North Korea forces women to undergo abortions and young mothers to drown their newborn babies, and has starved and executed hundreds of thousands of detainees at secret prison camps — atrocities that the chairman of a U.N. panel that documented the abuses compares to those of Nazi Germany.
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the U.N. Commission on Inquiry said in a 372-page report released Monday on North Korea’s atrocities. These crimes are ongoing because “the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”
In an unprecedented act, commission Chairman Michael Kirby wrote to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warning that he could be tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Obama administration “strongly” welcomed the report. She said it “provides compelling evidence of widespread, systematic, and grave human rights violations” by the North.
“The report reflects the international community’s consensus view that the human rights situation in the [North] is among the world’s worst,” Ms. Harf said.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, praised the report as a “clear-eyed account” and the “commission’s commitment to draw attention to North Korea’s human rights horrors.”
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“North Korea is the world’s most oppressive dictatorship, and this report gives unprecedented detail on the Kim regime’s brutality,” the California Republican said in Tokyo, where he was meeting with Japanese officials. “This international attention is long overdue.”
“I’ve long argued that U.S. policy toward North Korea must include a strong human rights focus. This report helps build that case,” Mr. Royce said.
The report documents crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
It is based on evidence provided at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington by about 80 victims and witnesses. More than 240 confidential interviews were conducted with victims and other witnesses.
North Korea refused to participate in the investigation, barred visits by the commission and rejected its findings as “a product of politicization of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy.”
The commission will present its findings March 17 to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
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Its recommendations include U.N. Security Council sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity, but the North’s diplomatic isolation and protection by ally China make it hard to hold its leaders accountable. As a permanent Security Council member, China has used its veto power to shield North Korea from U.N. action.
Like the Nazis
According to witness accounts, North Korean women repatriated from China are forced to undergo abortions because they are believed to be carrying babies conceived by Chinese men. The women are not asked about the fathers’ ethnicity.
“Secondary sources and witness testimonies point to an underlying belief in a ‘pure Korean race’ in the DPRK to which mixed race children (of ethnic Koreans) are considered a contamination of its ‘pureness,’” the report says, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
One witness said she saw seven women given injections to induce abortions. In most cases, guards at the detention facilities “force either the mother or a third person to kill the baby by drowning it in water or suffocating it by holding a cloth or other item against its face or putting the baby face down so that it cannot breathe,” the report says.
Most of the abortions and infanticides were committed at holding centers, and interrogation and detention centers known as State Security Department (SSD) facilities. A former SSD official explaining the concept of “pure Korean blood” to the commission said having a child who is not “100 percent” Korean makes a woman “less than human.”
Mr. Kirby, the commission chairman, said there are “many parallels” between North Korea and the Nazis in World War II: “I never thought that in my lifetime it would be part of my duty to bring revelations of a similar kind.”
The report also identifies North Korean security forces being responsible for detentions, executions and disappearances at secret prison camps known as “kwanliso.” The inmates have been “gradually eliminated” by starvation and executions, says the report, which estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have died in the camps over the past five decades.
“North Korea’s political prison camps have lasted twice as long as the Soviet gulags and five times as long as the Nazi concentration camps,” Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, told The Washington Times in an email. Liberty in North Korea is a nongovernmental organization that works with North Korean refugees.
North Korean authorities last month sent Kenneth Bae, a U.S. pastor detained for 15 months, back to a labor camp. Mr. Bae was last seen Jan. 20, when he was presented to journalists in Pyongyang. He urged the U.S. to work for his release.
‘Formula for change’
North Korea’s 30-something leader came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011. Hope arose that the Swiss-educated successor would provide an opening for the North to improve relations with South Korea and the West.
But Kim Jong-un quickly dashed those hopes: Since he has taken charge, the North has tested a nuclear weapon and threatened to attack the U.S. and South Korea, with which it is still technically at war since a cease-fire ended hostilities in the Korean War in 1953.
In December, Mr. Kim shocked the world with the swift arrest and execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, who was widely seen as the second most powerful man in North Korea.
“There was a lot of hope when Kim Jong-un became the supreme leader that things would change. … That is ashes in our mouth now, especially after the execution of his uncle,” Mr. Kirby said Monday at a press conference in Geneva.
Mr. Kirby, a retired Australian judge, said the international community must take North Korea to task: “We should be ashamed if we do not act on this report.”
Mr. Park said the international community has not paid adequate attention to the human rights crisis in North Korea.
“Twenty-four million North Korean people face one of the worst protracted humanitarian and human rights crises in human history, but the world’s focus has typically gone to Kim Jong-un, the nuclear issue and even [Dennis] Rodman’s bizarre visits,” said Mr. Park, referring to recent visits by the former NBA star to North Korea.
The international community must “increase support for multiple strategies to bring forward change in North Korea, including by working with North Korean refugees and people inside the country to accelerate bottom-up economic, information and social changes that are already happening in North Korean society,” Mr. Park said.
Mr. Kirby said his commission has “given the formula for change” with its report.
Nations cannot say they did not know the extent of the crimes taking place in North Korea, he said. “Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know.”