Roberta Cohen is co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report on North Korea in February, U.N. bodies, human rights organizations, governments and think tanks have been working to respond to the crimes against humanity it documented, including the systematic abuse of prisoners and food policies that lead to starvation. But the report’s most chilling section rarely gets discussed: standing orders at North Korea’s political prison camps (the kwanliso) to kill all prisoners in the event of armed conflict or revolution.
The regime of Kim Jong-un holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in four labor camps in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the mountains of the north and in South Pyongan province. These facilities have been pinpointed thanks to satellite images and testimony from defectors. Most of the prisoners in the camps have not had a trial, have been incarcerated for life and are denied any contact with the outside world. The isolation and brutality inflicted upon them are punishments for their perceived disloyalty, following such “crimes” as criticizing the Kim family and its policies, trying to defect, organizing Christian services or getting caught up in factional political disputes. Guilt by association leads to entire families, including grandchildren and grandparents, being locked away.
It was Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who gave the kill-all order. His son Kim Jong-il reaffirmed it. Ahn Myong-chol, a former guard, testified before the U.N. commission that, in the event of upheaval, the guards are “to wipe out” all inmates so as “to eliminate any evidence.” He said that drills have even been held “on how to kill large numbers of prisoners in a short period of time.” Guards in other camps, as well as former prison officials, have confirmed this account.
Can anything be done to prevent such massacres? It is impossible to know, but taking some steps now could make a difference.
First, North Korea’s government must be shown that its abuse of political prisoners has costs. The Commission of Inquiry recommended targeted sanctions. For starters, this would require nine out of 15 Security Council members to agree to place North Korea’s human rights abuses on the council’s agenda; targeted sanctions could then be brought up for discussion. The voice of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be heard, too. Because Ban is Korean, he is often excused from taking the lead on human rights issues in North Korea, but when crimes against humanity are found and atrocities warned, he should be expected to use every tool at his disposal.
Additionally, in the United States, a bill before Congress that would impose financial sanctions on North Korea for its human rights transgressions and nuclear provocations should be passed and signed by President Obama. Further, the Atrocities Prevention Board established by the Obama administration in 2012 should place the risk to North Korean prisoners on its agenda. It is also time for leading institutions such as the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to take up this issue as part of their early-warning and prevention programs.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the Kim regime must be made to understand that the world is watching. North Korea has threatened prison guards, former inmates and nearby communities with severe punishment if they disclose information on the camps. Governments and international organizations can counter the regime’s denial and misinformation by using high-precision satellite imagery to monitor the camps and lend support to nongovernmental organizations reporting on their activities. And the testimony of defectors should be used to gather names of prison guards and officials for future trials. Guards might think twice about carrying out an order to commit a massacre if they know they would be held accountable.
Bringing the prisoners to safety must be part and parcel of any strategy developed to respond to a collapse in North Korea. While protecting civilians and securing nuclear weapons will appropriately be uppermost concerns in a time of chaos, it is in the camps that the most acute cases of hunger, disease and ill-treatment will be found. It is essential that humanitarian organizations and military forces focus now on how to rescue survivors.
North Korea’s camps have long been one of the main tools employed by the Kim regime to hold on to power. One day, their dismantling will give rise to a new Korea in which monuments will be erected not to the Kim family but to its victims, which have been abandoned by the international community for too long.
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