Tensions are high over North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of its nuclear program. With conflict looming, we face an urgent diplomatic and political problem. But also a moral obligation. Disregarding international norms, the world’s most isolated country has to-date staged five nuclear tests, two of them last year. Engagement with North Korea is paramount. Yet, as we focus on the nuclear issue, we tend to push the human rights one to the sidelines.
Until recently, no one from the outside world really knew what was going on. In dealing with the world’s most secretive state, we could merely speculate. Today, however, there is an unprecedented flow of information in and out of the country. Escapees and an increasing reliance on black-markets are threatening to weaken the authorities’ control. Knowledge is power. And so Kim Jong-Un is tightening his brutal grip.
To attempt the journey to freedom across China is suicidal. If caught, North Korea’s only real ally sends them straight back to face death or torture. Miraculously twenty-five thousand North Koreans have successfully defected. They give their people a long-awaited unmediated voice. A precious insight into a totalitarian state which shelters behind its wall of lies.
The many testimonies depict a system which is chillingly similar to that of the Soviet Union. A dictatorial paranoia that feeds fervent nationalism through mutualized fear and shared guilt. The reign of terror, the cheating of the past, the purges, the show trials, the network of gulags. This is not just history, it’s happening right now. An estimated 400, 000 people have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, where torture and beatings are routine. Satellite images show the sheer scale of the network of camps across the country, the existence of which are unashamedly denied by the state. Another 120, 000 are currently serving agonizing sentences. A high price to pay for watching American movies, listening to foreign radio, or even owning a bible. All considered ’acts of hostility against the state’. Former prisoners recount being so hungry they were reduced to eating rats, snakes, or even searching for grains in cow dung.
Despite freedom of religion being guaranteed under the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea constitution, the 25 million population is taught there is no God. The deceased Kim II Sung is worshipped along with his son Kim Jung II. The DPRK ruthlessly crushes religious belief and all political dissent through ‘guilt by association’. The punishments extend to the next generation. North Korea is ranked the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a Christian on the 2017 World Watch List.
By documenting the escapees’ stories, we can work towards justice. One such defector, our friend Timothy, had been left on the streets as a child during the 1990s famine. A famine which claimed over a million lives. He attempted to escape. It failed. Deported to China, he faced prison and torture. Defiantly, he escaped again and eventually made it out. His and the thousands of other testimonies provide a trigger for change.
Promisingly, three years ago, the UN produced a damning report on North Korea’s human rights record. It relied precisely on such witness statements. The Commission of Inquiry urged referral to the International Criminal Court. The ‘gravity, scale and nature’ of the human rights violations revealed ‘a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world’. The documented crimes against humanity included ‘extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions’, as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation. Yet no official or institution is held accountable because ‘impunity reigns’.
The perpetrators need to know that sooner or later, they will be charged. In the wake of WW2, we promised never again. And yet, no on-the-ground action has been taken to prevent this living hell on earth. Lord Alton, co-chairman of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea urges the international community to persuade China not to veto a resolution referring Kim’s regime to the ICC. Failing that, Alton recommends the establishment of an ad hoc Regional Tribunal. This would provide the victims with an official judicial forum to report the crimes suffered. In the name of humanity, countries need to support resolutions to that effect before the Security Council.
The regime’s elite is holding on to its wealth and power through abuse of its citizens. What’s more, their gross human rights violations directly threaten us too. They partly enable the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs. As we negotiate the imminent nuclear threat, let’s stop playing safe. Let’s truly live up to our 1948 promises. Because security and human rights are really two sides of the same coin.ADF International