The Forgotten Genocide: North Korea’s Prison State

Never in the post-Holocaust era has an ongoing genocide been treated with such negligence and insouciance. Not only have millions of North Koreans died in a state-organized famine, but masses continue to suffer unrestrained violence and brutality in the country’s prison camps, where an estimated quarter of a million political prisoners, one-third of them children, are currently being forced to perform slave labor and are routinely subjected to systematic torture and rape, brutal forced abortions and infanticide, biological and chemical weapons experiments, and summary executions.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons test on February 12th was its third and most powerful to date. According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s state-controlled news agency, the test was carried out “using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously.” It was a wake-up call for some in the arms control community who have dismissed Pyongyang’s nuclearization merely as a bargaining chip for monetary or material concessions and against regime change. The North Koreans are now playing in the big leagues, with a warhead small enough to be used on an intercontinental ballistic missile that, according to the regime, could potentially strike not only US bases in South Korea and Japan, but also Guam and the US mainland. Those who ritualistically condemned the test also ignored one of the issues that it was meant to obscure: while spending billions on its nuclear program, the Kim regime, in continuity with its dynastic predecessors, was also presiding over a state-induced famine and mass atrocities within its prison camp system that have taken on the proportions of a homemade genocide.

The February test was a clear reminder of the failure of Western diplomatic efforts to deal with Pyongyang. More than two decades of engagement and negotiation with the DPRK on security issues, efforts that have relegated the mass atrocity occurring within the country to a low-level status, have not only borne no fruit but, for the increasing millions who suffer from starvation and other atrocities, have provided a diplomatic cover that obscures their suffering. Even the United Nations, usually timorous in its criticisms of North Korea, has tried to start a conversation about the famine-genocide. On January 14, 2013, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for an international inquiry into what “may amount to crimes against humanity” in the DPRK. On February 1st, a report addressed to the UN Human Rights Council from the current UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, repeated the call for a probe into the Kim regime’s “grave, systematic, and widespread” human rights abuses.

Previous UN reports and resolutions have concentrated on nine patterns of human rights violations: violation of the right to food; torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; arbitrary detention as a form of persecution; violations of human rights associated with the prison camps; discrimination particularly targeting women, children, people living with disabilities, repatriated refugees, and those disfavored by the government; extensive violation of freedom of expression and other related freedoms; violation of the right to life, public executions, and the abusive application of the death penalty; restrictions on freedom of movement and abuse of repatriated defectors; and enforced disappearances, including the abductions of foreign nationals. Now, Special Rapporteur Darusman is saying that many if not all of these patterns of violation may amount to crimes against humanity as defined under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. During the twenty-second regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (February 25th–March 22nd), a resolution sponsored by Japan and the European Union calling for a UN Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity in North Korea was passed unanimously, as China, Russia, and Cuba, traditional backers of the regime, are not a part of the body this year. In light of these major developments, and with recently surfaced reports of North Korea’s plan to conduct at least two more nuclear tests before the end of this year, in utter defiance of repeated, unequivocal warnings from the UN Security Council, it is time for the global community to fundamentally reassess policy on North Korea to focus on the unparalleled humanitarian and human rights emergency unfolding in the country today.

Since April of last year, Pyongyang has dramatically increased spending on its nuclear and missile program—resources that would have constituted more than enough to take care of food shortages within the country for more than a decade. This recent flurry of weapons tests comes at a time when North Korea’s famine is reportedly at one of the worst points in the nation’s anguished history. An October 2014 report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that North Korea’s hunger situation is at the “serious” level, with its Global Hunger Index (GHI) at nineteen points. The DPRK’s hunger-increase rate from the 1990s, when one of the most devastating famines in the last century claimed the lives of between two and three and a half million people, is the highest in the world despite considerable international humanitarian assistance. Consistent with the findings of the IFPRI study, Japan’s Asia Press International, an organization that employs undercover North Korean journalists, issued a report in January of this year based on interviews conducted with numerous North Korean residents in North Korea and in China indicating rampant starvation and mass death.

In April 2012, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that “from December 2011 until April 2012, twenty thousand people have starved to death in South Hwanghae Province,” which is about ten percent of the area’s population. The article also states that “in some regions, over one thousand people starved to death in one day.” The South Korean humanitarian aid NGO “Good Friends” reported in its newsletter the same month that, according to statements by certain North Korean Workers’ Party officials, “in North and South Hwanghae Provinces, even grass does not remain (as it has been eaten).” According to reports, the current manifestation of famine has been caused by the forcible confiscation of food from farmers and their families to feed the military and the political elites.

No longer can Pyongyang claim, as it has in the past, that natural disasters have caused the country’s humanitarian catastrophe. The UN’s former special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, stated categorically in his sixth and final report to the General Assembly, in 2010, that the DPRK, which has the largest per capita army and the highest military expenditures in the world according to GDP, was not by any measure poor. Muntarbhorn noted that North Korea has very large mineral resources and generates billions in export and trade, but that the profits from this activity are being used entirely for militarization. He concluded, and has since reiterated in interviews, that the DPRK has the means to feed its people and that the real issue is not a lack of resources but the military-first policy and misappropriation of provisions (including the mass diversion of billions in international humanitarian aid) by the authorities.

Although lost in the static of diplomatic dithering over sanctions and other issues, North Korea’s mass atrocities against its people continue to be the subject of a vast and growing body of documentation. In recent years, the North Korean state has been found to be comprehensively violating the UN Genocide Convention by targeting for destruction every group protected by the international treaty while also employing every method defined as genocidal in Article 2. Genocide Watch, a nonpartisan NGO whose board of advisers includes respected anti-genocide activists such as the retired Canadian general Roméo Dallaire and Samantha Power (former senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights for the US National Security Council and President Obama’s pick as the next US ambassador to the UN), published a report on December 19, 2011, stating that there is “ample proof that genocide has been committed and mass killing is still under way in North Korea.” Targeted groups protected under the Genocide Convention include the half-Chinese babies of North Korean women forcibly repatriated by China (constituting genocide on national, ethnic, and racial grounds) and the country’s indigenous religious population and their families (genocide on religious grounds). Yet a broader political genocide has claimed the lives of, and continues to victimize, several millions more.

Although North Korea’s status as a genocidal state is starting to become more widely accepted, it is not by any means new. In 2006, legal scholars David Scheffer and Grace Kang co-authored an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune titled “North Korea’s criminal regime,” which argued that the DPRK is responsible for “crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes” and recommended that “any Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s weapons activities . . . should also condemn its human rights violations.” In the same year, lawyer Grace Kang, who has worked for the US Department of State, had published “A Case for the Prosecution of Kim Jong Il for Crimes against Humanity, Genocide, and War Crimes,” a study which concluded that “published facts indicate a reasonable basis to believe that Kim Jong Il, who controls the DPRK absolutely, is individually liable for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.”

Yet these searing condemnations have until now been met with an international yawn. Never in the post-Holocaust era, in fact, has an ongoing genocide been treated with such negligence and insouciance. Not only have millions of North Koreans died in a state-organized famine, but masses continue to suffer unrestrained violence and brutality in the country’s prison camps, where an estimated quarter of a million political prisoners, one-third of them children, are currently being forced to perform slave labor and are routinely subjected to systematic torture and rape, brutal forced abortions and infanticide, biological and chemical weapons experiments, and summary executions. Over the last decade, outside observers and humanitarian activists have repeatedly stated that North Korea’s prison camps represent the worst abuse of human rights in the world today. According to satellite images and a growing body of defector testimony, including that of former prison camp guards who were personally responsible for many of these atrocities, slavery, heinous abuses, and mass murder continue unabated while these camps are getting larger year by year.

Only the handful of North Koreans brave or lucky enough to escape their country have found a way out of the hellish nightmare. Although fewer than one in ten who attempt to flee succeed, thousands try every year, some of them managing somehow to scrape together the several thousands of dollars that can be required to bribe border guards and be spirited out of the country.

Most of the refugees aim to eventually head for South Korea, where they are welcomed. The situation is grim, though, and because of the virtually impassable Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), refugees are forced to head toward the Chinese border first. North Korea’s patron state has kept its agreements with the DPRK under a 1961 treaty and a subsequent 1986 border protocol that specifies that all North Koreans found within Chinese territory without permission from the Pyongyang government are to be forcibly repatriated. Many defectors have said that while in China they would carry either arsenic or a razor with them in case they were caught by Chinese police, reasoning that it would be better to die than face what awaits them when they are returned home: incarceration in a concentration camp, torture—particularly brutal for those repatriated North Korean women who are discovered to be carrying the babies of Chinese nationals or those discovered to have had contact with South Korean nationals or religious believers—and, in other instances, public execution.

Always hazardous, attempted escape from North Korea has become even more dangerous over the past few years. Following the death of his father, the DPRK under Kim Jong-un’s leadership declared it would carry out “immediate executions when people are caught trying to cross the borders” and pledged to hunt down and imprison escapees, and even to kill three generations of family members of North Koreans who attempt to leave the country, whether they succeed or not. The regime has apparently kept its word, leading to a sharp decrease (about forty-four percent) in the number of North Koreans who made it to South Korea in 2014. 

One ray of light in this dark situation has been the financial remittances sent home by North Korean refugees abroad. It is estimated that more than half of the twenty-four thousand refugees residing in South Korea today regularly and effectively send money to their family members, friends, or acquaintances still trapped in the North. According to a January 2011 survey from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, the average amount sent per defector is about 1 million won annually, or $920. Cash remittances do not travel through official channels but via paid brokers who also help smuggle people, messages, and items in and out of North Korea. The transaction fee is about twenty-one to thirty percent of the total. About ninety percent of defectors say they receive confirmation from the recipient verifying they have received the money. The refugees know that the money they send can mean the difference between death and survival, since $1,000 is enough to feed a family on the outside of a prison camp in the North for one year.

If international humanitarian NGOs, religious groups, philanthropists, and other concerned persons and organizations got behind these defectors in an organized manner to increase the money entering North Korea through unofficial channels, the effects could be transformative. In addition to relieving unparalleled human misery, these remittances could weaken the loyalty of security forces and the military to the Kim regime, as more and more people realize they have been lied to about the outside world and that they are being viciously exploited by a very small minority. Such a program could do more to isolate and weaken the Pyongyang government while empowering the common people, eventually leading to the end of the regime. Supporting the North Korean refugees is one of the few open avenues we have to facilitate positive change in North Korea and contribute to the dismantling of this criminal and genocidal system.

International inaction in the face of the DPRK’s crimes against the humanity of its own people has become more and more disgraceful with each passing year. The argument has been made that the global community’s failure to act in behalf of millions of North Korean victims over such a prolonged period of time could constitute complicity. At the 2005 UN World Summit, government leaders from around the world made a solemn commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. More than any other country, North Korea has been allowed to commit mass atrocities in defying this call. Many observers, myself included, believe that what is now required is for members of the global community to apply the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and principle, which has been used to justify intervention in arguably far less urgent situations in the world, to North Korea. At bare minimum, this would mean making the regime’s genocidal policies toward its own people a first-order issue in all backdoor diplomacy about nuclear energy and weaponry, and in all bilateral or multilateral discussions and initiatives concerning North Korea.

North Korea’s nuclear weaponization and its crimes against its own people are the conjoined twins of the Kim dynasty. They can no longer be treated by the rest of the world as separable and unrelated issues.

Robert Park is a minister, human rights activist, and founding member of the non-partisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, a nonprofit working to provide life-saving resources to victims and their families within North Korea. For more information, visit www.robertparkofficial.com.

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