In establishing the panel, the U.N. has sought to address the challenge of a nation where abuses are carried out by an entrenched family-run government that faces almost no threat of international intervention.
Activists and human rights lawyers say the report, at minimum, will lead to broader global awareness of the North’s city-size gulags and systematic abductions of foreigners. But they also say that the North’s traditional ally, China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, could block any referral of findings to The Hague.
“It is exciting but also risky that the Commission appears to have requested the Security Council refer the situation in [North Korea] to the International Criminal Court,” Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer and an expert on North Korean abuses, said in an e-mail. “There is no doubt that legally such a referral would be highly justified and appropriate. But it is also bound to infuriate China.”
The ICC defines crimes against humanity as any widespread or systematic attack — using extermination, torture or rape, for instance — carried out against civilians.
Within the past century, the North’s abuses stand apart not necessarily because of their viciousness but because of their duration: North Korean founder Kim Il Sung set up the prison camps in the 1950s, and they have been in use ever since.
The North holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in its camps, which are sealed off in mountainous areas of the countryside and have been documented primarily through satellite imagery and testimony from survivors.
“What you have in North Korea is a stable state system where they’ve had these terrible labor camps and they’re going on for 60 years,” said David Hawk, a researcher who has been at the forefront of documenting the gulags. “Even Stalin’s camps didn’t last that long.”
North Korea denies committing human rights violations and has repeatedly failed to cooperate with the United Nations.
The commission, headed by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, conducted interviews with more than 80 victims and other witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. The panel members were also aided by about a dozen staffers and researchers — a major personnel shift for the United Nations, which previously had a single appointed volunteer dedicated to North Korean human rights.
One of those interviewed was Kim Hye-sook, who spent 28 years in Camp 18, which at the time was one of the North’s largest gulags.
Kim arrived there when she was 13, imprisoned because her grandfather had allegedly fled to South Korea. Kim, who has also told her story publicly, survived at the camp on wild herbs, grass and corn powder. While at the camp she went to school, married and worked in a mine. Her husband and brother died in mining accidents. Kim developed a pulmonary tumor from inhaling dust during her 16-to-18-hour work shifts.
Once a week, prisoners were forced to memorize tropes about North Korean ideology. When prisoners came to those ideology sessions, Kim said, security personnel would make the prisoners get on their knees and open their mouths. Guards would then spit into them. If the prisoners didn’t swallow, they would be savagely beaten.
Kim calls the commission’s conclusion “very natural.”
“I agree with their findings,” Kim said, “but I don’t expect changes to come anytime soon.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.