ACOMMON illusion held by dictators is that they need only to shut the borders, turn off the Internet and control television for no one to notice the horrors they commit inside the country. The work of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated how wrong they are. The commission has shined a light on one of the world’s human rights sinkholes, North Korea, without ever setting foot there.
Michael Kirby, the retired Australian jurist who heads the commission, delivered an interim report last week that manages to shock on a topic that has already shocked for some time. The commission’s witnesses provided evidence of systematic and widespread human rights violations, including torture, sexual violence, deliberate starvation, arbitrary detention and more.
“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” Mr. Kirby said. He described a woman prisoner who witnessed another prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket and a young man, imprisoned from birth and living on rodents, grass and lizards, who witnessed the execution of his mother and brother.
The commission was established on May 7 and is to deliver a final report in March. Mr. Kirby’s interim report serves not only to benchmark the panel’s findings so far but also to underscore the regime’s state of denial.
Mr. Kirby quite properly invited North Korea to respond to the testimony of witnesses who described grim lives in political prison camps, international abductions, torture and starvation. “Truth is always a defense against accusations of slander,” Mr. Kirby stated. “An ounce of evidence is worth far more than many pounds of baseless attacks.”
North Korea said it “totally and categorically rejects” the commission’s work, and the official news agency denounced testimony before the panel as “slander” put forward by “human scum.” But it provided no facts.
North Korea won’t suddenly throw open its doors and invite more inspection of this dark underside of the world. But the commission has laid down an important record of testimony and human experience. Mr. Kirby said the panel would now focus on identifying those responsible, including officials and state institutions guilty of gross human rights violations. But he pointed out that the commission is only a mechanism for discovering the truth. When its work is done, the world will have to decide what to do about it.