Conflict & Justice

A UN report details atrocities in North Korea that are painful to even imagine

Michael Kirby.jpg

Michael Kirby, chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea holds a copy of his report during a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva February 17, 2014.


REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

A new UN report on North Korea reveals that women prisoners were forced to kill their own newborns. It's just one atrocity in a 400-page report documenting the crimes against humanity that have taken place in North Korea over the past few decades, and that continue to take place. 

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"The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the UN document states.

The report is the result of a year-long Commission of Inquiry, organized by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Its purpose was to document what it calls the "unspeakable atrocities" committed in North Korea, with a view to holding the perpetrators accountable.

Investigators accuse North Korea's government of systematic murder, torture, rape, forced abortions and deliberate starvation, as well as infanticide.

The Commission heard from hundreds of witnesses. On Monday, it released the recordings of the public hearings. Witness Jee Heon A was jailed for attempting to flee across the North Korean border to China during a famine.

Jee gave her evidence through a translator before the Commission last year. She recalled how joy turned to terror one night, when a fellow inmate gave birth:

"Suddenly we heard these footsteps, and a security agent came in. And this agent said that — usually when a baby is born we would wash the baby in a bowl of water — but this agent told us to put the baby in the water upside down."

Despite protests, the mother was beaten until she drowned her newborn baby. Witness Jee said she saw this multiple times.

Most of the witnesses were refugees from North Korea. But the chair of the Commission, Australian jurist Michael Kirby, says he found them credible.

"If people are uncertain," he said, "they can look at the public hearings, because it's on the Internet. It's accessible to people all around the world. They don't have to accept our word for it. They can look at these witnesses and make a judgment for themselves. Are they telling the truth or are they — as the North Korean government has said — 'human scum' who are fabricating these stories?"

Kirby said the North Korean witnesses who provided testimony were overwhelmingly brave and determined people who had suffered greatly and wanted to do something to make sure the next generation of North Koreans didn't have to suffer in the same way.

The UN Commission had two objectives. First, it aimed to ascertain whether crimes against humanity were taking place in North Korea. And second, it sought to propose ways to make the perpetrators accountable. The Commission has recommended that prosecutors take these cases before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

That would require referral from the UN Security Council. Kirby hopes such action will not be blocked by China, which has a veto in the Security Council. But some regional experts doubt China will be willing to support international action against its old ally, despite recent disagreements.