UN ramps up scrutiny of North Korea’s catastrophic human rights record

By Evan Ritli of Amnesty International Australia

Given North Korea’s catastrophic human rights record it is hardly surprising that the United Nations has established a Commission of Inquiry whilst a Special Rapporteur continues to analyse the country’s human rights situation.

The UN Human Rights Council has established the Commission to investigate “the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” . Amnesty International, as a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) lobbied governments hard to achieve this Commission.

Heading up the Commission will be former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby. Kirby says he will use his 34 years of experience as a judge to investigate the situation objectively and without prejudice: “I have no preconceptions about the government of North Korea and I’ll proceed as one should: with impartiality and just giving them the opportunity to have their say and to respond to testimony. That’s due process.”

He will be joined on the three-member Commission of Inquiry by Marzuki Darusman, UN Special Rapporteur on situation of human rights in North Korea, and Sonja Biserko, founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. They were given a one-year mandate for their investigation.

North Korea’s Political Prison Camps

The three experts will have their work cut out for them.

Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to be detained in political prison camps and other detention facilities throughout the country. Those imprisoned typically face grossly unfair trials or no trial at all. Families have been incarcerated there simply because a relative displeased the government.

Testimonies from former prisoners and guards have revealed that inmates are often subjected to torture and forced labour. North Korean authorities continue to deny the existence of political prison camps.

However, the Human Rights Council is already well aware of these camps and in establishing the Commission of Inquiry deplored “the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners” and urged for these practices to immediately cease.

In fact, earlier this year before being named to the commission, Marzuki Darusman went so far as to say that the “grave human-rights violations in the prison camps or the mere existence of slave camps may amount to crimes against humanity”.

As part of Amnesty International’s campaign to close political prison camps in North Korea we released a series of shocking satellite imagery showing that the North Korean government has begun to blur the lines between its political prison camps and surrounding villages.

Yodok and beyond

Kirby and the commission will undoubtedly investigate the likes of Yodok Political Prison Camp and should make strong recommendations for the closure of all political prison camps like it in North Korea.

Yodok Political Prison Camp – in Yodok County, South Hamkyung Province – is made up of a ‘total control zone’ and a ‘revolutionary zone’. While those sent to the revolutionary zone may be “re-educated” and released after sentences of a few months to 10 years, those sent to the total control zone are never released. There are estimated to be over 50,000 inmates currently in Yodok.

People can end up in a place like Yodok for “crimes” such as underperforming in official duties, criticizing the regime, and engaging in “anti-government” activities, Typically the authorities also detain up to three generations of the prisoners’ family members. Children born in a political prison camp automatically become prisoners, potentially for life. Torture and forced hard labour are the norm and public executions are common.

The Commission of Inquiry is due to present an update to the human rights Council in September and another to the General Assembly later in the fall, with a full written report to come in March 2014.

Hopefully their findings will place further pressure on both the North Korean government and the international community to take action and put an end to the gross human rights violations meted out at Yodok and the whole network of North Korea’s political prison camps.

Interactive map of North Korea’s political prison camps

Read more:

North Korea: UN Human Rights Council urged to set up Commission of Inquiry (Public statement, 11 March 2013)

North Korea: New images show blurring of prison camps and villages (News story/report, 7 March 2013)