As officials in Moscow confirm that a North Korean leader plans to visit Russia in May, Human Rights Watch says that Kim Jong-Un and senior members of his government should be held accountable for overseeing grave rights abuses and crimes against humanity.
The spring visit would be the first overseas trip for Kim since coming into power in 2011. Festivities are planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II. Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to attend; US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye have also been invited but not confirmed.
Kim may be looking ahead to form allies to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. North Korea’s relations with China have chilled recently after its third nuclear tests. The United Nations Security Council would have to pass a resolution referring North Korea to the ICC. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, and is a potential veto, along with China.
Russian officials have not specified by name that it will be Kim Jong-Un who will attend. On Wednesday, Yonhap news agency quoted the office of the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as confirming via email that “About 20 state leaders have confirmed their attendance, and the North Korean leader is among them.”
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) found that crimes against humanity are ongoing in North Korea. In releasing its findings in February 2014, the COI said a grim array of human rights abuses, driven by “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been and continue to be committed in DPNK, 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, enforced disappearances and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.
“Kim Jong-Un’s power is built on the continued abuses inflicted on the North Korean people because he sits at the helm of a central government apparatus that uses public executions, extensive political prison camps, and brutal forced labor to maintain control. What’s changed is the international community has now finally recognized the need to bring him before an international tribunal to address those unspeakable crimes,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Friday.
In March, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution supporting the COI’s findings and, in November, the third committee of the UN General Assembly followed suit by approving a resolution by a resounding vote. On December 18th, the entire UN General Assembly approved that resolution. The COI and the HRC urged the UN General Assembly to formally submit the report to the Security Council. The resolution said that the Security Council should refer North Korea to an international criminal court for possible prosecutions of its leaders, and to consider imposing targeted sanctions against those most responsible for abuses.
Following the vote, for the first time ever, North Korea’s grave human rights situation was taken up as a standing agenda item by the UN Security Council.
In the release of its World Report 2015 released Thursday, Human Rights Watch said that the North Korean government denies basic freedoms in the country and operates a network of political prisons and forced labor camps that systematically brutalize and often result in the deaths of those the government accuses of crimes.
“Now, at long last, the human rights crimes of the North Korean government are in the spotlight and no one can deny the horror North Koreans are experiencing,” said Robertson. “It’s time for justice for the North Korean people – meaning that governments around the world need to put human rights front and center in all their dealings with the rulers in Pyongyang.”
The North Korean government continues to practice collective punishment by sending an offender and three generations of his family to political prison camps, known as kwan-li-so. The living conditions are horrific and the abuses include induced starvation, lack of medical care, proper shelter and clothes, torture and abuse by guards and forced labor in dangerous conditions.
In October, a North Korean United Nations diplomat publicly acknowledged that “reform through labor” centers exist in North Korea where “people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” But Pyongyang still denies kwan-li-so camps operate in the country.
Robert King, the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights speaking in Brussels January 21st before the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, said that the ‘’COI report was a very important step, but it is not the end. It has created momentum for the international community to continue to focus on D.P.R.K. abuses.” He commended the establishment of a field office under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to preserve and document evidence of atrocities in order to enable future accountability. ”South Korea has agreed to host this office…[which] will play an important role in maintaining visibility on the ongoing human rights abuses in the North. We expect to see this office open in the next two months so that it can continue to build upon the foundation established by the Commission,’’ he said.
King added that the only way for North Korea to end its isolation is by abandoning its current course and observing international laws and obligations. ‘’Ultimately, we will judge the North not by its words, but by its actions — the concrete steps it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, from its nuclear program to its human rights violations,’’ he said.
For the past ten years, the DPRK has ignored human rights resolutions and reports of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. International pressure is mounting, however, and we may be seeing signs that the regime is starting to scramble in an attempt to appear cooperative and find allies. The North Korean government recently invited the European Union to visit the North Korea. In the lead up to the UNGA resolution vote, North Korea invited the UN Special Rapporteur and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit, but withdrew these offers after the critical General Assembly resolution was adopted. North Korea responded to the resolution by threatening a fourth nuclear test.