GENEVA: Western and Asian powers will this week begin pressing for North Korea to be held responsible for crimes against humanity alleged in a United Nations report, but have conceded that their chances of influencing the isolated country are slim.
North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi atrocities, U.N. investigators said last month.
Their findings, based on testimonies from hundreds of victims, defectors and witnesses, were unequivocal. They demanded closure of political prison camps believed to hold up to 120,000 people, and action by the International Criminal Court.
Michael Kirby, the Australian former judge who led the independent inquiry, will officially present the report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva Monday. The forum, which commissioned the unprecedented investigation a year ago, will decide on how to handle North Korea at a session that will continue until March 28.
“The fact that these violations are now deemed to be crimes against humanity triggers the responsibility of the international community to respond,” Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch told Reuters.
“It might be a long route but steps need to be taken.”
North Korea is already on the agenda of the U.N. General Assembly, but the Security Council has so far focused only on its nuclear weapons and proliferation threat, de Rivero said. “The Security Council needs to deal with crimes in North Korea.”
But winning international consensus to bring Kim to book is likely to remain elusive for now, according to diplomats, U.N. sources and activists, particularly because any crimes in North Korea would have to be referred to the ICC by the Security Council, where Pyongyang’s ally China has veto powers.
China came under fire in the report for forcing North Korean refugees to return home, where they face possible persecution.
Beijing denies the charge, saying it favors “constructive dialogue” and has a longstanding position against what it regards as interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations.
“To bring human rights issues to the International Criminal Court does not help improve a country’s human rights conditions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Feb. 17, the day the report was released.
Pyongyang has rejected the report’s findings and the mandate of the investigators, whom it refused to meet or allow into North Korea.
“The commission of inquiry on the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is none other than a marionette representing the ill-minded purpose of its string-pullers including the United States and its followers, who are endeavoring to eliminate the socialist system on the pretext of human rights,” North Korea’s ambassador So Se Pyong told the U.N. rights forum this month.
Ahn Myong Chul, a former North Korean guard at four prison camps, is a defector who testified and wants to see Kim and his loyal elite held accountable for gross alleged abuses that date back to rule of the leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
“Over 60 years, North Koreans have suffered severe oppression under three generations of the regime. These are basic human rights. Their voices should be heard. The government must be punished,” Ahn said in an interview.
Kirby said it is time to act rather than talk. “What is unique has been the capacity of North Korea to avoid international scrutiny, to avoid examination of its record over such a long time, effectively 60 years of very great wrongs against its population,” he told Reuters.
“Now we have a full volume book that tells it all in a comprehensive manner. The moment of truth has approached. We must turn it into action,” he added.
He wants North Korea to be referred to the ICC or to a special ad hoc tribunal.
China will have a pivotal say in the Security Council, dimming hopes for quick action. As Pyongyang has not signed the Treaty of Rome, which established the Hague-based ICC, its prosecutor can act only at the request of world powers.
The United States has backed their drive to hold Pyongyang accountable and is being closely consulted on the next move, along with South Korea, diplomats said. But they added that Washington has qualms about explicitly calling for a referral to the ICC, as it signed but never ratified the treaty.
The Japanese-EU resolution to set up the inquiry won unanimous approval at the 47-member forum partly because China, Cuba and Russia were not members at the time. The absence of the trio, which rejects country-specific resolutions, was seen as a rare opportunity to investigate one of the most secretive countries in the world.
“We thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Kwon Eun Kyoung of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, an alliance of more than 40 groups, which lobbied governments to seize the chance.
North Korean defector Jee Hyeon-a is less hopeful about quick results. “It can only be possible to bring Kim Jong Un or his subordinates to the ICC after North Korea collapses,” said Jee, who was sent back by China three times and eventually fled to South Korea after being jailed in the Jeungsan Re-education Centre, one of North Korea’s worst camps.
“But I stood up because even if I had to go through again memories I don’t want to remember, I thought I represented dead souls,” she said.
As the Human Rights Council discusses how to handle North Korea, the main actors are staking out their ground. Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas said two weeks ago that the EU wanted an adequate follow-up to ensure accountability.
EU and Japanese diplomats have held several rounds of confidential talks in Geneva to hammer out a resolution for consideration at the rights forum.
Their latest joint draft text, which has been seen by Reuters, urges the U.N. General Assembly to submit the report to the Security Council for appropriate action, including “consideration of referral to the appropriate international criminal justice mechanism and targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.”
Japan is keen to maintain a global consensus on North Korea even if the text has to be watered down to achieve a united front, but the EU is fighting for strong wording, diplomats said.
The return of China, Cuba, and Russia as members on the council, along with the addition of Venezuela and newcomer Vietnam, made the likelihood of consensus in the rights forum close to zero, but the resolution should be adopted easily, diplomats said.
A “no” vote by China and Russia in Geneva would not augur well for any future steps at the Security Council, they added.
The EU-Japan proposal also lays out a parallel path: the creation of a small U.N. human rights office dedicated to documenting crimes in North Korea and raising awareness. This would most likely be based in Seoul or Bangkok, and would collect more evidence and testimony to widen the data base.
U.S. Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall, in a speech to the Geneva forum this month, praised the commission of inquiry for its thorough and objective report despite the lack of access “in a way that has generated a new and important global conversation about one of the most under-discussed and devastating human rights crises of our time.”