North Korea Is Officially the Worst Place on Earth. Now What?

The leaders of the Hermit Kingdom are murderers, the UN says in an unprecedented report. But stopping them won't be easy.

Feb 19 2014, 6:35pm
Image: KCNA

Instructed to attempt an escape from a North Korean gulag, you scale the camp's tall fence acting as live target practice for the guards below. Starvation, disease and torture haven't killed you yet, but the guards' shots probably will.

Sadly, North Korea's human rights violations are nothing new. But a report issued Monday by the UN Human Rights Council and its Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights has offered the first high-level look at the country’s abuse of its citizens. The non-partisan council, led by Michael Kirby, a judge in the High Court of Australia, also calls for a criminal investigation against Kim Jong-un and his regime, which it says, "displays many attributes of a totalitarian State." 

Kim has rejected a letter that accompanied an advance copy of the UN's report, which is essentially a probe to find evidence against the leadership's human rights abuses. In the letter, the Commissionerstold the 31-year-old leader that it would seek, “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity...,” by way of a recommending a referral of the DPRK's situation to the International Criminal Court. 

The report may signal an unprecedented level of international concern for North Korea, say observers, and it raises the stakes for the UN to act. Today, for instance, Botswana announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. But sending Kim to the world's human rights court would depend upon a unanimous vote by the Security Council, and China, which so far has resisted calls to intervene in its ally's abuses, has promised that it would not support such a move. 

'Pigeon torture.' Sketch by Kim Kwang-il, via UNHCR.

The UN's report highlights arbitrary torture and interrogation practices, at one point describing an account of "pigeon torture," an interrogation technique in which prisoners are suspended by their hands behind their back. Lasting for days, it often results in defecation, vomiting, and complete exhaustion.

The UN, which through its World Food Programme (WFP) has helped to feed North Korea's starving poor over the past two decades, now says the country "does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

Speculation that the young, Western-versed Kim Jong-un would bring a looser grip to Pyongyang was squashed last month when his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was executed for crimes against the state, along, reportedly, with his blood relatives. This came just a few months after the reported execution of Kim's ex-girlfriend, who was accused of producing and selling a sex tape.

But such executions are mere snapshots of what human rights advocates have for years described as an epic landscape of violence against the country's population of 24 million people, a third of whom are thought to be undernourished, and up to 200,000 of whom have reportedly "disappeared" into brutal concentration camps.

An excerpt from the UN report

"Crimes against humanity," the UN panel writes, "are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”

"You were ideologically unsound if you didn't join in throwing stones," Kang Ch'ol-hwan explains in the documentary Children of the Secret State, describing participatory public executions at one of DPRK's prison camp. "Their bodies shook for about three minutes, until they took their last breath... You saw it so often, you got used to it." Some prisoners are burned alive, with their family members forced to light the pyre, writes Victor Cha, the former top advisor on North Korean affairs to George W. Bush, in The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Present.

How much food you get as a North Korean depends on what class you belong to, of which there are 51 different categories. While the top hundred members of the party will eat something resembling gourmet meals every day, thousands of refugees flee across the Chinese border in search of food. Many of them are repatriated against their wishes (called ‘refoulement’) only to end up in labor camps back on the North Korean side.

How North Koreans escape, via Vice on HBO

Struggling families sell their children to Chinese farmers (with hope they'll gain opportunity outside of North Korea) and substitute tree bark, shrubs, and grasses for food.

The UN's report emphasizes that all states need to respect non-refoulement principles in order to promote refugees, mitigate human trafficking, and to provide legal protection. In March of 2006, George W. Bush's White House lobbed an unprecedented anti-refoulement statement at China:

“Despite US, South Korean, and UNHCR (The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees) attempts... Ms Kim, an asylum seeker in her thirties, was deported to North Korea after being arrested in December for seeking refuge at two Korean schools in China. We are deeply concerned about Ms. Kim’s well-being. The United States notes China’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol… We also call upon… China not to return North Korean asylum seekers without allowing UNHCR access to those vulnerable individuals.”

China has continually disregarded the 1967 Protocol and other urgings.After being forcibly returned to North Korea, populations of refoulees are isolated out of fear they might disseminate what they've seen or experienced in China to other prisoners.

However unsteady the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang may be, convincing a defiant China to allow North Korean refugees to be treated as asylum seekers, or to support an international investigation against the DPRK's leadership, won't be easy. But some are optimistic that the new report will be impossible for Beijing to ignore.

Stephen Noerper, senior vice president of the New York-based Korea Society, told Voice of America "it would not be in China’s long term interest" to block the UN's actions against North Korea. "It’s very, very hard to imagine that any regime, be it in Beijing or otherwise, could stand up very long and in any way credibly defend Pyongyang on these sorts of abuses."

But in a December letter to Michael Kirby, the chair of the UN commission, China's UN ambassador in Geneva wrote that Beijing does not support an inquiry into the DPRK's human rights record, and that "DPRK citizens who have entered China illegally do it for economic reasons. Therefore they are not refugees." He added that "some NGOs and religious groups from the Republic of Korea, under the pretext of humanitarianism, are engaged in organizing smuggling of DPRK citizens who cross the borders illegally," activities, he writes, that "are for profit" and "severely undermine China's social stability and national security."

What's more is North Korea's detainment of foreign citizens, from orchestrated kidnappings happening as far away as Europe, to the detainment of its visitors. John Short, a 75-year-old South Australian missionary is currently being held after police arrested and interrogated him earlier this week for carrying religious pamphlets.

Due to North Korea's famine of the mid-'90s, when the country saw its greatest food shortages and starvation deaths, the United States, the UN World Food Programme, and a handful of NGOs sent food aid to the DPRK (at its peak the WFP sent 1.5 million tons of food in 2001). As a result, the regime relied on the aid, cut its commercial imports, and ramped up public executions. Struggling families sell their children to Chinese farmers (with hope they'll gain opportunity outside of North Korea) and eat highly indigestible tree bark, shrubs, and grasses to recreate the feeling of being full.

Illustration of "clock torture," drawn by a DPRK defector. Via Imgur.

During the worst of the country's widespread starvation, building up military infrastructures (and nuclear capabilities) has often stood at the fore of Pyongyang's priorities, in its pursuit of Neojuche Revivalism. (Juche means "self-reliance," and refers to a strong image of the North in the '50s and '60s). In order to sustain the political system, says the report, the DPRK's leadership has made "decisions and policies violating the universal human right to food" that "exacerbate starvation and contribute to related deaths."

It seems hopeless that Pyongyang could ever, without increased aid, an open economy, or stronger ties with the south, achieve Kim Il-sungs 1960s promise, that North Korea’s citizens would "wear silk clothes, eat white rice with meat soup every day, and live in well-heated tile-roofed homes." 

Though reunification with the south has become a distant dream, signs of progress between the two Koreas have emerged at a business park on the border. Located just north of the 38th parallel in the North, the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a ten-year-old collaboration. With a workforce of over 44,000—composed mostly of North Korean women that labor for $45 a month—120 South Korean companies at Kaesong add between $20 and $34 million in hard currency to North Korea annually. The park is even due to receive an internet connection soon, which could be the country's first official link to the web.

Kaesong Industrial Complex. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Even here though, survival can look like a matter of desparation. Recently, South Korean companies at Kaesong started rewarding workers with Choco Pies, an Oreo-like cookie renowned throughout Asia. But the Choco Pie wrappers didn't end up in the waste bins at the factories. They'd been taken home and sold on the black market, where a single cookie could go for as much as $10.

“The State," the UN panel points out, "has consistently failed in its obligation to use the maximum of its available resources to feed those who are hungry.” The Choco Pies were eventually replaced by cups of instant noodles, an effort by the Southern companies to provide something more substantial for the workers.

The cookie-hustling episode also illustrates new supply channels. Though Northern workers and Southern employers hardly interact and communicate, their engagement reaches beyond salaries and the economic benefits that Kaesong has for Pyongyang's bottom line. Through smuggled puppies, DVD players, and forbidden South Korean soap operas, cultural penetration into the North proceeds, slowly but surely. 

Aiming at the North Korean leadership, and those responisble for human rights abuses on the country's citizens, the UNHRC is calling on the Security Council to adopt targeted sanctions, while stressing that such sanctions should avoid hurting the country's overall population and economy. The commission didn't identify commanders or politicians by name, but said it has compiled a database of suspects, which will be presented, along with recommendations, to the Human Rights Council on March 17th. 

Kim Jong-un visits the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the Korean People's Army. Photo via KCNA

In addition to international action, the report also recommends other ways the world can assist North Korea, including fostering "people-to-people dialogue and contact in such areas as culture, science, sports, good governance and economic development," to expose North Koreans to experiences outside their country. Perhaps that's some validation for Dennis Rodman, whose cheery "basketball diplomacy"—and confusing statements about North Korea's imprisonment of American missionary Kenneth Bae, on charges of a "Christian conspiracy"—has maddened rather than impressed observers hoping for reform. 

The UN also notes, however, that visitors to the country are often ignorant about the human rights abuses committed on their behalf. The Mass Games, Pyongyang's annual human spectacle, "has become a major source of foreign currency revenue for the DPRK," even as it relies on children who are "compelled to participate (unless their physical appearance does not meet the state-determined ideal)."

Calls for human rights abuses to end in North Korea may be decades old, but the new report calls for a fresh look from international leaders, in the hopes they'll shift their emphasis from Kim Jong-un's nuclear threats to the risks he poses to his own people. For them, the cost of Kim's growing power continues to be a matter of life and death. Someday, If the UN Human Rights Council has its way, Kim and his close comrades will have to pay the price of that power too.

Watch VICE's documentary on North Korean labor camps in Russia.