Fifth Anniversary of the Landmark Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights

Five years ago this month, the UN Human Rights Council published the Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This report and the actions that followed its release are a major milestone in the effort to encourage North Korea to improve its appalling human rights record.

The conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) report were clear, sharp, and incisive:

The commission finds that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies. The main perpetrators are officials of the State Security Department, the Ministry of People’s Security, the Korean People’s Army, the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the judiciary, and the Workers’ Party of Korea, who are acting under the effective control of the central organs of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defense Commission and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. [Paragraph 24]

The report catalogued the abuses: violation of the freedoms of thought, expression, and religion; discrimination; violations of the freedom of movement and residence; violations of the right to food and related aspects of the right to life; arbitrary detention, torture, executions and prison camps; abductions and enforced disappearances from other countries. [Paragraphs 24-73]

The COI, in keeping with its mandate, determined that “crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State.” These crimes were found to include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” Furthermore, these crimes are “ongoing . . . because the policies, institutions, and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.” [Paragraph 75-76]

Credibility of the COI Investigation

Since 2004, the UN Human Rights Council has annually appointed a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to report to the Council each year. The first special rapporteur on North Korean human rights was professor Vitit Muntarbhorn (2004-2010), an international human rights expert and professor of law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. He was followed by Marzuki Darusman (2010-2016), formerly a member of the Indonesian parliament and Indonesian attorney general (1999-2001). He was responsible for prosecuting a number of senior government officials of the authoritarian Suharto regime, and he played a key role in the removal of the head of the armed forces. As special rapporteur for North Korean human rights, Darusman was a leading advocate for the creation of the COI on North Korea.

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council created the COI for North Korean human rights. That decision was approved without a recorded vote. China and Russia were not members of the Human Rights Council at that time, and North Korea did not seek other allies to call for a vote because since it was clear the resolution had broad international support.

The commission’s three members were Michael Kirby (Australia), chair, with Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia) and Sonja Biserko (Serbia). Justice Kirby is a former justice of Australia’s High Court (Supreme Court), and a prominent international human rights advocate. Mr. Darusman served on the COI at that same time he served as UN special rapporteur for North Korean human rights. Ms. Biserko, a former Yugoslav diplomat and founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, is a prominent human rights advocate.

Justice Kirby wrote to Kim Jong-un requesting that the COI be permitted to visit the North and meet with senior government officials. Kim Jong-un did not respond to the inquiry. A similar request was made to Chinese government officials because the Chinese policy has been to return to any individuals attempting to flee North Korea regardless of the reason. Chinese officials declined the request, but they did respond. [Commission Report Annex I and Annex II]

The COI held most of its information gathering hearings in public, in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington. Some 80 witnesses who had fled North Korea testified before the commission. They shared their first-hand experiences of brutal human rights abuses. In addition, experts in politics, human rights, and economics gave testimonies about the nature of the North Korean regime. Transcripts and video of these extensive public hearings are available through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In addition to public sessions, some 240 confidential interviews were conducted with individuals who fled North Korea but did not wish to be identified publicly in order to protect relatives still in the North. COI members also reviewed satellite photographs of prison camps and other visual evidence of rights violations.

The transparency and public nature of the information gathering process, as well as the attention to legal standards by the commission, set a high bar for the credibility and authority of the final report that was produced by the COI. When the report was released in early 2014, the North Korean press condemned the individuals who testified as “human scum.” Before the report was released, the commission again asked North Korea to provide information and meet with the commissioners, and again the North refused even to respond to the invitation.

International Reaction to the COI Report

In its March 2014 resolution on North Korea human rights, the UN Human Rights Council commended the COI for its report and condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” taking place in North Korea. The Human Rights Council forwarded its resolution to the UN General Assembly and urged the General Assembly to submit the COI report to the UN Security Council. It also called for the report to be acted on by an appropriate criminal justice mechanism. Referring the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC) would require a Security Council vote, and China and Russia would certainly exercise their veto to prevent a human rights issue from being referred to the ICC.

The resolution was a particularly strong one for the Human Rights Council. The Geneva director of Human Rights Watch at that time said, “You couldn’t expect a stronger resolution . . . The package as a whole is unprecedented.” Such high praise for a Human Rights Council resolution from one of the largest and most vocal non-governmental organizations was significant.

The UN General Assembly took up the COI report in December 2014 and in its resolution on the issue condemned the “ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.” The General Assembly urged the Security Council “to take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through consideration of referral of the situation to the ICC and of targeted sanctions against those appearing most responsible for crimes against humanity.”

At the request of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, the Security Council took up the issue of North Korean human rights on December 23, 2014. UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic told the Security Council, “Rarely has such an extensive charge-sheet of international crimes been brought to this council’s attention . . . It documents a totalitarian system that is characterized by brutally enforced denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.”

North Korea, with the support of China and Russia, sought to derail the Security Council consideration of the North’s human rights. The United States, members of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and other like-minded countries have continued to raise North Korean human rights periodically in the Security Council. In addition to the meeting in 2014, this issue was discussed by the Security Council in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The United States was not able to get the votes to place the issue on the Security Council agenda in December 2018, but U.S. representatives said another effort would be made in January 2019 to raise the issue. There was no such effort this year, however, and questions have been raised about whether this reflects Trump administration’s muting of human rights criticism of North Korea in the lead up to the Hanoi summit.

One other important consequence of the COI report was the recommendation for the establishment of a field office to provide permanent staff for enhanced gathering of information and documentation of human rights abuses in North Korea. The resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council after it considered the COI report, asked the UN high commissioner for human rights to create a UN human rights field office. That office was established in Seoul and officially opened several months later with a mandate to gather and document first-hand evidence of North Korea human violations. The office has been a focal point for information on human rights violations, and the head of that UN office, Signe Poulsen, has been an important voice pressing for human rights in North Korea.

North Korean Response to the COI Report

The response of the Kim regime in Pyongyang to the COI report was a combination of official outrage and denunciation, a vigorous public relations effort to present North Korea in positive terms, and a few quiet steps to deal with some issues raised in the report.

Pyongyang issued a blistering response through its official media agency, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), denouncing the Human Rights Council resolution creating the COI as something “cooked up by the U.S. and its allies . . . with inveterate repugnancy and hostility towards the DPRK,” which is “political chicanery, which does not deserve even a passing note.” When the report was issued in 2014, Pyongyang called it “lies and fabrications generated under orders of the United States.” The commission was criticized for failing personally to visit North Korea, ignoring the fact that the commission made repeated but unsuccessful efforts to engage North Korea, all of which was documented in the report. Justice Michael Kirby was subjected to bitter personal attacks by North Korean media.

On September 13, 2014, KCNA released the Report of the North Korean Association for Human Rights Studies, which was the detailed official response to the COI report. The report was released in English, indicating it was intended for foreign audiences, but it read more like a propaganda screed. It included lengthy historical background on Korea, discussion of geography, and denunciations of U.S. hostile policy, as well as a vigorous, inaccurate, and highly ideological defense of the North Korean human rights record. (David Hawk has a good analysis of it.)

The North Koreans also became more aggressive in publicly responding on various occasions. In September 2014, the North Korean foreign minister attended the UN high-level meetings, which opens the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. This was the first time in 15 years that North Korea sent its senior diplomat to New York and only the third time ever that a North Korean foreign minister attended the General Assembly opening. The counterpoint to Foreign Minister Ri’s presence in New York was a meeting hosted by then U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, with the participation of then UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein of Jordan and the foreign ministers of several other countries which endorsed the report.

In addition to denunciations, however, the North also took a few very modest steps to improve the appearance of its human rights record. Pyongyang did not make changes that might have undermined its control of the population, but in some areas where there was no threat, there were improvements. Within weeks of the publication of the COI report and the strong resolution adopted at the UN Human Rights Council, North Korea participated in its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a tool of the UN Human Rights Council for self-review and public discussion of every UN member’s human rights record. North Korea had its first UPR in December 2009 and the second took place in 2014 shortly after the COI report was released and discussed.

The lengthy North Korea report, submitted for the UPR process, was largely a defense of North Korea’s policies, but there were indications of modest progress. In the 2009 UPR session, recommendations from other member countries (including the United States) suggested that North Korea should accede to the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2014, the North announced that it had signed the convention in July 2013. It also signed the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child and an international anti-terrorism agreement.

While changes were not major, the fact that the North took steps to improve its human rights record is positive. There is still a long way to go, but the North recognizes that international legitimacy and credibility is important to the regime’s image abroad. Progress on rights of persons with disabilities was a good issue for the regime to embrace because it does not threaten regime control. This indicates that pressing the North can have a positive impact on moving the regime in the right direction.

The outstanding work of the COI on North Korean human rights has been a major step forward in pushing North Korea in the right direction on human rights—though clearly there is a long way yet to go. But this action has also emphasized that moving North Korea to accept international standards of behavior—in human rights as well as nuclear security—is important if Pyongyang is to be accepted as a full participant in the world community.

To ignore human rights because it makes Pyongyang unhappy in order to push Kim Jong-un to make progress on denuclearization leads us in the wrong direction. North Korea needs to accept international norms and standards for denuclearization, but accepting international human rights standards is also part of the price for the regime to win international legitimacy, and human rights cannot be separated from security.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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