Momentum was quickly lost after the release of a landmark UN report a decade ago, according to its chief author.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
February 7, 2024
People take part in an annual rice planting event in Nampho City in Chongsan-ri, near Nampho on May 12, 2019. The event takes place every May 12th to mark the occasion in 1971 when late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il planted rice in the area.
The United Nations should update its landmark 2014 report about human rights abuses taking place in North Korea to account for the reign of Kim Jong Un, according to a panel of experts speaking on the 10-year anniversary of the report’s release on Wednesday.
The speakers, which included Australian jurist Michael Kirby, the chair of the Commission of Inquiry, or COI, on Human Rights in North Korea that wrote the 372-page report a decade ago, said the document remained the most exhaustive account of abuses in North Korea.
But they noted the report – which documented evidence of widespread abuses including murder, starvation and torture – was released less than three years into the rule of Kim Jong Un.
A North Korean commuter rides a tram in Pyongyang on June 19, 2019. (Ed Jones/AFP)
Kim succeeded his father in 2011 and “does not appear to have carried out the recommendations” of the report, said Roberta Cohen, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights and co-chair emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
That demands that the United Nations sit to evaluate the impact of the report on the rights situation in North Korea after 10 years.
“The U.N. should also consider an update to the COI report that is based on the COI report but that looks at the impact that Kim Jong Un has had on human rights,” Cohen said. “Kim Jong Un has largely consolidated his power after the publication of the COI report.”
“Any update would have to look at the purges and executions, including of family members, that solidified his rule,” she said, speaking at an anniversary event hosted by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea at DACOR Bacon House in Washington.
“It would also look at the virtual lockdown of the country he authorized in response to the pandemic, which according to the U.N. badly affected the right to food, health care, movement and livelihood in the country.”
Falling on deaf ears
Based on interviews with regime survivors, the 2014 report found comprehensive evidence of widespread crimes against humanity being committed by Pyongyang and highlighted that some of the worst abuses are taking place in the country’s hard-labor penal camps.
It also documented the deliberate use of torture, starvation, abductions, executions and arbitrary detention as methods of control.
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho, right, shakes hands with U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues Julie Turner, prior their meeting at the Integrated Government Building in Seoul, Oct. 17, 2023. (Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool Photo via AP)
Cohen said the only area where North Korea had possibly improved since 2014 was in its treatment of disabled people, and otherwise remained one of the world’s worst offenders against human rights.
In many areas, though, things have in fact gotten worse, she said, with the government having gotten more better since the COVID-19 pandemic at preventing escapes out of the country, both by renewing shoot-to-kill orders and punishing family members of escapees.
“Only 67 North Koreans were able to escape in 2020 [and] 196 in 2023, compared to some 2,900 in 2009,” Cohen said, adding that the latest figures include officials “defecting from outside the country.”
In a pre-recorded message, Kirby, a former member of Australia’s High Court, said he was proud of the document his team produced a decade ago but was disappointed little had changed in the years since.
“Our report, unlike many reports of the United Nations, was extremely readable,” Kirby said. “But getting a report is only the first step. It’s then necessary to take steps to ensure that the report is implemented.”
North Korean schoolchildren make their way home from the elementary school in October 1991 in Pyongyang. (Pierre Bessard/AFP)
He lamented that key suggestions in the report had been ignored, even after progress was made when the report was referred from the U.N. General Assembly for consideration by the U.N. Security Council.
“We recommended that there should be a referral of the matter by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court,” Kirby said. But key North Korean allies China and Russia, who both wield veto power on the U.N. Security Council, opposed the report, he noted.
A change of power in Seoul in 2017 also did not help in implementing the report’s recommendations, Kirby said, with a then-new government seeking a change in relations with Pyongyang by seeking to work together instead of heaping pressure on its northern neighbor.
“Momentum towards action on the report of the Commission of Inquiry was slowed by the hope of the government of President Moon Jae-in that the North Korean administration could – by cooperation and efforts to reestablish friendly relations – lead to real progress,” he said.
“Sadly, it did not,” Kirby said, labeling Moon’s five-year project a failure. “I don't think they were any real dividends from that policy.”
Moon was succeeded in 2022 by the conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has since returned to Seoul’s traditional policies of trying to deter aggression from Pyongyang and criticizing its rights abuses.
Robert King, who was the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues between 2009 and 2017, said that a similar dynamic took place in the United States, with former President Donald Trump’s time in office defined by his tripartite diplomacy with Kim and Moon.
In fact, over those four years, King had no successor in his role. In 2023, Julie Turner, then an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was appointed to the role.
North Koreans walk past posters reading, from left to right, "Forward to the ultimate victory under the leadership of the great party!" "Not with words but with arms," and "Higher, faster," March 19, 2013, on a street in Phyongchon District in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Jon Chol Jin/AP)
King said the 2014 report had a “significant impact in raising the profile” of the human rights abuses taking place in North Korea, and allowed the Obama administration to pursue the issue more vigorously.
“We then ran to a change in administrations in Washington, which didn't support the discussion on North Korea human rights issues,” King said, referring to Trump. “We've been able to resume that.”
The retired diplomat called for the United Nations to pick back up the mantle of securing rights for the people of North Korea, which he said may seem like a longshot but should not be viewed as impossible.
“This is not something that, you know, you do something once and it's done,” King said. “This is going to require continued work.”
Edited by Malcolm Foster.