08.03.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Human Rights in DPRK and the UN commission Part 1

765This is for the third time that we turn to the subject of the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea, under the leadership of former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby. On February 17, 2014, a 372-page report on human rights violations in North Korea was finally published on the website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As it was expected, the Commission has established the fact of crimes against humanity in the country. Based on an inspection, which lasted about a year, and based on the testimony of eighty witnesses, representatives of international organizations gathered some evidence confirming facts of the “killing” of people in the DPRK, as well as the facts of forced removal of people from South Korea and Japan. The completed list of crimes includes “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forced displacement, disappearances and blatant acts of inhuman organization of conscious long famine periods.”

The report does not indicate specific individuals responsible for the crimes, but in a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the drafters said that they would recommend launching a case against DPRK authorities in the International Criminal Court. According to the letter, the authors do not exclude that Kim Jong-un will be called to account.

How the Commission was formed

However, it is worth recalling, what data these conclusions were based on, and who represented this group of investigators. The Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013. The report of United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, stood at the basis of the investigation’s resolution. He is originally known for the following saying: “North Korea has replaced South Africa as the country with total violation of human rights. Of course, it cannot be compared with the genocide in Rwanda and Somalia, but this is a system that denies human rights.” The Serbian human rights activist, Sonja Biserko, assisted him. Michael Kirby was appointed as the head of the commission. He is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia and quite a respected legislator. 

The Commission was responsible for checking the facts of “systematic, widespread and flagrant violations of human rights in DPRK” to “ensure the full responsibility of the guilty, especially cases where such violations can be regarded as a crime against humanity.”

Curiously, one of the three members of the commission, who was the main initiator of its creation, has experience in investigating situations that included actual mass murders and rapes. We are talking about the crisis in Haiti, which, unlike the North Korean case, has been much better documented. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of the head of the commission of inquiry, the events in Haiti are almost never mentioned in the mass media, although theoretically such a large-scale massacre should be recalled in similar case. Apparently, Haiti is one thing, where “democracy” won, while “totalitarian” North Korea is quite another.

How the data was gathered and interpreted

Investigation of mass crimes is always an extremely difficult undertaking, because it does not have to prove individual cases, but rather prove namely a systemic character. This is well illustrated by the work of partisan red and white terror, when, depending on the political views of the author, “they” always have a planned system of destruction, and “we” have individual cases, referred to as “the executor’s excesses”.

“I certainly would like to try to work with North Korea in order to obtain the most reliable and trustworthy materials for the UN, which would confirm or refute this information,” Mr. Kirby reported at the beginning of the commission’s activity. However, the commission was not allowed into the DPRK, and it began its activity with the collection of evidence of defectors living in the Republic of Korea.

However, instead of continuous work with a large number of witnesses, official Seoul arranged public hearings with only 30 narrators. These had a propagandistic character and excluded the possibility of asking awkward questions, rechecking of the data with other sources, etc. This was not the format where the investigation could arrange new interrogations, carry out in-depth interviews, break the format of the presentation, or even expose lies.

As a result, along with the testimony of those who were honest, much questionable data was added. For example, when analysing any criminal case, involving a person who, by his own words, had denounced his family to receive additional rations, the investigation would have supplementary questions, and not only as to the moral qualities of the witness. In addition, the investigation would have doubts as to the validity of a witness’s testimony (he might have been lying to obtain another “bonus”). Meanwhile, the investigation did not have any questions for such a witness as Shin Dong-hyuk, one who even has a doubtful North Korean identity.

The investigation even believed the stories of torture, after which (if they were real) people more strongly built than Shin, would have died or would have remained disabled for life. Indeed, as it can be seen in Russian and Western publications, the only ‘star’ mentioned at the hearings in Seoul was Shin Dong-hyuk.

In this context, it is worth mentioning the common horror stories, including the sensational information that repatriated women were forced to abort their babies if they became pregnant in China. The fact is that the Commission did not indicate that the main source of information was a protestant activist, already living a long time in the U.S.A., Kim Kyong-ok, and omitted her confession about the “GULAG for babies”, where infants were thrown into soup cauldrons in front of the eyes of their mothers.

It is funny that the number of political prisoners in North Korean prisons has been determined at 80–120 thousand people, though earlier the media wrote about 200,000 imprisoned people. This significant adjustment of data can be compared to the information about 600,000 people that died of hunger (more precisely, malnutrition and disease) in North Korea in the years 1995-1997. Some zealous authors speak about one and a half or two million people, while others claim even three million people.

There were some real problems that the Commission noticed. They mentioned the Sonbun system (according to which after the 1950-53 war, the DPRK population was divided into three layers: “base”, “wavering” and “hostile”), naming DPRK as a “rigidly stratified society with embedded principles of discrimination”. This data, however, was gathered not from the defectors, but was borrowed from a report prepared by an American human rights activist, Greg Scarlatoiu. If the committee took the data directly, it could have been asked whether the system had degenerated into the Soviet “inquiry form”, especially in the context of a “parallel economy” development, when it does not really matter what ancestors they have.

However, there were drawbacks here too. It turned out that only representatives of the loyal population live in Pyongyang, and the distribution of food during the famine took place in accordance with the “inquiry”. Meanwhile, they forgot about such human rights violations as punishment by analogy, the principles of collective responsibility and criminal punishment for insulting sacred symbols. Perhaps this happened because these concepts are not very clear to the average Western reader.

The Commission concluded that the DPRK is a totalitarian state, many elements of which “have a striking resemblance to Nazi Germany”. However, the DPRK has neither racial discrimination laws nor extermination camps, nor expansionist rhetoric with hatred towards other countries or nations. It seems fascism now means only the absence of rights and freedoms, a repressive state apparatus and the cult of personality of the leader (then South Korea during Syngman Rhee’s rule would also fit well this definition).

Kirby also did not find any gas chambers. This can be explained by the fact that Shin Dong-hyuk was the only one who spoke about these closed camps for political prisoners (unlike other camps, that we know much about), where people starve, and their bodies are burned in furnaces.

Then, the Commission went from the Republic of Korea to Japan, where they talked with relatives of kidnapped citizens of this country. It was impossible to find out new evidence about the alleged kidnappings, as they could not check whether people declared dead in the DPRK were still alive or not. At the moment, both sides believe in their truth and have no opportunity to prove, whether Japanese citizens are in DPRK, if they were tortured (as they believe in Japan) or are already dead and the graves were destroyed during the floods (as they claim in the DPRK). However, abandoning the presumption of innocence, the Commission concluded that they are likely living, just on the basis of the dominant Japanese perspective on this topic.

After this commission visited Washington and London, where they studied the issues related to the mid-1990s famine. The people, whose testimony the commission listened to were members of the American Council on Human Rights in North Korea. After having listened to them, the commission made incorrect conclusions about the artificial nature of the famine. A detailed analysis of the inadequacy of their arguments, we have already given – both in the author’s previous article about the actions of the Commission, and in another text (written by the same author), referring to the problems of hunger in North Korea. It is necessary only to recall that experts have deliberately inflated data on the number of victims, and did not confirm the alleged fact that the majority of humanitarian aid went to satisfy the needs of the army and governing establishment, and thus disloyal authorities intentionally left the regions without food. 

Moreover, it appears that during the famine, a significant part of North Korean women were trafficked or forced into sexual slavery outside the DPRK, also caused by the existing regime. If there had been no artificial famine, these people would not have fled to China, and then once there, would not have become victims of crime.

It is very interesting, where this supposed racially motivated prosecution in a mono-ethnic country, gender issues in a formal equality of the sexes (I am afraid even to imagine what the commission could write about Qatar or Saudi Arabia using this approach) and the forced displacement of the population came from. Well, if the regime is to blame for anything, this is the enforced restrictions on such movements.

However, there is another funny moment connected to the movement of people. It concerns the following paragraph that says “since 1950, state violence spread beyond the country by means of organized government agencies that kidnapped people of other nations. These actions are unique in their intensity, scope and nature.”

Here, unfortunately, the commissioners were again attracted by vivid examples, being quite lazy to dig deeper. After all, no disappearance of about two dozen Japanese nationals or hunting of North Korean “defectors” in the 1950s in the USSR and Eastern Europe can be attributed to the “unique scale”. This especially if we compare them with the hunting of political opponents in Argentina or Chile during Pinochet’s rule (not to mention South Korea during Syngman Rhee’s time or Kim Dae-jung’s kidnapping by the secret services of the Republic of Korea in 1970). The Commission fully played into the hands of the same American Human Rights Council’s report, where the number of abductions and forced displacements exceeded 80,000 people.

Indeed, this is a unique number of people, if one does not know where these figures come from, because most of these people are citizens of the Republic of Korea, who, after the Korean War remained on North Korean territory. It is quite possible that some might have been moved there by force, but most of them moved due to the scourge of war, or for ideological reasons, having left-wing views. It is worth adding that in the course of the civil war, mass extrajudicial executions were practiced by both sides. Then, if the materials of the National Reconciliation Commission, which worked under President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), are taken into account, the number of victims of the “white” terror was two times greater than the number of victims of the “red” terror! Until a certain time, relatives of southerners, remaining in the north, were accused of potential collaboration with the Communists. However, during Lee Myung-bak’s reign, they had an opportunity to improve their status and obtain compensation, if it turned out that their relatives were in the North against their will. One can understand then why the number of “forcibly abducted to North Korea” became greater. Nevertheless, the figures of the forcibly abducted were first used uncritically by Western human rights activists, and then moved onto the commission’s report, which had neither time nor ways to analyse the documents and find out whether it is possible to talk about the forced displacement of all these persons. 

However, this is not the only problem. We have already mentioned that the report was based on the testimony of 80 witnesses, who spoke at the public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. Here we can mention defectors, relatives of the kidnapped Japanese or human rights experts. However, this report is also based on 240 “confidential interviews of victims of the regime and other witnesses”. This is disturbing, and forces us to recall the secret prosecution witnesses in the Republic of Korea during Syngman Rhee’s reign. It is unclear who they are and what level of confidence this data can provide. The author believes that if they were deserters, who did not go through the witness protection program, it was possible then to show the origin of this evidence. If there is no data about who these people are – the point of view of the false witnesses, the throwers of “necessary information”, which cannot be verified, is quite possible.

Some things seem quite exaggerated. Thus, the report states that abuse, including torture and forced abortions, were applied not only to those who had been expelled from China, but also towards any immigrants. If comparing the number of North Korean immigrant workers and the information about their activities, the paper makes some grave mistakes.

Destruction of political prisoners during the last 50 years was equated to genocide, despite the fact that the formal definition of genocide means something else. In addition, data on the number of murdered political prisoners (which can serve as a basis for such statements) in the report is not named. Such things are good for journalistic articles, but not for a juridical document, which should not have emotions, but documented figures.

(To be continued…)

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the  online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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