations between the two Koreas are improving and will come out just days before renewed cross-border family reunions.
Seoul convinced Pyongyang on Friday to resume the reunions despite its joint military drills with the U.S.
Ambassador Lee said the timing of North Korea's concession just ahead of the U.N. report is not likely a coincidence.
Lee said North Korea knows how strong the U.N. panel's recommendation is. In other words, he assesses that North Korea did not change sincerely but is taking a quick strategy to try to avoid criticism by the international community.
The two sides also agreed not to slander each other so Pyongyang will be closely watching Seoul's comments on the U.N. report.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim and Lisa Schlein in Geneva contributed to this report.