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International Spotlight Shines on DPRK Rights Abuses

FILE - Former North Korean defectors pay silent tribute during a rally for victims of human rights abuses in Seoul, South Korea, in December 2010.

As a girl, Grace Jo barely survived the North Korean famines of the 1990s.

"Our food was wild vegetables, grasshoppers, mice and tree bark. That was our only food for several years," she said.

At one point, she was on the verge of death from malnutrition until her grandmother found six baby mice under a stone in their yard. "She boiled [them] and I ate those boiled, and I was saved."

Jo recounted the harrowing story of her and her family's struggle for food in North Korea to reporters on Thursday, ahead of a meeting in the United Nations Security Council to discuss human rights abuses in the isolated Asian nation.

After two of Jo's brothers died of starvation, her father was arrested, tortured and died in jail for trying to leave the country to find food for his family, Jo recounted.

Twice, she escaped North Korea to neighboring China, only to be forcibly sent back and then jailed.

International reaction

Speaking of Jo and another defector's experiences, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the Security Council that their experiences "are a powerful reminder of the human impact of the regime's horrors."

Despite objections from China, Russia, Venezuela and Angola, the council went ahead and discussed North Korea's human rights situation for only the second time. Those nations objected to the session, saying such issues are not within the purview of the council, which is charged with dealing with matters relating to international peace and security.

"I ask whether those countries think systematic torture, forced starvation and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don't think that," Power said.

FILE - A drawing depicts a public execution of a North Korean soldier during a human rights rally in Seoul, South Korea, April 14, 2011.
FILE - A drawing depicts a public execution of a North Korean soldier during a human rights rally in Seoul, South Korea, April 14, 2011.

A 2014 independent U.N. Commission of Inquiry report detailed horrific abuses, including murder, torture, rape, imprisonment, religious and political persecution, and prolonged starvation in North Korea. It also found that hundreds of thousands of people have died in North Korean prison camps over several decades. Those camps are still believed to contain between 80,000 and 120,000 people.

The commission concluded that "crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

Pyongyang strenuously denounced the report.


"This is the work of a totalitarian state with no parallel anywhere elsewhere in the world today," said British Ambassador Peter Wilson. "Such flagrant human rights violations cannot go unchallenged by this council."

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein briefed the council, noting that the meeting appropriately fell on International Human Rights Day.

He supported a call by the U.N. General Assembly urging the Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, saying it is "essential, given the scale and extreme gravity of the allegations."

FILE - Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
FILE - Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

Such a move would face stiff opposition from veto-wielding council member China, the North's main international ally.

The rights commissioner said he welcomed "some tentative efforts at engagement" by Pyongyang, including an invitation to him to visit the country. He said his office is exploring the possibility.

International pressure

"There will be change in North Korea," Power told VOA. Speaking of the Commission of Inquiry report, she said, "When things are opened up, that documentary and evidentiary record will be available to the people of this country who have suffered so much. So I do think there will be accountability."

Defector Grace Jo says she hopes that day will come.

"I can't forget them," she said of her lost family members.