A collision over human rights appears inevitable at the U.N. Security Council after Japan and the European Union circulated a draft resolution in October that calls on the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Forty-three countries have so far signed on in support of the draft. The resolution is the first substantial response to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights violations in North Korea released last February. The inquiry found that a wide array of crimes against humanity, arising from “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been committed and continue to be committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Commission members were back at the United Nations in October pressing their case for accountability.
Former Australian justice Michael Kirby, the inquiry’s chief investigator, spoke at a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable on Oct. 22. Kirby held out a hope that China, as a maturing great power coming to understand its global responsibilities, might defy expectations and refrain from vetoing the resolution on North Korea, a state it has frequently defended in the past.
Kirby told the roundtable that a “most extraordinary thing happened” at a U.N. event to discuss his commission’s finding earlier that morning. A delegate from the North Korean mission, Kim Song, appeared at the session to defend North Korea’s record. Song’s unusual intervention, Kirby suggested, “indicates the deep concern that exists in the D.P.R.K concerning the response of the international community to the revelations in the report.”
The inquiry found many examples of crimes against humanity, including “oppressing people because of their religious beliefs.” Kirby said at the time of the partition of the Korean peninsula at the end of the Korean war in 1953, some 23 percent of the population in the north were Christians. Now less than 1 percent may be so described. “That’s a very rapid fall,” he said. “An immediate question is presented. Is that because of a form of genocide? Is that because the North Koreans have killed a very significant section of their population?”
The commission “did not feel able to make that finding” because they could not get into North Korea to complete their investigation, but did not close off that possibility, he said. Proselytizing any religion is strictly forbidden in North Korea, and any evidence of such activities is a serious crime; some are reported to have been executed for it. Kirby said that in his personal view, while the killing of Christians may have taken place, it is more likely that most North Koreans simply abandoned the faith, seeing Christian belief as inimical to advancement, even personal safety, within the hermit kingdom.
While the world has long focused on the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, less attention has been paid to the state’s appalling treatment of its own citizens, including a more or less complete state clampdown on free expression, particularly freedom of religion. As many as 120,000 Koreans are detained in four large political prison camps. Kirby said the inquiry’s “gripping” testimony offers “the story of a totalitarian regime which has lasted for a very long time in respect of which the world has turned the other way and ignored [its abuses].”
The U.N. commission gathered testimony from expatriate North Koreans around the world. Kirby reported that the North Korean U.N. delegate called these witnesses “human scum who had been bribed to give their testimony” and “criminals.”
The crime they had all committed, Kirby explained, “was the crime of leaving North Korea.”
Kirby added, “The charm offensive of North Korea has been proceeding now for about four weeks. Yesterday [Oct. 21] was the latest example, the decision to release [Jeffrey Fowle], one of the three United States citizens who are in detention,” he said. “This is all an attempt to get the United Nations to water down its resolutions and to depart from the obligation of accountability.”