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A new U.N. report erases any doubts or excuses that might have been made for the murderous Pyongyang regime
In the past there were excuses for those inclined to ignore or deny the horrors the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea routinely visits upon its subjects. Defectors have an ax to grind, we were told. American intelligence is making up stories, and Pyongyang’s foreign enemies stand to profit from these tales.
There is nowhere for North Korea’s apologists to hide now. The 200,000-word, nearly 400-page report released Monday by the “commission of inquiry” for the United Nations Human Rights Council, led by the Australian jurist Michael Kirby, in effect presents the world with the black book on North Korean communism.
The report is a careful but shocking document, the result of a year-long investigation, based on public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington, public testimony from more than 80 witnesses and an additional 240 private interviews. Much of the material is based on firsthand testimony of escapees from this hell on Earth.
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations . . . does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the report says. It charges the North Korean government with “crimes against humanity” and urges international action. The question to those of us beyond the reach of the North Korean regime is: Now that we know this terrible truth, what do we do about it?
Just as the Soviets had the gulag system of political prison camps, so too does the rule-by-terror Communist government in Pyongyang maintain a North Korean version with dozens of camps.
Some of the most chilling passages concern the North Korean penal system—especially its dreaded kyohwaso (prison camps) and even more brutal kwanliso (political prison camps). The horrors begin with detention and interrogation centers, where people are initially detained after being accused of crimes against the state by the security services. (North Korea has more than one set of secret police.)
The charges are often of the most trivial or arbitrary variety—one witness said he was arrested for the crime of misspelling Kim Il Sung’s name when typing. The detainees are routinely brutalized, with cruelties large and small. “An old woman who had no shoes and asked for shoes in order to work,” the report says, “was told by the SSD agents that she did not deserve shoes because the detainees were animals and should die soon.” Then she was beaten until bloody.
In the prison camps, conditions are still more sadistic and dehumanizing. Starvation and torture are the norm, sexual abuse of women routine. Most who are sent to these camps can expect to perish there. Concludes the report: “According to the Commission’s findings, hundreds of thousands of inmates have been exterminated in political prison camps and other places over a span of more than five decades.”
The report suggests that North Korea’s prison-camp population has fallen in recent years—from perhaps 150,000-200,000 in the 1990s and early 2000s to perhaps 80,000-130,000 today. (The latter estimates and some other findings mentioned in the U.N. report come from Human Rights in North Korea, an organization that I helped start.) The cause of the drop isn’t clear, but the report speculates that one reason is that tens of thousands sent to the camps have died there over the decades.
Many will wonder how the North Korean regime can treat their countrymen as if they were little more than insects. Readers of the U.N. report will understand: Such disregard of human life is encouraged by the deep logic of the state.
Alone among the world’s governments, Pyongyang oversees a system known as songbun: a practice that assigns a class background to North Koreans with exquisite care, stamping them with one of over 50 gradations. The top groups are considered “core” and are highly favored by the state.
The lowest groups are branded as “hostile” classes (“complex” classes, in more recent security-system taxonomy). These unfortunates—who may bear such hereditary curses as relatives in South Korea or ancestors who were landlords, or Christians—are held in permanent suspicion as would-be “enemies of the people,” a treasonous condition in which one forfeits all humanity.
The songbun system, carefully described in this report, helps to explain the merciless starvation of the state’s enemies within the prison camps as well as in the population at large during the Great Famine of the 1990s: Countless victims from that hunger were members of the “hostile” classes, whose deaths the regime regarded as a matter of no concern.
A state with so little respect for its own subjects might hardly be expected to confer respect on citizens of other countries. And Pyongyang does not, as the regime’s extraordinary, routinized practice of kidnapping foreigners attests. The U.N. report devotes nearly 50 pages to documenting “abductions” and “enforced disappearances.” At least some victims of these modern-day slaving raids are spirited off to the intelligence services to help agents with foreign-language skills. South Korea and Japan are most often raided, but the U.N. report documents abductions in China, Thailand, Malaysia and even as far as Lebanon and France.
One of the most grotesque details in the U.N. report is the documentation of North Korea’s policy of violent forced abortion. This unspeakable atrocity is visited on women in prison camps—especially refugees who have been forcibly returned from China, bearing a half-Chinese fetus. Here, North Korean reality is even more gruesome than the report fully seems to recognize. State-promoted race-hatred is taught alongside worship of the Kim dynasty to every North Korean schoolchild from the earliest age of instruction. The unforgivable crime that sentenced these women to involuntary abortion—and their progeny to death—was their defiling of the sacred Korean minjok, or race.
The U.N. report accuses many units of the North Korean government—including its supreme leadership—of being responsible for state-sponsored crimes that include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other grave sexual violence.” Foremost among the report’s many recommendations is that the North Korean leadership be held accountable for these crimes through prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or through a special international tribunal established for this purpose.
Given the bombshell report, democratic governments and independent organizations can no longer act as if they did not know. Their dealings with Pyongyang must always be considered in light of this damning document. Now is the time for the never agains:
Never again should Western humanitarian aid be given to North Korea to hand out at its own discretion, as if Pyongyang were a government like any other.
Never again must Beijing—which like Pyongyang refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation—be given a free pass for financing, enabling and protecting this most odious of all regimes. Challenge China to veto the referral for crimes against humanity on the U.N. Security Council, and let Beijing go on record defending state-sponsored mass murder. Make the Chinese veto it 20 times if they dare. Beijing is highly sensitive to public shaming, and it must be shamed and penalized for its indefensible support of Pyongyang until it cuts its client-state loose.
Never again must South Koreans avert their eyes from the catastrophe that is befalling their compatriots across the demilitarized zone. And never again must Seoul forget that it is legally bound to grant citizenship to refugees from the nightmare to the North.
Never again must the rest of us live comfortably with the knowledge of what is happening right now to ordinary people in North Korea.
Mr. Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, is a visiting scholar at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul and a founding member of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
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