By Kim Young-ho
With a global consensus slowly emerging, calls are growing for an independent inquiry mechanism to carry out an in-depth investigation into egregious human rights violations committed by North Korea. In his confirmation hearing last week, U.S. Sen. John Kerry emphasized the need for “speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea.” North Korea imprisons an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people in its sprawling political prison camps. As shown in the testimonies of survivors and defectors, human rights abuses there are horrific beyond description. That includes murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, persecution and enforced disappearance. Even after the new North Korean leadership took off, the camps continue to operate and the dismal situations there remain unchanged.
Since 2005, the United Nations has approved resolutions urging North Korea to improve its human rights record. But the regime has repeatedly rejected all resolutions adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council. It has refused to acknowledge and meet with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which was established in 2004 under a U.N. mandate. While North Korea refuses to respond to the U.N. recommendations, human rights conditions in the communist country continue to deteriorate.
The international community hopes that the new leadership in North Korea would take concrete measures to improve human rights conditions and address issues including gulags, abduction and the arbitrary detention of innocent South Koreans and citizens of other countries. We felt hopeless when new leader Kim Jong-un declared that “the first, second, and third priorities are to strengthen the military.” Under the “military-first” policy, his government puts top priority on the military for resource allocations. This misguided policy is detrimental to not only its human rights record but also the well-being of the people.
North Korea has defended its “military-first” policy as a countermeasure to South Korea, the United States and other countries’ hostile policies toward North Korea. This cannot simply be justified because Seoul has been trying to constructively engage with North Korea and build peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.
It is the North Korean regime that makes its security more insecure by antagonizing its own people. It has imposed severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement. The regime classifies its population into three classes based on their perceived political loyalty, an anachronistic system of discrimination. The “hostile” and “wavering” classes are most disadvantaged in terms of access to food, housing and educational opportunities. The guilt-by-association system still exists and is used as a pretext to lock all the family members and relatives in political prison camps.
The new North Korean leadership needs to understand that its nuclear weapons program poses a “security dilemma.” Genuine security for North Korea can be achieved only when it respects the individual rights of its citizens and adheres to international law and its obligations on human rights recommended by U.N. resolutions.
Amid North Korea’s resistance to improving human rights conditions, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, which brings together more than 40 prominent human rights organizations and activists, urged the U.N. to set up a Commission of Inquiry in 2011. Two weeks ago, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also called for “a full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes” that have been taking place in North Korea for decades. The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to consider launching the Commission of Inquiry when the North Korean human rights issue is raised at its upcoming regular session in March. The establishment of the COI will be a turning point in international efforts to promote and improve North Korean human rights.
Human rights is a universal value to be respected and dealt with independently. We need to work closely with the U.N. and international nongovernmental human rights groups to achieve tangible results on the North Korean human rights issue.