The United Nations’ top human rights official on Monday called for an “in-depth inquiry” into North Korea’s “deplorable” human rights abuses, saying the international community must take firm steps to address the situation.
Some of the rights abuses in the nuclear-armed country may qualify as crimes against humanity, said Navanethem "Navi" Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She said that a probe carried out by experts independent of the United Nations should look into claims by rights groups which suggest some 200,000 North Koreans are being held in a network of political prison camps where they face torture, rape, and slave labor.
Pillay said any expectations that new leader Kim Jong Un, who came to power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, would improve his country’s rights record are unfounded.
“There were some initial hopes that the advent of a new leader might bring about some positive change in the human rights situation in [North Korea],” she said. “But a year after Kim Jong Un became the country’s new supreme leader, we see almost no sign of improvement.”
Pillay said that the international community has almost exclusively focused on discouraging North Korea’s efforts to advance its illicit nuclear weapons program and rocket technology, and has neglected humanitarian problems in the country.
“While these, of course, are issues of enormous importance, they should not be allowed to overshadow the deplorable human rights situation in [North Korea], which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” she said.
Pillay’s statement was based on research submitted by Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman and meetings that she held in Geneva last month with two survivors of North Korean prison camps.
“Their personal stories were extremely harrowing,” she said. “They described a system that represents the very antithesis of international human rights norms,” she said.
“The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world seems to have completely bypassed [North Korea], where self-imposed isolation has allowed the government to mistreat its citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.”
Pillay described “rampant violations” in North Korea’s camp system, including summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment, which she said “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
“Living conditions in the camps are also reported to be atrocious, with totally insufficient food supplies, little or no medical care, and inadequate clothing,” she said.
“One mother described to me how she had wrapped her baby in leaves when it was born, and later made her a blanket by sewing together old socks.”
Call to action
Pillay said that while information on what occurs within North Korea’s camp system is scarce, what is known should compel the international community to take action.
“For this reason, I believe it is time the international community took a much firmer step towards finding the truth and applying serious pressure to bring about change for this beleaguered, subjugated population of 20 million people.”
Pillay welcomed resolutions by the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly passed in 2012 condemning North Korea’s government for committing systematic human rights abuses.
But she said the resolutions had not gone far enough and that an independent international inquiry is needed to put additional pressure on the pariah nation.
“For years now, the Government of [North Korea] has persistently refused to cooperate with successive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in [North Korea] appointed by the Human Rights Council, or with my office,” she said.
“For this reason, and because of the enduring gravity of the situation, I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst—but least understood and reported—human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue.”
Human rights groups have long called for an international investigation into North Korean rights abuses.
North Korea's mission to the United Nations in Geneva, which was given a copy of the report before its publication Monday, did not have an immediate public response to it.
International observers had hoped that Kim Jong Un, believed to be 30 years old and educated abroad, would initiate reforms after being thrust into power following his father’s abrupt death from a heart attack in 2011.
But since taking the helm in North Korea, the younger Kim has pledged to strengthen the country’s military and drew global condemnation with the successful launch of a long-range rocket in December.
Recent reports indicate that North Korea may be preparing to test a nuclear device this week as part of what observers say is a plan to refine warhead technology for the purpose of mounting weapons atop long-range rockets.
A recent report from South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo quoted an unnamed South Korean official who claimed to have overheard a North Korean official in Beijing saying that Pyongyang plans to carry out a nuclear test sometime between Jan. 13-20.
The official said that South Korea would step up surveillance of the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, where Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Last month, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Washington-based Johns Hopkins University said that satellite imagery indicates North Korea has repaired rain damage at Punggye-ri and is capable of detonating a nuclear weapon at the site with only two weeks of preparation.
The U.N. Security Council is still debating possible sanctions against Pyongyang following its launch of a long-range missile in December.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.