This week the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea released a report detailing the harrowing human rights atrocities being perpetrated by the North Korean dictatorship upon its people. North Korea has been essentially cut off from the rest of the world since the ceasefire was declared in the Korean War. This new report commissioned by the Human Rights Council pulls the curtain back on this intensely secretive nation and confirms many of the reports of horrific abuses that have long been mentioned in conjunction with the North Korean regime. In the words of the report, “The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the modern world.”
Since the 1953 armistice, North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) has made itself physically impenetrable and virtually unknowable by outsiders. Though self-described as a socialist republic, North Korea is in reality totalitarian and Stalinist. The North Korean people have become essentially prisoners of their government which is ruled like a plaything by a family of ruthless despots.
The few North Koreans who have managed to escape all paint the same bleak picture of this “hermit kingdom.” The UN report states, “There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” The people are subject to detention, torture, or death for any infraction. Currently an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners are incarcerated in the country’s hellish prison camps, which have been described as modern-day gulags. North Korea is regularly classified by human rights organizations as being home to the worst human rights abuses in the world.
One of the most grotesque and inhumane issues that the Human Rights Commission found was the widespread practice of forced abortion and infanticide against North Korean women and their babies. The report specifically addresses these abuses directed against woman who have been “repatriated” to North Korea from China – meaning they have managed to escape from North Korea into China and were then send back by Chinese officials. The report notes, “Despite the torture, arbitrary imprisonment and other gross human rights violations awaiting forcibly repatriated persons in the DPRK, China pursues a rigorous policy of forced repatriation of DPRK citizens.” According to the UN Report, the vast majority of forced abortions and infanticides are perpetrated on women repatriated from China and their children.
These forced abortions and infanticides can take place in interrogation and detention centers as well as in prison camps. Many of these forced abortions are performed under the rationale that the racial “purity” of the baby is unclear and “pure Korean blood” is an important concept in North Korea. One former North Korean official testified that having a child who was not “100 per cent” Korean made a woman “less than human.”
One witness told the Commission how she was forced to undergo an abortion without anesthetic by a woman who used rusty equipment. When the witness screamed, she was told to be quiet. Her dead baby was tossed in a bucket afterwards and she later found that she became infertile due to this procedure.
Another witness, Ms. Jee Heon A, recounted to the Commission how she witnessed a mother forced to drown her newborn baby. Ms. Jee testified:
“…there was this pregnant woman who was about 9 months pregnant. She worked all day. The babies who were born were usually dead, but in this case the baby was born alive. The baby was crying as it was born; we were so curious, this was the first time we saw a baby being born. So we were watching this baby and we were so happy. But suddenly we heard the footsteps. The security agent came in and … this agent told us to put the baby in the water upside down. So the mother was begging. ‘I was told that I would not be able to have the baby, but I actually got lucky and got pregnant so let me keep the baby, please forgive me,’ but this agent kept beating this woman, the mother who just gave birth. And the baby, since it was just born, it was just crying. And the mother, with her shaking hands she picked up the baby and she put the baby face down in the water. The baby stopped crying and we saw this water bubble coming out of the mouth of the baby.”
One small silver lining amidst all of this depravity is that the Human Right Commission recognizes the enormity of the problems that exist right now in North Korea where “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed.” Acknowledging the problem is necessarily the first step in ending it. Indeed, the United Nations recognizes the guilt of the international community in allowing these crimes against humanity to be perpetrated. The report states, “The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a State Member of the United Nations, has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community.”
While having referred their findings to the International Criminal Court for potential charges for crimes against humanity against the current North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, prosecution by the ICC requires the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, and China, North Korea’s main ally, has effectively ruled this out. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday, “We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country’s human rights situation.”
China has been shielding North Korea for far too long and has enabled them to victimize their own people to a point beyond human comprehension. China has, of course, its own egregious record of human rights violations that should be addressed by the international community. However, China’s complicity with North Korea – its willingness to send the most desperate people to what is truly hell on Earth – is intolerable. Indeed it says a great deal about the desperate situation of these people that they look to China as a place of refuge.
The United States and the rest of the civilized world must use their influence to defend these people. We must use what leverage we have with China to improve the lot of those who are being so cruelly abused. Any friendly relationship between our nations must be contingent upon China’s improvement regarding human rights – for themselves and their dependent nations. The United Nations report has pulled back the curtain that has helped to shield the Hermit Kingdom. But now that we know the truth, we too are responsible for what happens there.