North Korea spurns UN push to stop executions and torture

The North Korea ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva denounced its recommendations just as reports emerged that the North had executed the official responsible for a ruinous currency revaluation.

North Korea is spurning United Nations demands to stop public executions, torture of prisoners, and other endemic violations of human rights in the aftermath of the reported execution of the senior official responsible for disastrous economic reforms.

Ri Chol, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on Thursday denounced the council’s recommendations as reflecting historic hostility toward the North’s long-ruling leadership. He issued his rejoinder in response to demands that also included calls to stop training children for military service and forcing citizens to perform hard labor against their will.

The verbal exchange came on the heels of the reported execution of Pak Nam-ki, the former chief of economic planning for the ruling Workers’ Party. A firing squad executed Mr. Pak last week in Pyongyang as punishment for harming the country's currency, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. Mr. Pak vanished from public view after having been photographed with leader Kim Jong-il on a "field inspection" trip in early January.

Disastrous financial reforms

A long-time party faithful, the 77-year-old Pak had clearly had the confidence of Kim Jong-il when North Korea sought to deal with mounting economic woes by lopping off the last two zeroes from its vastly inflated currency and setting a deadline for exchanging stacks of banknotes for new ones. Protests mounted as the old banknotes became worthless, depriving a rising middle class of much of its income, forcing the closure of markets, and finally compelling the regime into an unprecedented apology.

The attempt at economic reform “was an unmitigated disaster,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. As for reports of Pak’s execution, “It’s like when an American sports team isn’t doing well, you fire the manager,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick. “Only in this case they fired at him.”

North Korea has persistently refused to admit the UN’s special human rights rapporteur into the country. Nonetheless, hopes had been high that the North might be willing to put on a show of understanding of concerns about its human rights record.

“Those who wanted to find some silver lining in the gray clouds of North Korea’s human rights record had pointed to North Korean participation in Geneva at least as evidence that North Korea wanted to put its side of the story,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick. Given the record, he adds, “it’s hard to think” that North Koreans “could persuade anyone of their bona fides.”

A scapegoat

Almost simultaneously as the council was convening in Geneva, according to the Yonhap report, the regime turned on the aging, long-serving Pak with a ferocity that analysts see as showing the urgent need to find at least one scapegoat. His crime, sources told Yonhap, was that he was found to be “a son of a bourgeois conspiring to infiltrate the ranks of revolutionaries to destroy the national economy.”

North Korea over the years has imprisoned and executed thousands for economic crimes – and for having been born of bourgeois landowning families before the rise of communism in the North after World War II.

In another high-profile execution, in 1997 the North put to death Seo Gwan-hee, director of the Agriculture Ministry, blamed for the famine of the 1990s in which 2 million people are estimated to have died of disease or starvation. In Mr. Seo’s case, there were reports at the time that he was “executed” twice – first out of public view and again, after his body was disinterred and tied to a post, in public.

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