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Dark Sides of North Korea: Crime against Humanity


North Korea’s nuclear proliferation activities and belligerent threats on its southern neighbor are news that has been hitting the international headlines. The world is familiar with such activities of the pariah state. But not much information flows from what is happening inside the country. The hermit state maintains a strict and rigid information control system and any violation of these results in harshest of punishment, including public execution. North Korea does not allow outside surveys on its human rights situation. The only information that filters outside the country is through defectors, many of whom succeed to escape and those who are unlucky and caught face death or hard labour.

Testimonies by defectors are the basic source of information that filters through the country. According to them, there are three categories of people who are publicly executed. The first category of public execution is those who resist the communist regime. Those who commit murder, rape and human trafficking, illicitly circulate information from the outside world and take part in the drug trafficking and contraband trade face harsh punishment. There is the case of a North Korean resident who was charged of killing a public security officer and publicly executed because of dissatisfaction over North’s reinforced social control of its residents in the course of the hereditary power succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. This single instance is symbiotic of state repression over those indulge in anti-state activities and challenge the socialist regime. The execution of Jang Song-taek, the young leader’s uncle, is yet another example of intolerance to anyone who is seen as a threat to the supreme leader’s authority.

The second categories of people who are publicly executed are those who fail to send electricity to the capital Pyongyang and those who squander the state properties. This category of peoples is viewed as doing anti-state crime hindering the country’s self-proclaimed goal of constructing a “Kangsong Taeguk”, or strong, prosperous and powerful country.

The third category of public execution is those who are engaged in livestock trafficking of such animals as cows and goats. Even some are charged with eating human flesh. Executions in this category increased after Pyongyang’s botched currency reforms in 2009, which caused massive inflation and worsened food shortages. It is reported that even few of those who were responsible for the currency reforms were secretly executed.

UN Report

A report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights released on 17 February 2014 reveals the grim rights record of Pyongyang. The report calls for an international criminal investigation into the North Korean regime. The three-member panel found evidence of an array of crimes, including “extermination”, crimes against humanity against starving populations and a widespread campaign of abductions of individuals in South Korea and Japan. The three-member commission, led by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, was set up by the U.N.’s top human rights body in March 2013. The other two members of the commission are Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert and Marzuki Darusman, a senior Indonesian jurist who has also served as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea since 2010.

It has been the most serious international attempt to probe evidence of systematic and grave rights violations in the reclusive, authoritarian state. North Korea is notorious for its political prison camps, repression and famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1990s.

With a view to hide exposure to the outside world, the cases of public executions reportedly decreased somewhat since 2011. Three reasons were attributed to this. First: North Korean authorities have changed their strategy to conduct secret execution rather than public executions in consciousness of international criticisms. It is also possible that more and more convicts were given life sentences and hard labour at its concentration camps and therefore cases of executions reduced. Second: North Korea did not gained any effects from the executions, contrary to its intentions. The real intention seemed to maintain the dictatorial regime and create a sense of terror among the citizens. The third reason for reduction of public executions could be related to rampant corruption that has crept into the North Korean society. This means those in authority take bribes from those to be executed and let them escape execution with lesser punishment. However, these are half truths as information from defectors might not be accurate. Public executions in small and remote areas may still be going on as usual.

Such was believed to be the scenario in the preceding months of Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power. But when the young leader sensed threat to his authority, terror politics and public executions have returned. The idea has been to strengthen the dynastic rule. The judicial procedure regarding public executions is such that death sentence to criminals are awarded as per the Criminal Code and related criminal clauses. Once the sentence is awarded, the condemned criminals are soon executed, something akin to Chinese way of execution by firing a bullet on the back of the head.

Other harsher ways of punishments are torture, forced labour, beatings, which are common at various correctional facilities such as detention houses and concentration camps. In most cases, guidance members of the prisons conduct cruel acts on those imprisoned. Nutrition and medical conditions for detainees are poor. Those inmates who become very weak because of lack of food are exempt from forced labour but without the benefits of obtaining medical treatment. No wonder, many of the detainees suffer from malnutrition and succumb to injuries because of severe beatings and torture and no medical treatment.

Report’s Main findings

The UN report is the first official inquiry into the history of atrocities committed inside North Korea. The 372-page report shines a bright light on one of the humanity’s darkest corners and reveals the “unspeakable” brutality of a regime against its own people, comparable with Nazi abuses uncovered after World War II. The hard evidences that the three-member panel gathered can be appropriately used for the eventual prosecution of the North Korean leaders after the regime collapses. The report documents truths which show that the leadership in Pyongyang has been resorting to systematic use of rape, murder, and torture, mainly because its popular support base is either weak or simply does not exist. The report says that an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people still remain in political prisons, many of them put there simply after a close relative showed weak loyalty to the Kim dynasty. The report observes that the list of atrocities over decades amount to crimes against humanity. It notes: The “gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

It further notes: “A number of long-standing and ongoing patterns of systematic and widespread violations which were documented by the commission, meet the high threshold required for proof of crimes against humanity in international law. The perpetrators enjoy immunity. ….The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.”

The investigators have said that the massive human rights violations in North Korea amounts to crimes of humanity which should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The report is the result of a year-long investigation marked by unprecedented public testimony by defectors, which were held South Korea, Japan, Britain and the US. In a letter that Kirby wrote to Kim Jong-un on 20 January 2014, he cautioned that he may be personally responsible for crimes against humanity. “Any official of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who commits, orders, solicits or aids and abets crimes against humanity incurs criminal responsibility by international law and must be held accountable under that law.”

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will debate the report on 17 March 2014, and the 48-member body will also consider the recommendations. In October 2013, Kirby had written to the General Assembly that when the commission submits its final report, “the international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take” to protect the North Korean people.

Torture Camps and Interrogation Centres

The country is notorious for its torture chambers and prison camps. It is believed that infringements of corporal freedom and safety rights occur more frequently at Chongjin concentration camp in North Hamgyong Province. Of the detention facilities, the Onsong county camp operated by the State Security Department is the most notorious for its human rights infringement.

It is estimated that around 1.5 to 2 lakh political prisoners and their families are confined to various detention camps. The crime in this category of people normally is alleged espionage and aborted attempts to defect to South Korea and unauthorized contact with South Koreans. The family members of those who fled the communist state are sent to concentration camp and face the wrath of state oppression.

Economic offenders are imprisoned in political camps and face severe charges. Once in the political camp, the detainees are deprived of their resident certificate, banned from normal rations of food and medical benefits. Marriage and childbirth are also prohibited. Camp rules in political camps are strictly imposed. If a married couple is in the same camp, they are forced to work separately, one at night and one during the day, so they cannot have sex. Inmate violators of rules are also drowned in a waterway located at the No. 22 control office so that precious bullets are saved.

According to the report, the main perpetrators are officials of the State Security Department, the Ministry of People’s Security, the Korean People’s Army, the Office of Public Prosecutor, the judiciary and the Workers’ Party of Korea. These state organs work under the effective control of the central organs of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defense Commission and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The State operates an all-encompassing indoctrination machine. Personality cult is propagated since childhood to develop absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader (Suryong). This mean any other thought that excludes the official ideology and State propaganda are anti-State, attracting punishment.

Those who are suspected of political wrong doings are detained in the interrogation centers, where torture is an established feature of the interrogation process. A typical detention facility of the State Security Department that maintains a “torture chamber” is generally equipped with a water tank, shackles used to hang suspects upside down, and long needles driven underneath a suspect’s fingernails. No wonder, “many suspects die at interrogation centres as a result of torture, deliberate starvation or illness developed or aggravated by the terrible living conditions”. The report notes: “If they are not executed immediately, persons held accountable for major political wrongs are forcibly disappeared to political prison camps that officially do not exist. Most victims are incarcerated for life, without chance of leaving the camps alive. The limited information that seeps out from the secret camps also creates a spectre of fear among the general population in the DPRK, creating a powerful deterrent against any future challenges to the political system.” It is believed that there are four large prison camps where fates of political prisoners are sealed. Though the number of detainees in political prison camps is believed to have declined in recent years, the report observes that could have been partly due to an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody, due to starvation and neglect, arduous force labour, disease and executions”.

Violation of the right to food

The State has used food as a means of control over the population. A food crisis in 1995 sparked by flood, followed by collapse of support and hard currency from the Soviet Union led to famine, leading to deaths of thousands of Koreans. Instead of alleviating the food problem of the people, the State has used deliberate starvation as a means of control and punishment in detention facilities. As a result, many ordinary and political prisoners have died. The regime has prioritized those who it believes are crucial in maintaining the regime and those deemed expendable. For the past few years, the regime has been sending delegations outside begging for food. Though food aid has been reaching the country through the World Food Aid programs, the regime siphons off the bulk of the food received for use by the elites and the military. Military spending, predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear program have often received priority even when people starve and die. As a result, hunger, malnutrition and deaths continue to be widespread. Structural issues that violate the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger, if allowed to continue, could lead to the recurrence of mass starvation. In the 2014 New Year message, the Supreme Leader emphasized the need to push economic projects but did not touch upon agricultural reforms or opening up the economy.

Misuse of funds

Even when the common people continue to starve, the regime “continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods”. The report noted that such imports are in violation of Security Council sanctions. The import items include high-quality cognac and whisky and equipment for a 1,000 person cinema. The regime is reported to have also tried to import Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment and dozens of pianos. Earning foreign exchange by illegal means and channeling these into “parallel funds” outside the regular state budget to be kept at the personal disposal of the Supreme Leader and cover his personal expenses, his family and other elites surrounding him is another way of control. Some money is also kept aside towards politically sensitive areas. The regime is also indulging in criminal activities, including drug smuggling, and earning an income to the tune of up to $500 million a year, constituting a third of North Korea’s annual export in 2008. North Korean embassies around the world are encouraged to engage in activities such as the illegal sale of alcohol in Islamic countries and trafficking of ivory which are internationally prohibited from African countries to China.

China’s Role

The UN report is so damning that it may hasten the collapse of North Korea. The question is, will China, North Korea’s only ally, continue to keep supplying food aid to its isolated neighbor and keep it afloat? China continues to use North Korea as a tool to keep US influence in the region under control. For China, the strategic significance of North Korea is huge and this is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Beijing is aware that the UN report will damage its reputation and therefore refused a request for the three-member investigation team to interview exiled North Koreans near the border. China takes the position that “constructive dialogue” with the North Korea was the only answer and not any move to condemn it.

What is then the next step? After endorsing the report, the UN Human Rights Council will ask the UN Security Council to refer the evidence to the International Criminal Court. In all probability, China will veto the request. The next logical step would be for the 48-member Council to push for an independent judicial panel, similar to those created for prosecuting human rights violations in Rwanda, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. This route is again not that easy.

Because of its own internal problems, China at times forcibly repatriates North Koreans who either work there or planning to defect and these people are subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution, forced abortion and other forms of sexual violence. However, China is expected to “respect the principle of non-refoulement and accordingly abstain from forcibly repatriating any person to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. As an ally of Pyongyang, the report expects China to raise these issues with the Supreme Leader.

In fact, on 16 December 2013, Chairman Kirby wrote a letter to China’s ambassador in Geneva Wu Haitao, urging him to “caution relevant officials that such conduct of their part could amount to the aiding and abetting (of) crimes against humanity”. Wu replied on 30 December and said North Koreans enter China illegally for economic reasons and some are engaged in “criminal acts as theft, robbery, illegal harvesting” and therefore the allegation that repatriated citizens face torture is “not true”. The Commission inquiry estimated that there are 10,000 to 25,000 children born of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. The status of these children is effectively stateless as the Chinese families are not allowed to register such children because of the illegal status of their mothers.

Defectors’ Reactions

Though much of the commission’s findings are based on first-hand accounts of defectors, the defectors themselves are deeply skeptical of the report and feel it shall have little or no effect on the regime in Pyongyang. Those defectors who fled the country after serving the army feels that the army personnel in the North are unlikely to even think about human rights or anticipate an improvement. A female army captain, Baek Kyung-yoon, who defected, is known to have observed: “Loyalty (to the regime) is everything and it’s nonsense to discuss human rights there”. Many potential witnesses were afraid to testify even on confidential basis as they feared that their relatives back in the country would face the State reprisals.

What Next?

North Korea has rejected the “unfounded findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding crimes against humanity” and would “never accept that”. In fact, when the Human Rights Council authorized the commission in March 2013, North Korea denounced it as politically motivated by “hostile forces” trying to discredit it and change its socialist system. Pyongyang labels any attack on its human rights record as a US-led conspiracy. Hwang Jae-ok, vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, who has extensively studied Pyongyang’s human rights record observes: “It has built up a strong tolerance to sanctions and pressure.”

The Commission conducted public hearings with more than 80 victims and other witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington and has recommended that the UN Security Council refer the findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. However, North Korea’s longtime ally, China, will likely block any proposed referral to the ICC. Being a permanent member, China enjoys veto power and can easily exercise it to bail out its ally.

Another bottleneck that arises is that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend to crimes committed before July 2002, when the statute came into force. Setting up ad-hoc tribunals such as in Cambodia and Sierra Leone could be an alternative but such tribunals have to be formed with the consent of their current governments and therefore are not a possibility in case of North Korea. That leaves the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to look for other options to bring the North Korean regime to accountability.

Against this background, can one expect some hope for the situation to improve in North Korea? One optimistic view is that Pyongyang sometime shows sensitivity to international opinion as the recent reunion of families amidst planned US-South Korea military drills demonstrated. Or was it a move to soften its image tarnished by the Kerby report? Or is the leadership worried of a possible revolt by the lower-level officials in the country who find the Kerby’s findings difficult to digest? North Korean system seems to be having its internal contradictions as was the case in the Soviet Union before it disintegrated. Does it mean that the report will facilitate collapse of the regime and if so and if it happens, are there any contingency measures to cope with the new situation? Or will the report embolden the regime to be more ruthless to strengthen its hold on power? These are some hypothetical questions but the way the regime is conducting its business, a regime collapse could be a possibility but its inevitability would be delayed so long as its possession of nuclear weapons remains as deterrence.

Dr. Rajaram Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail:

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