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North Korea threatens US – what about its own people?

As North Korea threatens the US, South Korea, and world peace with hints of a third nuclear test, what about its threat to its own people? It has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The UN must open a 'commission of inquiry' into crimes against humanity.

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In North Korean society at large, a climate of fear and total control pervades. One small step out of line, often inadvertent, can land you in one of the notorious prison camps, often ending in death.

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Mistakes as simple as sitting on an old newspaper that contains a picture of one of the North Korean leaders from the Kim family – past or present – can result in horrific torture or years in the camps. So, too, can a deliberate but small expression of defiance, such as watching a South Korean DVD, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, or possessing a Bible.

An estimated 200,000 people are in the prison camps. Even at the worst times in Myanmar (Burma), a country which came close to rivalling North Korea in oppression, there were only about 2,000 political prisoners. Unlike in Myanmar, where there were dissidents who actively chose to oppose the regime, most of North Korea’s detainees are not “political” at all.

Conditions in these camps are unimaginable, and have been well-documented over the years by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and by experts such as David Hawk, whose report “The Hidden Gulag” helped reveal the extent of the system.

Testimonies from North Koreans who have fled the country tell of widespread and systematic use of horrific forms of torture, sexual violence, and executions in the camps.

Abuses are so widespread and severe that the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, described the country as “sui generis (in its own category)." He called on the UN to consider whether the case of North Korea should be taken up “at the pinnacle of the system.”

The current composition of the UN Human Rights Council means that a proposal to form a commission of inquiry stands a good chance of being passed. So it is now a matter of leadership and initiative. A government, or a group of governments, most likely from Europe but with strong backing from Japan, South Korea, and the US, needs to respond to the challenge and put forward a recommendation.

This is a carpe diem moment. The idea already has the backing of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur. Parliamentarians and legal experts from around the world have given it their support. Human rights organizations are calling for it. The time to act is now.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Jack Rendler is the North Korea country specialist for Amnesty International USA.


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