RARELY DOES a United Nations investigation produce such clarity and impact as did the Commission of Inquiry on human rights violations in North Korea. The report, issued a year ago, documented the existence of political concentration camps in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and a regime that has treated its people with sickening brutality. The stark prose and searing details of the report prompted votes at the United Nations that, in effect, put the issue on the ongoing agenda of the Security Council.
But now what? What can be done to get concrete help for the victims? There is a danger that as other pressing concerns about North Korea accumulate — nuclear weapons, missiles, cyberattacks — the world will lose interest in the human rights disaster. The United States must not let this happen.
The U.N. commission, chaired by Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court of Australia, found that North Korea’s leaders should be held accountable for the abuses and recommended referral to the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes against humanity. We believe a referral by the Security Council is a justified step, and if, as expected, Russia or China decide to use their veto power, it would expose them as protectors of leader Kim Jong Un and his circle of thugs. However, the veto threats are real, and a referral is not going to happen, at least not now.
Also, one of the most prominent witnesses to the depravity of the North, Shin Dong-hyuk, recently changed some elements in his account. Mr. Shin’s story, described by journalist Blaine Harden in the book “Escape from Camp 14,” was terrifying. His recent changes do not make it much better. More to the point, the changes do not undermine the larger conclusions of the U.N. commission, which received public testimony from some 80 witnesses. Much of their testimony was corroborated by increasingly accurate satellite photos of the concentration camps, Mr. Kirby told us last week. The commission found evidence in North Korea of “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions . . . persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds” as well as forced starvation and other abuses.
Much work remains to be done. A key step is to provide adequate financial resources for the U.N. office of the special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman. A related and significant initiative, just starting, is the establishment of an office by the United Nations in South Korea that will continue to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea, with an eye toward identifying who in the regime’s leadership is responsible for the horrors so that they can eventually be held to account — and so that current officials may think twice before becoming complicit in an ongoing crime against humanity.