International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

North Korea: UN report concludes crimes against humanity were committed

A report leaked last week, indicating that after a year of investigations, the UN is set to come to the conclusion that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity.  The report also stated that the UN panel in charge of the investigation will recommend the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court.

North Korea, however, is not a cut and dry case and will likely by one of the biggest challenges for the UN:  “a nation whose abuses are carried out by an entrenched family-run government that faces almost no threat of international intervention.”

One of the biggest obstacles a referral of North Korea to the ICC will face is China, one of the North’s “traditional allies” who could block any attempt of action by the Security Council.

It is no secret that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity; it has been documented that the country currently holds anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in its labor camps which are hidden in mountainous areas and documented only by satellites and survivor accounts.  A panel was created a year ago to raise awareness internationally, and has been used for investigative purposes.  The panel draws on testimony from camp survivors and witnesses for descriptions of the conditions in camps and prisons.  Prisoners were subjected to deliberate starvation, forced labor, and public executions were frequently witnessed.

Find an account by Kim Hye-Sook here.

Due to the relationship between China and North Korea, should the UN pursue a Security Council referral?  The request for a referral would definitely raise global awareness to the crimes committed in the country, but would you expect to see action taken here?

The country has undoubtedly committed crimes in the past decade that are applicable for a trial, but could it be a problem if they are using the testimony of survivors from before the ICC was created?


5 responses to “North Korea: UN report concludes crimes against humanity were committed

  1. thewendyway February 16, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    It would be unlikely that any substantial action would be taken under the current structure of the ICC. China would not support any such referral from their position on the Security Council. As cited in this article:

    … China would not want for the North Korean government to collapse as it is currently advantageous to China to have North Korea stable. Without the support of China or North Korea (who is pretty much immune to international intervention), the arrest and capture of anyone in North Korea is quite a far-fetched idea. As past cases have shown and the readings for the “Peace vs. Justice” unit indicate, state cooperation is a huge factor in the success of any ICC indictment and arrest; and of which North Korea has none.

    I also think that the international community is already very aware of the crimes against humanities in North Korea. It’s one of those issues that everyone knows exists. So I do not think that putting out an ICC indictment for Pyongyang leaders will have a great impact on the pre-existing global awareness. Yes, justice should not be compromised. But the enactment of justice is definitely political and dependent on practical considerations as simple as gaining entrance into the country. The case of North Korea is not the only crime against humanity on which the international community is not taking immediate action. The Chinese actions in Tibet, for example, could be considered a crime against humanity using the definition cited: “any widespread or systematic attack — using extermination, torture or rape, for instance — carried out against civilians.” But no ICC headhunters went after that case or many other cases due to the power play at hand. Citing Leebaw, the practice of justice through the ICC is very political. Thus, I do not believe an attempt to indict North Korea would yield any real action in the current political context in which North Korea is heavily protected against international intervention.

  2. jlcovello February 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    While it is true that North Korea has committing crimes against humanity, you were right to point to China as a major blockade in referring this case to the ICC. North Korea is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and thus it is outside the ICC’s jurisdiction unless it is referred to them by the Security Council. While it has referred cases in the past (such as the Libya case), the chance of Kim Jong Un or any other North Korean leaders being brought before the Hauge is incredibly slim. China is one of North Korea’s closest allies and they hold the powerful right to veto any measures brought forth to the Security Council–including ICC referrals. Any action taken towards North Korea would immediately be struck down by China (and maybe Russia) and unfortunately I do not see how it can be surpassed. In 2010, a preliminary investigation was opened by the Court after North Korea shelled an island controlled by South Korea, killing two soldiers and wounding another 17 along with 3 civilians. Before the investigation could go very far, however, Chinese officials warned the prosecutors away from investigating North Korea much further. This example is just one of many cases where China has exerted its pressure to protect North Korea from outside interference. Unless the Security Council can find some way around China–which is almost impossible considering its veto power–or manages to change its stance concerning North Korea, no North Korean leaders will ever find themselves before the Hauge.

    Another roadblock for prosecuting North Korean officials for crimes against humanity, even if by some miracle it does reach the ICC, is the uncertainty of North Korea as a nuclear state. I don’t believe the ICC has prosecuted the sitting president of a nuclear state before and that brings with it a new set of challenges. That, in combination with Kim Jong Un’s unpredictability, could lead to a tense standoff if he was ever ordered to court and that may cause some prosecutors to back down. North Korea’s uncertainty as a nuclear state has caused much international debate in recent years, especially since Kim Jong Un took over for his father, and this uncertainty could potentially overshadow the human rights abuses being committed by North Korea. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in China to discuss the Korean peninsula with Beijing. However, the focus of these talks has not been the human rights abuses committed by the North Korean government, but rather their continuing nuclear weapons program.


  3. thewendyway February 17, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Here’s an update on the issue:

    It definitely reflects the worries jlcovello and I mentioned about China’s political agenda in opposing an ICC indictment of North Korea. “China, North Korea’s key alley and protector, said Monday it would oppose any move at the U.N. to refer the North’s leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity. China provides badly needed trade and aid for the isolated country, largely for fear that a collapse of the regime could allow the United States to bolster its presence in Asia.”

  4. cekendall February 17, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    While it does seem unlikely that there will be any prosecution in this case given the factors you both mention (China would block any UNSC motions and North Korea is not a signatory party to the ICC), this report still seems significant as a sort of truth commission. While the world is already aware of the crimes against humanity in North Korea, as thewendyway points out, this is the first detailed and comprehensive report on the atrocities. Although unable to conduct an investigation inside the country, the report conducted extensive interviews with survivors who had fled the country. While it doesn’t reveal any names of perpetrators, the report catalogs the anonymous witness testimony and organizes it according to which sections of the UN Human Rights Committee framework it violates. The report details astonishing levels of discrimination against women, the disabled, those who have lived abroad and family members of anyone accused of a “crime”. The report also implicates China for its failure to protect refugees from North Korea by denying them legal status and repatriating them. China has also failed to investigate the rampant human trafficking that “sells” North Korean women to Chinese men, or to provide legal status to the currently stateless children of these unions.

    Even without much hope of justice for perpetrators, this report is a first step to international recognition of the full extent of the atrocities committed in North Korea. The international community has not taken a firm enough stance on human rights violations, resulting in “Human rights activists… push[ing] for the creation of the panel in a bid to broaden what had been the international community’s focus on the North’s nuclear program and bellicose security policies to the near exclusion of its human rights record” (NYTimes). International pressure has led to improvements in the lives of North Koreans, for example the Women’s Act, which was “created during North Korea’s [United Nations] human rights review when it faced international pressure” (Report 89). Although the Act, which claims to protect women’s rights, does not at all reflect the situation of North Korean women, it demonstrates the commitment of the North Korean government to maintaining the country’s international image. With this official recognition and exposure of its crimes against humanity, the North Korean government is likely to take steps to improve its international reputation.

  5. angelalg February 19, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Following up on Chelsea’s comments, I believe that, if nothing else, the report provides important and critical documentation of human rights abuses in North Korea. Given that the ICC can operate on any action taken post-2002, the report might serve a useful purpose in future prosecutions of either North Korea or China (however unlikely, there is always a possibility that a shift in the political climate might allow for movements towards justice). In this sense, the report provides a first necessary step in the pursuit of justice.

    Below I have included links to the UN’s Report on the DPRK in addition to a “cliff notes” guide from that might be interesting/helpful for understand the weight of the refugees’ testimonies.

    I think these reports serve a restorative purpose and, for non-victims, an informative purpose (as Professor Tiemessen alluded to in class). The attention (and reliance) on individual testimony provide a fascinating example of evidence gathering techniques and an opportunity for victims to record and provide data on the atrocities they faced. The GP article includes images drawn by one North Korean refugee. I feel that these sketches by Mr Kim Kwang-il, a North Korean defector, add to the intensity and tangibleness of the report.

    UN Commission Inquiry:
    Global Post Article:

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