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Terrorism & Security

China pushes back on UN report slamming North Korean rights abuses (+video)

Beijing on Tuesday dismissed the UN effort, which details crimes including extermination, enslavement, and torture, as 'unreasonable criticism.'

By Staff writer / February 18, 2014

A sign of a soldier blowing a bugle at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, dwarfs passersby on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Hopes have been dashed that Kim Jong-un would improve North Korea's dismal human rights record.

Vincent Yu/AP

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Europe Editor

Arthur Bright is the Europe Editor at The Christian Science Monitor.  He has worked for the Monitor in various capacities since 2004, including as the Online News Editor and a regular contributor to the Monitor's Terrorism & Security blog.  He is also a licensed Massachusetts attorney.

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UN investigators said on Monday, that North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and mass killings bordering on genocide. The investigators told Kim in a letter, they were advising the United Nations to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, to ensure any culprits 'including possibly yourself' were held accountable. North Korea said it 'categorically and totally" rejected the investigators' report, which it called "a product of politicization of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy,'

A day after the United Nations released a damning report on crimes against humanity by North Korea – abuses that it warned China may be "aiding and abetting" – Beijing dismissed the UN effort as "unreasonable criticism."

"We believe that politicizing human rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Tuesday, underscoring the view of many diplomats that North Korea's ally is unlikely to support any action by the UN Security Council. 

The report, released Monday, warns of "unspeakable atrocities" within North Korea at the hands of Kim Jong-un's regime, “The gravity, scale and nature of [which] reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The nearly 400-page report documents a litany of crimes, 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."

In the DPRK [North Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs. The fact that such enormous crimes could be going on for such a long time is an affront to universal human rights. These crimes must cease immediately. It is the duty of the DPRK and, failing that, the responsibility of the international community to ensure that this is done without delay.

The UN commission, which consisted of officials from Australia, Serbia, and Indonesia, advised that the UN should refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and implement sanctions against those deemed most responsible for the ongoing abuses – potentially including Mr. Kim.

The commission also warned China that it should stop forcibly repatriating North Koreans fleeing their country, and extend them refugee status. The report found that most of those repatriated end up in the North's massive work camps, where the worst abuses take place.

But Ms. Hua, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, cautioned against going to the ICC

"We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country's human rights situation."

Hua would not answer what she said was a "hypothetical question" on whether China would use its veto powers if the report was brought to the U.N. Security Council for further action. 

She also denied that North Koreans fleeing into China were refugees, instead calling them illegal immigrants who had crossed the border for economic reasons.

Pyongyang also denied the report's findings as "fabricated and invented," reports Al Jazeera. "The DPRK [North Korea] once again makes it clear that the human rights violations mentioned in the so-called 'report' do not exist in our country."

The Los Angeles Times notes that many of the atrocities cited in the report are well known in the human rights community, but "their inclusion in a comprehensive document compiled by a U.N.-appointed panel appears to be unprecedented." The Times adds that the North Korean abuses have gotten worse under Kim Jong-un, whom many had hoped would prove to be less oppressive than his father, Kim Jong-il.

However, the trend appears to have reversed, especially in recent months. The execution in December of Jang Song Taek, the leader's uncle and the most reform-minded in the top leadership, triggered a purge that has seen dozens of people, possibly hundreds, executed or summarily deported to prison camps. Some reports say that among the victims have been children who committed no offenses but were related to those accused of political crimes.

And North Korea expert Leonid Petrov told Agence France-Presse that regardless of the report's findings and recommendations, the issue of abuses "cannot be resolved unilaterally, nor swiftly, without transforming the political climate of the whole region."

[Such change] would require, he argued, formally ending the Korean War -- which concluded in 1953 with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty -- as well as diplomatic recognition of North Korea and the lifting of sanctions imposed for its nuclear programme.

Otherwise the North would remain in a "perpetual and assiduously cultivated state of emergency" in which human rights were sacrificed on the altar of regime survival.

"Without the goodwill of regional policymakers to address the problem of the Korean War especially, the issue of human rights in Korea is unlikely to be resolved," Petrov added.

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