News / Asia

UN Investigators Accuse N. Korea of Widespread Rights Violations

Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, gestures during a news conference after delivering his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Sept. 17, 2013.
Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, gestures during a news conference after delivering his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Sept. 17, 2013.
Lisa Schlein
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry accuses North Korea of systematic, widespread and grave violations, which could amount to crimes against humanity.  In a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Commission presents searing testimony of great human suffering by camp survivors. 

If there was one thing Shin Dong Hyuk could count on during the two decades he spent in a North Korean prison camp, it was that he would suffer.  Like others, it could encompass a range of abuses, from beatings to starvation, to committing unspeakable acts of barbarism. 

But the worst was hopelessness - the resignation, as Shin described to an audience in Washington last year, that there was no escape.

"The first thing that prisoners learn," Shin said, "is that if they escape, they will be punished. They will be punished by death and that is the rule that cannot be broken."

Accounts of abuses gathered from North Korean exiles in Seoul and Tokyo were the focus of a report submitted Tuesday in Geneva to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The investigators say the public hearings, which were held last month, provided hours of riveting testimony from dozens of victims as well as several expert witnesses.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the three-member Commission, says the group listened to political prison camp survivors who suffered through childhoods of starvation and unspeakable atrocities.  He says children are imprisoned in a practice known as “guilt by association" in which generations are punished for a family member’s perceived political views or affiliation. 

“We think of the testimony of a young man, imprisoned from birth and living on rodents and lizards and grass to survive, witnessing the public execution of his mother and his brother," he said. "We think of the testimony of a young woman, forcibly repatriated and imprisoned for leaving the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], describing how she witnessed a female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket.” 

Kirby says the Commission heard testimony from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief. 

He says the Commission heard of deliberate starvation and other serious abuses occurring in other types of detention facilities and the suffering of an entire population recurrently facing malnutrition.

He says the testimonies heard by the investigators represent large-scale patterns of behavior that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations.

North Korean Councilor Kim Hong Yo rejected the report.  He called the inquiry a fake and a defamatory plot to force regime change in North Korea.  He said the human rights inquiry had been politicized by the European Union and Japan in alliance with the hostile policy of the United States. 

“The Government of the DPRK will in the future, too, continue to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of its own peoples braving through all sorts of mean political strategy and plots pursued by the hostile forces,” said  Kim Hong Yo.  

This is the first report produced by the Commission, which was formed in March to investigate gross violations, including the violation of the right to food, torture and inhumane treatment in North Korea. 

The Commission says it will continue its investigations in the coming months.  It says it will seek to determine which state institutions and officials were responsible for gross human rights violations. The commission is expected to submit a final report early next year.

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