TOKYO — The United Nations’ point man on North Korea’s human rights violations called Tuesday for Pyongyang to be referred to the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, saying it is time to take actions against the regime “to a new level.”
The damning report from Marzuki Darusman, the United Nations’ special rapporteur dealing with North Korea, comes six months after a U.N. commission of inquiry released a 372-page report detailing brainwashing, torture, starvation and imprisonment for “crimes” such as questioning the system or trying to escape it, or secret Christianity.
That report contained a litany of human rights abuses and seems to have marked a turning point for North Korea, which now appears genuinely alarmed by the prospect that leader Kim Jong Un and his cronies could be called before an international tribunal.
“The international community must seize this unique opportunity and momentum created by the commission of inquiry to help to make a difference in the lives of the people of [North] Korea, including victims, and to ensure accountability of those responsible for serious violations of human rights, including crimes against humanity,” Darusman wrote in his report, published Tuesday.
He noted, however, that North Korea has not accepted any of the commission’s findings.
“This sadly reflects its continued state of denial of the widespread, grave and systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity reported by the commission, and the need for fundamental change,” he wrote.
Pyongyang has traditionally refused to talk about its well-documented human rights violations, threatening to walk out of nuclear negotiations if the issue was raised. But North Korean diplomats and propagandists, with their trademark colorful language, are now actively engaging critics, apparently alarmed that snowballing international pressure could lead the country’s top officials — including Kim — to be charged with crimes against humanity.
Unusually, a North Korean delegation attended a panel on the country’s human rights violations at the United Nations in New York last week, at which Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who led the commission of inquiry, and two North Korean defectors spoke.
Kim Song, the head of the North Korean delegation, called their allegations a product of a “political conspiracy of the United States and hostile forces in their attempt to overthrow our political and social system.” North Korean officials very obviously videotaped the testimony of the two defectors, in what attendees said was a clear attempt to intimidate them.
In a continuation of these efforts, Pyongyang released a character-assassination video Tuesday titled “Lie and Truth,” in which the father of defector Shin Dong-hyuk says his son’s testimony is false.
Shin — who was born in a prison camp and lived a life of starvation, hard labor and torture until he escaped at age 22 — has become one of the most prominent critics of North Korea.
In the video, a man identified as Shin’s father urges Shin to “come to your senses and return to the embrace of the [Workers’] Party.”
“The dictator is holding my father hostage,” Shin wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday, confirming that the man was indeed his father, whom he had assumed was dead. “No matter what the dictator does to my father, they cannot cover my eyes; no matter what the dictator does, they can not cover up my mouth,” he wrote.
Another North Korean official caused surprise at a U.N. briefing this month when he admitted to the practice of “reform through labor detention camps,” although what he described was a long way from the brutal gulags depicted by escapees such as Shin.
And before Darusman released his report, North Korean officials invited him to visit the country, a sharp change from their previous practice of denying entry to anyone investigating the human rights situation.
Engaging on questions of human rights, even bombastically, appears to be North Korea’s way of trying to tackle the growing chorus of voices calling for its leaders to be put on trial for crimes against humanity, analysts and defectors said.
The calls for North Korea’s senior leaders to go before a tribunal have “shaken” them into discussion, said one Western diplomat who has dealt with Pyongyang and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They want to remove that risk.”
Pyongyang’s is an isolated regime that easily becomes paranoid, the diplomat said. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Kim Jong Il, the country’s leader at the time, reportedly went underground for two weeks, afraid that North Korea would be next.
Ahn Myong-chol, a former North Korean prison guard who defected to the South and has become an outspoken detractor, agreed that Pyongyang is spooked by the efforts to lay the blame at the top.
“For the first time, the resolution demands punishment of the dictators, and North Korea is responding to this because when its leader Kim Jong Un becomes the target, it has to respond,” Ahn said.
“The international community must keep pushing North Korea by mentioning Kim Jong Un’s name until North Korea runs out of space to stand,” he said.
Analysts say the chances of the Security Council agreeing to refer North Korea to the ICC are slim, noting that permanent members Russia and China would have to agree not to veto such a move.
But Kim Jong Un’s regime is trying to avoid finding out the hard way whether a resolution would pass the Security Council — although stopping well short of reforming its system.
Supporters of the growing movement to hold North Korea to account called its actions another exercise in deceit.
“They’ve created this big circus and are doing all these things to try to deny that any crimes have been committed in North Korea,” said Joanna Hosaniak of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization. “It’s a total hoax.”
Even if Darusman goes to North Korea, he “will not be able to visit places ad hoc or speak independently to people,” she said.
The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest newspaper, reported Tuesday that the North is preparing a Potemkin prison in anticipation of foreign inspections. It is secretly moving political prisoners out of its notorious Yodok concentration camp, in the northern part of the country, to make it look like a collective farm, it reported.
“The regime is transferring the inmates one by one during the night so that their movement can’t be detected by satellites,” the Chosun Ilbo quoted an unnamed source as saying.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.