While North Korea’s dismal human rights record has been overshadowed of late by its latest round of provocative nuclear and missile tests, the United Nations is continuing to build the case to prosecute Kim Jong Un and his leadership for crimes against humanity.
In 2014 a U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea issued a report documenting a network of political prisons in the country holding 120,000 people and a list of atrocities that include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.”
The report also called on the U.N. to refer the leadership of North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.
The General Assembly voted in support of the COI recommendation but the measure stalled in the Security Council where North Korea’s allies China and Russia would likely veto the bill if it were brought up for a vote.
Building their case
But work goes on by both international human rights groups and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to build legal cases against North Korean officials, if and when the Kim Jong Un government collapses or its officials are held accountable in a court of law.
“That is quite unique in that sense, compared to the general practice where justice seeking is then implemented after the big bang, so called,” said Marzuki Darusman the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea.
Darusman and other human rights activists were in Seoul for a symposium Monday about what more can be done to hold North Korean officials accountable for ongoing human rights abuses committed in the country.
Last year the United Nations established an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Seoul to gather testimony and evidence from the 30,000 North Korea defectors to corroborate human rights abuse charges. Signe Poulsen, the OHCHR Seoul Office Representative said they are making slow progress, but it is hard to make a legal case based on defector testimony alone.
“Verification is extremely difficult and it is an ongoing challenge, and I think something we have to be quite humble about because we don’t have access at the ground level,” said Poulsen.
Chain of command
As North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un is ultimately responsible for the systemic atrocities committed in the country, and investigators say that there are directives and hand written notes that directly connect him to these crimes.
Rights advocate Greg Scarlatiou with Human Rights North Korea says it is important to name specific individuals beyond the North Korean leader, to warn even mid-level perpetrators in state security agencies that they too will be held accountable.
“We know those agencies, we know the hierarchy within those agencies and we even have many lists of names of officials who are still there, who have been holding positions at these agencies,” Scarlatiou said.
But North Korea analyst Remko Breuker with Leiden University in the Netherlands says some distinction may need to be made between those who gave the orders and those who executed the orders. And he hopes that question is ultimately addressed in a North Korean tribunal some time in the future rather than the ICC.
“Where does this accountability stop? When do people have no other choice than to obey? This is something ideally that should be left the North Koreans to decide,” said Breuker.
Beyond building a legal court case, human rights lawyer Jared Genser with Perseus Strategies, LLC says publicly documenting these cases of systematic and widespread atrocities can also act to validate the victim’s rights and experience
“That what they went through was horrible, horrific, terrible, the worst that could happen, that one human being does to another human being, that it’s wrong, that it’s illegal under international law, and that the international community acknowledges the injustice that has taken place,” said Genser.
While bringing North Korean perpetrators of abuse and atrocities to justice seems unlikely in the near future, these U.N. officials and activists say the political environment will one day change and they are continuing to prepare for that eventuality.
The tough new U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea following its nuclear test and rocket launch earlier this year were not explicitly connected to human rights abuse in the country. But the United States has named North Korean nuclear proliferation and ongoing atrocities as justification for the added unilateral sanctions it imposed.
South Korea also this year approved new measures to both document abuse and work to improve the human rights situation in the North.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.