The ICAS Lectures


Sustaining International Attention to Human Rights in North Korea

Scott Busby

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 23, 2014 1:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318
United States House of Representatives
Capitol Hill Washington DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Scott Busby

Sustaining International Attention to Human Rights in North Korea

DRL DAS Scott Busby

Thursday October 23, 2014

Thank you all for your deep interest in human rights in North Korea. 2014 has been a landmark year on this topic - a UN Commission of Inquiry published a damning report detailing the widespread, systematic and ongoing human rights violations in the DPRK, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to condemn the regime's abuses, the U.N. Security Council held its first discussion on DPRK human rights, Secretary of State John Kerry participated with key international partners in a side event at the U.N. General Assembly to spotlight the regime's egregious human rights record and to demand the immediate closure of North Korea's camps, and the DPRK participated in its second Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council. These events have demonstrated that there is a growing international consensus that the human rights situation in North Korea is unacceptable, and accountability is needed for the violations that have taken place.

First, let me outline the depth and breadth of the human rights catastrophe in North Korea. Simply put, the DPRK remains one of the world's most pervasive deniers of freedom and violators of human rights. Extrajudicial killings and arbitrary and indefinite detention are common. The regime controls almost all aspects of citizens' lives, denying enjoyment of, among other things, freedoms of expression, religion, peaceful assembly, and association. The government severely restricts freedom of movement and subjects its citizens to forced labor. Reports suggest the regime has locked away between 80,000 and 120,000 citizens in a vast network of political prisons, where inmates are subjected to forced labor and inhuman conditions. Whole families are condemned - in most cases without trial - when one member commits an alleged crime. Authorities are known to regularly use torture and other ill-treatment in prison camps, involving severe beatings, electric shock, prolonged periods of exposure to the elements, humiliations such as public nakedness, confinement for weeks at a time in small "punishment cells" in which prisoners are unable to stand upright or lie down, being forced to kneel or to sit immobilized for long periods, being hung by the wrists, being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, and forcing mothers to watch the infanticide of their newborn infants. Many prisoners die from torture, disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements.

In addition to these camps, the DPRK also has "reform through labor" camps where thousands of individuals are detained and suffer many of the same kinds of human rights violations. The media gave extensive coverage recently to the North Korean permanent representative in New York "acknowledging" the existence of these "reform through labor" camps. However, the DPRK has long acknowledged their existence and Amnesty International visited one such camp in 1995. So there was nothing new in the remarks of the DPRK ambassador, and more importantly, this troubling part of the human rights situation in North Korea continues.

The camps tell only part of the story. The regime's war against the freedoms of its own people goes well beyond those actually imprisoned. Religious freedom does not exist in any meaningful way in the DPRK, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated the DPRK a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for many years, and adherents to any faith are targeted by the government for suppression and elimination. In addition, the regime uses starvation as a weapon to control the North Korean people. Basic survival is a reward given to those who demonstrate strict loyalty to the Kim family and who, like the military, are instrumental to protecting the regime's survival. Because the survival of the vast majority of North Koreans offers no concrete advantage to the regime, most North Koreans are simply left to fend for themselves, necessitating humanitarian relief efforts by the international community.

Simply put, the North Korean government uses fear, oppression, and cruelty as tools to concentrate and maintain power, and virtually no act of barbarism is too extreme, and no human right is too important, to stay the regime's hand.

Second, let me remind you of the UN Commission of Inquiry's key findings and recommendations. The Honorable Justice Michael Kirby from Australia, Sonja Biserko from Serbia, and the Honorable Marzuki Darusman from Indonesia, who has for several years served as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, conducted an exhaustive one-year investigation into human rights in the DPRK and found that the government, as a matter of state policy, is committing widespread, systematic and ongoing human rights violations against its own people. While this conclusion had been reached many times over the years by independent researchers, the COI's final report represented the U.N.'s first fully researched set of conclusions on the matter. The COI determined that its findings provided a reasonable ground to establish that crimes against humanity have been committed in North Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State. This included human rights violations against internees of the political and ordinary prison camps, international abductees, religious believers and others considered subversive, individuals trying to flee the country, and large parts of the population by means of deliberate starvation, among others. The Commission also noted its concern about countries that fail to provide North Korean asylum seekers with appropriate access to asylum procedures and in some cases return them to North Korea in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement.

The United States supported the formation and work of the COI and we endorse the findings of the COI's final report. We fully concur with the establishment, hopefully later this year, of a documentation and monitoring office in South Korea, to preserve the COI's research, prepare prosecution-ready evidence, and support the important, ongoing work of the UN Special Rapporteur, currently Mr. Darusman.

The U.N.'s release of the COI's final report predated and influenced two key events - the Human Rights Council's consideration of its annual DPRK resolution and the convening, by Australia, France and the United States, of the first discussion by Security Council members of the North Korean human rights situation. While in past years, the HRC had adopted a resolution on the DPRK by consensus, this year the more direct language condemning the regime for its human rights record prompted several HRC members opposed to such scrutiny to insist on a formal vote. The effort by the regime's allies to pressure the HRC into adopting more conciliatory language backfired, and an excellent resolution that clearly and accurately describes the regime's egregious human rights record was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 30 YES, 6 NO and 11 abstentions. In April, Australia, France and the United States co-sponsored an informal discussion of DPRK human rights - sometimes called an "Arria-style briefing" - with Security Council members. Members heard from North Korean defectors and many shared their governments' revulsion at the regime's record and determination to pursue mechanisms to hold the perpetrators of these abuses accountable.

More recently, Secretary Kerry, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun, Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid and other international partners participated in a side event during the U.N. General Assembly high-level week to spotlight the regime's record and to highlight the international community's growing focus on the issue. Attendees heard moving personal testimony from Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known surviving escapee from a political prison camp. Secretary Kerry said, "What goes on inside North Korea - systematic repression, collective punishment, arbitrary execution, penal colonies, prison camps - these abuses are actually unfathomable to nearly the entire world, and they should have no place in the 21st century." To the over one hundred thousand North Koreans imprisoned in the country's political prison camps, Secretary Kerry delivered a powerful message: "You may be hidden, but we can see you. We know you're there. Your captors can silence your voice and assault your dignity, but they cannot deny your basic humanity."

North Korea also underwent its second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review this past year, which provided a further opportunity to spotlight human rights deficiencies there and make recommendations on how to address them. That event has brought the DPRK to the table, at least nominally. The regime has felt obligated to respond to UPR recommendations from dozens of countries, even if those responses come five years after the first review, and in a few narrow areas, most notably disability rights, the DPRK is taking small but meaningful steps to improve its record.

On the subject of U.S. detainees, we welcome the release of Jeffrey Fowle. While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on the DPRK to immediately release them. The U.S. Government will continue to work actively on their cases. We thank the Government of Sweden for the tireless efforts of the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang, which acts as our Protecting Power in the DPRK.

Moving forward, effecting change on the ground for North Koreans will not be easy. The growing international attention to human rights in the DPRK is certainly welcome but will not, by itself, end human rights abuses, close the camps, and institute laws and policies that respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. The United States will continue to make clear to the regime that it will be judged by its actions, not its words, including on human rights, and that any future relationship depends in part on the regime acknowledging and improving its human rights record.

In this regard, let me state clearly, the United States supports the Security Council's consideration of appropriate accountability measures. The justification for such action is clear and unmistakable. However, the contours and timing of those measures, both multilaterally and bilaterally, have yet to be determined.

We will continue to seek ways to work with our international partners on human rights in North Korea, who are now more numerous than in years past, in order to magnify our efforts. We will seek every opportunity to remind the North Korean people, as Secretary Kerry did last month, that they are not alone and are not forgotten. We will also seek to expose as many North Koreans as we can to developments in the outside world, because part of the challenge here is the hermetically sealed information environment that the regime tries to maintain. Our long-term security and prosperity depends on the United States promoting the values of freedom and democracy around the world, including in North Korea, and the North Korean people deserve nothing less. Thank you, and I'd be happy to take your questions.

This page last updated October 24, 2014 jdb