UN report on North Korea demands international action

By Nick Voutsinos / Columnist

Behind North Korea’s military goose-walk parades, nuclear-charged rhetoric and chubby dictator sporting a pantsuit lies a real-life dystopian novel.

According to a recently released report mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the state of North Korea currently has the social rigidity of “Brave New World” and the state-organized physical and psychological oppression of “1984.” Of course, this may not be surprising to some. North Korea is, after all, a totalitarian state, and totalitarian states tend to specialize in arbitrary power. That’s just what they do. However, it’s the nitty-gritty details of the long-awaited U.N. report that will hopefully make the globe more aware of what we are allowing to take place in our international community and potentially spur a global response.

The report is not pretty. All Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un jokes aside, the North Korean report has presented the world with an unprecedented human-rights issue that is quickly approaching the same level of magnitude as Darfur and parallels the abuses committed by Nazi Germany. We are facing a situation where more than 200,000 men, women and children are locked up in state-run concentration camps in which torture, starvation and murder are commonplace in the daily lives of the inmates. One of the testimonies given to the U.N. panel by one of the few survivors of the North Korean prison camp system describes a woman being forced to drown her own baby. Others recount systematic torture, rape, forced abortions, infanticide and deliberate starvation of children.

When not in the camps, the lives of the North Korean people are still completely controlled by the will of the state. The state decides where one lives, where one gets educated (if at all) and even whom one can marry, depending on the historical “loyalty” of a particular family. And it consolidates this power to control the population via food distribution — in much the same way Stalin did during his regime — by deliberately starving dissidents and rewarding dedication to the regime with food. Thus, if your family is deemed politically loyal, the state will provide for you. If not, your life is a socially and economically isolated hell.

Furthermore, absolutely no one has access to any information from outside of the regime. All media is controlled by the Workers’ Party, which denies freedom of thought, expression and religion and indoctrinates citizens from birth to follow its ideological agenda. Deviating from approved media results in harsh punishment: The report outlines cases in which families are tortured for merely watching foreign soap operas. Consequently, these kinds of disincentives to engage in curiosity, along with the state media monopoly, have successfully created a cult of personality around the supreme leader.

Conclusively, all of these Nazi-esque human-rights atrocities described in the U.N. report are the result of the highest-profile international attempt to investigate the activities of the North Korean regime, thus providing an expert confirmation to some of the rumors that have been floating around the public sphere for years now. This is fantastic, because the plight of the North Korean people deserves international attention — but how can the globe respond?

The report urges for a referral by the U.N. Security Council to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal to hold the accused perpetrators, including Kim Jong-un, accountable for their crimes against the North Korean people. However, China, North Korea’s sole ally and permanent member of the Security Council, will most likely obstruct any attempt by the U.N. to refer the nation’s leaders to the ICC.

There is also, of course, the fact that North Korea is currently under the stewardship of a completely autonomous leader who could launch a nuclear weapon toward Seoul, South Korea, at any time if threatened. So that also obviously undermines any international response.

Therefore, it is unfortunately unlikely that any of the recommendations outlined in the report will come to fruition, because again, being on the Security Council, China has veto power against any U.N. decision and no real incentive — besides the seemingly obvious moral one — to go against their regional and ideological ally. And any foreign incursion by another state on North Korean territory, even a targeted relief effort, could result in a disastrous response from an unpredictable ruler.

Yet there is still hope for the North Korean people, and I think it stems from nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What these organizations need to do is play the role of global whistleblower by putting unrelenting pressure on the U.N. to act. The U.N.’s legitimacy as a global peacemaker has already been questioned in the past because of its slow reaction to the crises in Rwanda and Darfur. If it fails to act in North Korea, nongovernmental organizations need to present this as yet another blow to U.N. legitimacy. Even if China does not agree about the most optimal route of action, a compromise must be made to at least begin to chip away at the hold North Korea has over its people.

As the Human Rights Watch group stated: “The U.N. was set up in the aftermath of the second World War precisely to address this kind of massive abuse. The atrocities described in this report are a profound challenge to the founding ideals of the U.N. and should shock the organization into bold action.”

I do not believe the U.N. can afford to let this report go by the wayside, for its own sake and for the sake of the North Korean people. There is simply too much evidence of abuse, and global human-rights organizations will not let the issue drop if the U.N. does. Therefore, when the panel formally presents its findings to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council next month, a decision for action must be made with China on board.  

Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, sums it up perfectly: “At the end of the second World War, so many people said, ‘If we only had known.’ Well now the international community does know. … There will be no excusing failure of action because we didn’t know.” 

Write to Nick at [email protected]