The UN report on North Korea: Four things to know


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un got an advance copy of the United Nations report.  (AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS)

The United Nations released an authoritative report on North Korea on Monday describing rights violations “without any parallel in the contemporary world.” And North Korean leader Kim Jong Un got an advance copy.

Michael Kirby, head of a three-member U.N. panel that spent a year investigating the abuses, said he also sent Kim a letter putting him on notice about his potential responsibility for aiding crimes against humanity. The report notes that North Korea neither cooperated with the investigation, nor provided information, nor allowed panel members access to the country.

Kim didn’t respond to the letter. “He would not have a dialogue with us,” Kirby said.

The report  makes for a fascinating, if devastating, read. It accuses North Korea of conducting surveillance on its citizens, banning them from travel, discriminating against them based on supposed ideological impurities, torturing them and sometimes banishing them to isolated prison camps, where they are held incommunicado.

“Their families are not even informed of their fate if they die,” the report said.

Though the commission’s report has no legal bearing, it recommended that the International Criminal Court in the Hague take up North Korea’s case.

Based on an early read of the report, here are a few interesting takeaways:

1. China didn’t support the investigation and might not support international steps against North Korea.

 Kirby and the other commissioners had wanted to visit China, the North’s traditional ally. They wanted to meet Chinese officials and spend time near the permeable border with the North, where Chinese authorities apprehend and repatriate North Koreans who illegally enter China. In a letter written to the commission, attached in the report, China seemed to defend the North, saying it is “opposed [to] the politicization” of any particular country’s human rights issues.

If the International Criminal Court is to take up the case, the U.N. Security Council must approve the move. But China has a permanent seat on the security council — and veto power. Kirby said at a press conference in Geneva that the initial signals from China were “not particularly positive.”

2. What North Korea’s doing isn’t genocide — at least not quite. 

The commission estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of people have been killed in North Korea’s gulags since the 1950s. But genocide, though it brings to mind mass death, is a technical term involving extermination along national, ethnic, racial or religious lines. North Korea’s extermination isn’t quite that: It tends to kill people for their beliefs.

For that to qualify as genocide, the definition of the term would need to be expanded. Kirby, a former Australian judge, reasoned this wasn't the time to make a case for doing so. The notion of crimes against humanity, the report says, is severe enough.

3. The report tells North Korea how it can change its ways. 

North Korea has so resisted major change that few ever even talk about what that change would actually look like. But the U.N. report lays out some practical, and jarring, steps the nation could take to transform itself.

 North Korea, the report says, should “undertake profound political and institutional reforms without delay,” such as placing checks and balances on Kim himself. 

Also: It should set up an independent judiciary and dismantle its state security arms. It should release all political prisoners. It should reform its criminal code and abolish “anti-State” and “anti-People” crimes. It should allow the practice of religion. It should establish independent newspapers.

4. Even if we’ve long known the basics about North Korea’s abuses, the stories and details bring them to life. 

The U.N. panel interviewed more than 320 witnesses, survivors and experts. The report itself is just 36 pages, but there’s also an addendum loaded with specifics that is based on those interviews.

The report, in discussing the secretive gulags, says that camp authorities have “received orders to kill all prisoners in case of an armed conflict or revolution so as to destroy the primary evidence of the camps’ existence. The initial order seems to have been given by Kim Il Sung himself, and the order was later reaffirmed by Kim Jong Il.”

One former prison guard who eventually defected to the South, Ahn Myong-chol, testified that guards have been told to “wipe out” all inmates and “eliminate any evidence.”

The report continues: “Ahn and other witnesses also explained that specific plans exist on how to implement the order and that drills were held on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.”

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Max Fisher · February 14