Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In the Land of Living Corpses: Human Rights Abuses in North Korea

“When I saw the lives of the prisoners, I’d be the first to kill myself if I had to live there.”
-A former North Korean prison guard

Mothers forced to abort unborn children; even forced to murder their own infants. Children sent away to prison camps for decades for crimes committed by their grandparents. Food as a weapon of control not only among prisoners, but also among the entire population. It sounds like the setup of a dystopian movie hellscape where modern rule of law has ceased to function. Instead, these are just some of the everyday realities faced by the people of North Korea.

While North Korea’s horrific human rights record can hardly come as a surprise to observers, a UN report released Monday presenting evidence of abuses adds concrete facts to vague suspicions. By collecting the testimonies of hundreds of North Korean defectors and refugees, the UN presents a case of crimes against humanity that is – by its own estimation – on the level of the Holocaust. Testimonies came from former regime loyalists as well as former prisoners, and reveal a somber picture of the inestimable damage done to the North Korean people in the last six decades.

 The report focuses on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the prison camp system, as well as the use of food (or the lack thereof) as a weapon by the North Korean regime. In their findings, the UN experts testify that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and go on to accuse the regime of crimes against humanity.

Freedom of thought, let alone expression, is forbidden by the regime, and a process of ideological indoctrination seeks to prevent the North Korean people from “thinking bad thoughts.” The attempt to curb thinking may seem laughable, but in reality it leads to unduly harsh punishments for actions such as watching a foreign soap opera or reading a forbidden tract. As outside information becomes more accessible thanks to the unstoppable forces of globalization, which have penetrated even the “Hermit Kingdom,” the regime has reacted by instituting harsher punishments and carrying out widespread crackdowns on those who access forbidden knowledge.

Regime arrests are rarely limited to accused criminals, and the UN reports that family members down to the third generation are often rounded up to pay for a relative’s crime, including escaping from the country. Thus, those with an opportunity to escape what one defector calls “a living hell” are faced with an unthinkable choice: an escape from North Korea means your entire family will be placed into tortuous prison camps, subjected to horrors that beggar belief. Staying might be living hell, but leaving means to subjecting your family to an even worse fate. One former prisoner, Kim Hye Sook, was imprisoned for 28 years for her grandfather’s defection in inhumane and barbaric conditions.  She testified both to the UN and Human Rights Watch, which released this excellent documentary alongside the report on Monday.

Food has long been used as a weapon in a country that hasn’t been able to provide its citizens with adequate nourishment for the last 30 years. Food is distributed disproportionately to favored songbun or social castes, which are determined by a family’s history of loyalty to the Kim dynasty. Although widespread famine such as occurred in the mid-1990s has been avoided, death by starvation is still fairly widespread in the country. In the prison camps, food is so scarce that prisoners resorted to picking kernels of corn from cow dung to survive. Others, sapped of energy by years in the camps, became “living corpses” just waiting to die. Former prison guard Ahn Myung-chul remarks in the HRW documentary: “There are two ways to control political prisoners in North Korea: one is with violence and the other is with food. If the prisoners are well-fed, they work less.”

The brutality of the camps goes far beyond the denial of food. Prisoners are regularly tortured: beaten with boards until the boards break, raped by guards and other prisoners alike, electrocuted, spit upon or in the prisoners’ mouths… the list of abuses alone cannot possibly capture the abject misery the prisoners are subjected to on a daily basis for years and decades. Even escape does not provide relief in most cases: one man recounts an escapee being dragged back to the prison camp tied behind a truck, left outside all night to suffer, and summarily executed the next day. Public executions both in the camps and out are yet another tool for regime control. Any display of emotion would be severely punished, even by family members. As such, former prison guard Ahn Myung-chul reports: “Every North Korean has seen public executions… I never saw anyone cry.” To guards, so desensitized to violence and threatened with severe punishment for offering any relief to prisoners, “Death just wasn’t important.”

In the face of the litany of human rights abuses detailed by the most recent UN report, there have been calls from many NGOs, HRW included, to “take action” against North Korea. Yet while the UN has communicated to Kim Jong-un that he could be held responsible for crimes against humanity if any were found in North Korea (suffice to say, they were), there is little that the organization can do at this point. While the report calls for the case to be brought before the International Criminal Court, North Korea is not a signatory of the Rome Statute making meaningful prosecution unlikely. China has stood by its longtime ally once again, decrying the report as “politicizing human rights issues” and hinting that it will use its Security Council veto power to circumvent any UN actions against North Korea.

In the last year alone, it appears that many major cases of human rights violations have avoided legal action thanks to the intervention of a powerful patron on behalf of the accused abuser. Russia has intervened on the part of Syria; the US for Israel and Saudi Arabia; and now, China for North Korea. Great power politics preclude action on human rights violations save for in the most peripheral of countries, which face the catch-22 of not being important enough to attract international attention to and intervention in human rights abusing regimes (i.e. Rwanda, Darfur). As an international body, it is the UNHCHR’s mission to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from these abuses, yet even with the International Criminal Court, it is impotent to even prosecute abusers after the fact, let alone to prevent violations.

Unless the UN system is overhauled to prevent members of the Security Council from shielding their patrons from international action on human rights abuses, there is nothing the global community can do to step in when abuses are clearly cataloged, as they were in North Korea. The Special Procedures bodies and UNHCHR, lacking any enforcement mechanism, can do little more than cajole abusers to step into line. While this approach has limited success in countries that worry about their international image, in a pariah state like North Korea that claims not a single human rights abuse is taking place or has taken place under the Kim regime, it is hard to say what effect it could possibly have. When it comes to human rights abuses, the UN should have a no-tolerance and no-veto policy on actions taken against abusers. Unfortunately, in the current climate of global politics, such a reorganization of the UN to protect the citizens of the world is not likely to come in this lifetime.

For the North Korean people, even another day is too long to wait. 


  1. Great post, as always. And I'm glad you included the US's intervention to preclude human rights sanctions for Saudi Arabia and Israel in there - almost never mentioned in this country.

    1. People tend to forget that big bad China and Russia aren't the only countries that shield their allies from answering for human rights abuses on a massive scale.