Crimes Against Humanity Continue Unabated In North Korea

A new report published by the International Bar Association’s (IBA) War Crimes Committee and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has found there is reasonable basis to conclude that Kim Jong-un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but also other North Korean officials, should be investigated for crimes against humanity committed on a massive scale in detention centers in North Korea. The report, launched end of June 2022, is the culmination of over two years of work of the Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers (the Inquiry) run by both organizations, as supported by pro-bono lawyers. The Inquiry aimed at increasing public awareness of the situation in North Korea, exploring the practical and legal options for justice and accountability, among others. The launch of the report follows several hearings which heard testimonies from North Korean escapees and experts.

The report concluded that ten of the eleven crimes against humanity enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, have been and continue to be committed, including, murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearances, apartheid and other inhumane acts.

The Inquiry cited evidence of arbitrary executions, infanticide, and forced abortions being commonplace in detention centers and testimonies of “repeated instances of infanticide and forced abortions at detention centers, particularly targeting ‘impure’ half-Chinese babies.”

The Inquiry presented evidence of detainees being intentionally deprived of food as a “weapon of punishment and control” resulting in severe illnesses, malnutrition, and often death by starvation. One witness testified of being fed “mostly skin of corn or potatoes mixed in with stones and coal.” Other witnesses testified to eating rodents, frogs, or snakes to survive.

The Inquiry reported on evidence of detainees being subjected to beatings and other forms of torture. One witness described being “beaten so severely at an underground detention facility that all of his lower teeth were broken. He was also subjected to waterboarding and electric shocks.”

The Inquiry shed light on the issue of sexual violence against detainees. According to the findings, it was very common for female detainees to be sexually assaulted. Such abuse is said to occur “virtually every day.” One witness testified to being “brutally beaten and raped by the deputy head of a detention facility, who also raped most of the young women detained in the facility.”

The Inquiry found evidence of severe violations of human rights, and especially, of the right to freedom of religion or belief. As the report states, Christians, in particular, were targeted for detention and subject to grave treatment in detention, including, “detention periods have been documented as being longer for Christians than other groups”, and “Christians are interrogated for longer periods, usually under torture and subjected to some of the worst forms of torture to force them to incriminate others during interrogation.”

Lastly, the Inquiry reported on detainees being subjected to grueling forced labor and abhorrent living conditions in detention facilities. Witnesses testified of being treated like “animals” and subjected to extreme working conditions. Children as young as seven were forced to do hard labor, including cutting large trees on the mountains.

The report named Kim Jong-un high-level officials and lower-level guards as those responsible for the crimes, including, members of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), of the State Affairs Commission (SAC), of the Ministry of Social Security (MPS) and members of the Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The report called for urgent action, including the launching of an investigation by the International Criminal Court or a special international tribunal; the exercise of universal jurisdiction by national courts; and targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crimes. Many of these recommendations have been identified by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, led by Justice Michael Kirby, in their report published in 2014. Unfortunately, eight years later, many of the recommendations have not been implemented. The dire situation in North Korea continues to be met with very little action. Clear leadership in response to grave human rights violations in North Korea is urgently needed.