EDITORIAL: North Korea must stop trampling on human dignity

February 20, 2014

Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born and grew up in a North Korean prison camp and later defected to South Korea, recounted a harrowing tale of brutality that marked his existence there.

“We had no choice but to live and die according to the rules at the camp,” he said.

Shin gave grisly accounts of his experiences in the camp, which included starvation, torture and the public execution of family members as he watched.

A documentary film based on his gruesome life story, “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” will be screened in Japan from March.

Shin was one of the defectors who gave public testimony about human rights violations in North Korea in hearings held by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the country. The Commission of Inquiry recently published its final report, nearly 400 pages long, that comprehensively describes in unusual detail the atrocities that were meted out.

It is significant that a neutral and independent international fact-finding panel compiled an in-depth report on the human rights situation in North Korea, which has refused to mend its ways despite international sanctions aimed at getting the country to abandon its nuclear arms and missile programs.

Human rights abuses in the totalitarian country, however, are by no means confined to prison camps. The general public is also denied the basic freedoms of speech, thought and religion.

The U.N. report denounces the overall human rights situation in the country, calling it “crimes against humanity” resulting from the regime’s policies.

Referring to Pyongyang’s abductions of foreign citizens, including Japanese, the report says, “(The) state’s violence has been externalized through state-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations.”

Since North Korea refused the commission's requests to hold its own inquiry in the country, the panel obtained first-hand testimony from defectors and the families of abductees in hearings held in Tokyo, Seoul and other cities.

All the accounts given by defectors may not necessarily be accurate, but there is no denying that human dignity is being grossly violated in North Korea.

The international community needs to keep close attention on this problem and make concerted efforts to obtain more information about what is happening in North Korea so as to put collective pressure on the country to stop the atrocities.

What is troubling is how China will respond to the report.

The report urges the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court in The Hague so that those who are responsible for human rights abuses will be held accountable. But China, a permanent member of the Security Council, is expected to oppose the proposal.

China is also criticized in the report for sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea. Beijing should take the criticism seriously and work with the other permanent members of the Security Council in dealing with North Korea.

Pyongyang dismissed the U.N. commission findings and claimed human rights violations “do not exist” in the country. If that is true, it should allow international bodies and humanitarian aid groups to carry out detailed investigations in the country.

Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, sent the report and a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warning that the panel would recommend referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court to “render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity.”

North Korea has been stressing recently that it intends to develop friendly and cooperative relations with the international community. But it should understand that human rights are universal values.

The international community will continue to take a highly critical view of North Korea unless the human rights situation there shows significant improvement. Leaders in Pyongyang should face up to this reality.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 20

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Shin Dong-hyuk, right, a defector from North Korea, greets Shigeru Yokota, center, and his wife Sakie before a news conference in Tokyo on Jan. 27. The Yokotas' daughter was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977. (Satoru Semba)

Shin Dong-hyuk, right, a defector from North Korea, greets Shigeru Yokota, center, and his wife Sakie before a news conference in Tokyo on Jan. 27. The Yokotas' daughter was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977. (Satoru Semba)

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  • Shin Dong-hyuk, right, a defector from North Korea, greets Shigeru Yokota, center, and his wife Sakie before a news conference in Tokyo on Jan. 27. The Yokotas' daughter was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977. (Satoru Semba)

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