ON TUESDAY at the United Nations, an official from North Korea said something that perked up ears. Choe Myong-nam, a Foreign Ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, acknowledged to reporters that the country did have “reform through labor detention camps.” He quickly corrected himself to say “centers,” instead of camps, but the words touched off some speculation that he was opening the door just a very narrow crack on one of the most atrocious human rights violations on the planet.
In February, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that four large prison camps in North Korea hold some 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners. The commission declared in a report that “crimes against humanity have been committed” by the Communist regime, based on policies set by its top leaders. The commission reported evidence of “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has not been seen in five weeks, fueling questions about his physical or political health. But the malevolent system founded by his grandfather lives on. As the commission’s report makes clear, its existence should not be acceptable.
We think the U.N. Security Council should refer the report to the International Criminal Court on grounds of suspected crimes against humanity. Michael Kirby, the former justice of the High Court of Australia who led the inquiry, believes this is the most direct and efficient method to address the violations. China, a permanent member of the Security Council and longtime patron of Pyongyang, would likely veto a referral. But a vote would still be useful.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry called on Sept. 23 for North Korea to “shut this evil system down.” Mr. Kerry vowed that the United States will work for a “strong U.N. resolution” for the General Assembly, recommending action on the commission’s report. One is being drafted and may he considered this month. Another course of action was suggested recently by 20 defectors from North Korea, including Shin Dong-hyuk , who escaped from the notorious Camp 14. The defectors asked the Swiss government in a letter to freeze any financial assets held by members of the North Korean regime in Swiss bank accounts. It is not known whether Mr. Kim and his cohorts have stashed fortunes there, but some news accounts have suggested as much. North Korea’s leaders have paid attention to efforts to cut off their source of lucre. An asset freeze would be another way to get their attention and send a message that they cannot escape accountability for their crimes.