Shocked! Shocked! By Human Rights Violations in North Korea

by CLAUDIA ROSETT February 6, 2013

Let us credit the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that earlier this month she urged more attention to the hideous human rights abuses in North Korea. Expressing her concern that North Korea's nuclear ventures and missile-testing projects might steal the spotlight from the "deplorable human rights situation" in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Pillay decried such horrors as North Korea's record of abducting citizens of other countries, and its gulag, with its system of torture, "summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity."

In a statement that has just been quoted by The Telegraph in an article on North Korea's prison camps, Pillay said she believes the time has come for "an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst - but least understood and reported - human rights situations in the world," an inquiry she said would be "fully justified and long overdue."

By all means, let us hope that Pillay enlists the considerable resources of the UN in the worthy cause of exposing the human rights abuses in North Korea. There can't be too much of that.

But let's keep a few additional points in mind. First, the human rights abuses and the missile and nuclear proliferation habits are not actually separate issues. They are all part of the apparatus that sustains the totalitarian Kim regime, which depends on repression at home and proliferation, nuclear extortion and assorted criminal rackets abroad. What really has to go is the regime itself, and if the UN wants to make a useful contribution, it could start by kicking out North Korea - which in 1991 received a UN seat it did not deserve, as part of a bizarre UN effort to balance the admission that same year of a thriving and democratizing South Korea.

On that same note, it would also help to publicly acknowledge that the real obstacle to stopping the horrors in North Korea is, by now, not a lack of information, but a lack of will to act. It might have been true about a decade or more ago that the atrocities of the North Korean regime were among the world's least understood and least reported. But for years now, at great risk, Christian missionaries have been helping North Koreans escape, and various private groups and foundations, often working with North Korean defectors, have been laboring to bring the abuses to light - in detail, and with documentation. There has been abundant testimony by both North Korean defectors and Western researchers and analysts to the U.S. Congress; detailed accounts and analyses of the government-induced famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one to two million North Koreans; reports from the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, ranging from the 2003 report on The Hidden Gulag  to the 2011 report on abductions (Taken), to the 2012 report on what is basically North Korea's system of political apartheid (Marked for Life: Songbun). There are by now stacks of books, such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2005), or Escape from Camp 14 (2012) on the gulag. There is the heart-breaking 2008 movie, Crossing, which conveys in the story of one boy and his father an amalgam of the real agonies of North Koreans who cannot survive in their own country, and risk everything to flee.

More information is all to the good, especially if it might induce the UN Human Rights Council to forego its fetish of fulminating about free societies such as the U.S. and Israel, and instead focus on what Pillay has correctly, if belatedly, worked around to highlighting as the monstrous, systemic human rights violations of the North Korean regime. But if Pillay wishes to amass the equivalent of an in-depth inquiry, that need not take months or years of further toil - it can by now be found online, overnight. The big crunch is that the vaunted international community must find the will to do something about it.


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Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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