This week, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been conducting public hearings on potential human rights violations committed by the DPRK. This was the first panel established to investigate claims of human rights violations by the government of North Korea.
The Commission was started by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March with a one year mandate to investigate such claims. The panel is the most direct confrontation of the North Korean government by the international body.
While the world body has been critical of North Korea’s nuclear program, it has been less vocal about the repressive nature of the country towards its citizens. The International Criminal Court has been accused of focusing predominantly on Africa, while turning a blind eye to the situation in North Korea. The expanded focus of the ICC is an important step for the international community in dealing with problems of this kind.
The DPRK manages to keep a tight grip over its citizens, preventing migration in or out of the country. Without direct access to the country, the international body relies on defectors to provide a glimpse into life in the repressive country.
Although North Korea denies their existence, there are approximately 80,000-120,000 political prisoners held in 5 prison camps across the country. Many prisoners lose their lives during their stay due to the harsh conditions and torture.
North Korea denies committing human rights abuses and has called past UN resolutions on the subject as a part of a ‘political plot’ to destabilize its government. Many defectors hope that the panel will lead to the indictment of Kim Jong-un and his government allies in the International Criminal Court.
As one defector, Shin Dong-hyuk, explained, “We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die.” Shin, like many others, was forced into a labor camp. Unlike most of his peers, Shin escaped. Shin is now telling his story to the panel in hopes of advocating against the government of North Korea.
A female defector, Hee Heon-a, explained that conditions inside the prison camps are often unbearable for women. Most women are sexually exploited and some are even beaten until they miscarry. Thus far, the commission has identified nine patterns of human rights violations used in the country, such as torture, induced famine, and arbitrary detention.
Later this month, the commission is set to convene in Japan to meet with defectors from the country and those knowledgeable about the abduction of Japanese nationals. The hearings will take place in Tokyo on August 29-30. Government officials, NGOs, and other research organizations are set to take part in the discussion.
The chairman of the Commission, Michael Kirby, said Pyongyang has not yet agreed to participate in the hearings. Although there are few options to prevent such abuses from occurring further, the international community is utilizing the panel as a forum to raise awareness about the human rights abuses in North Korea.