Time to confront North Korean repression

Story highlights

  • Richard Fontaine: North Koreans lack any freedom of expression
  • North Koreans will one day wonder who stood beside them through years of oppression, he says

Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)In convening to discuss North Korea's horrifying human rights record, the U.N. Security Council shined a spotlight this month on systematic abuses that continue to shock the civilized world. It also pointed to the growing international attention focused on the North Korean plight. No longer concerned only with Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and its routine provocations, the world is increasingly turning its gaze to the way in which Kim Jong Un's regime enforces its brutal rule.

Richard Fontaine
The evidence of the country's abuses continues to mount. Verifying what exactly is happening in North Korea is notoriously difficult. But as defectors leave the North for China, South Korea and other countries, their testimony -- backed by the accounts of former Pyongyang officials and satellite imagery -- convey a tale of terrors. Summary executions are routine, as are abductions and disappearances. North Koreans lack any freedom of expression, and access to information from the outside world is strictly curtailed. There is no independent media, no civil society, no freedom of religion. Fealty to the Kim family is ruthlessly enforced.
For those suspected of insufficient loyalty to the regime, the gulag awaits. The kwan-li-so system of forced labor camps imprisons by some estimates up to 120,000 citizens for political offenses, where they are held under inhuman conditions. The regime sends not only individuals to the camps for political crimes but their extended families as well -- some of whom are held captive for generations. Children born in the camps become prisoners as infants.
    A 2014 U.N. report concluded that North Korea's pattern of human rights abuses "does not have any parallel in the contemporary world" and compared its crimes to Nazi-era atrocities. A briefing this month from the top U.N. human rights official found no improvement since these findings.
    The Security Council meeting was one welcome step in focusing the world's attention on the North's atrocities. Before last year, the council restricted its purview to expressions of concern over Pyongyang's nuclear program and ballistic missile tests. This month's gathering, which Russia, China and Venezuela opposed, was the second such meeting, and followed the adoption in November of a General Assembly resolution condemning North Korea's abuses and demanding that the prison camps close.
    Expressions of concern, however, should be just the starting point for a deeper international effort to force improvements or, at a minimum, establish accountability for those guilty of grave human rights abuses. Here, recent action seems to have gotten Pyongyang's attention. The U.N. General Assembly resolution, along with last year's Commission of Inquiry Report, asked the Security Council to consider referring cases to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.
    This the regime quite plainly wishes to avoid. In an effort to blunt momentum toward an ICC referral, the North has welcomed a human rights dialogue with the European Union and invited the top U.N. human rights official to visit Pyongyang.
    China would no doubt veto a North Korean referral to the ICC, but that should not deter other Security Council members from proceeding. Pyongyang should see forces marshaling to hold its officials accountable, even if its external sponsors protect it for now.
    In the meantime, other steps are in order. Legislation pending in the U.S. Congress would impose sanctions on North Korean officials complicit in grave human rights abuses. A bill under consideration in South Korea's National Assembly would create new government positions focused on promoting human rights and provide financial support to defector groups that pass messages into the North. It would also establish a program to document Pyongyang's crimes, with an eye toward one day holding accountable those who carry them out. Such a worthy effort could both receive support from the new U.N. human rights office in Seoul and could bolster the case for taking the perpetrators to the international court.
    As citizens of the North continue to flee its horrors, the world should press China to cease its policy of sending them back to their tormentors. Such attempted defections routinely result in long sentences to the prison camps. Seoul, with its warming ties with Beijing, should make this a priority item in its bilateral relationship.
    The Kim regime will not forever endure, but whether its life span is one of 20 days or 20 years no one knows. What is certain, however, is that a freed North Korean people will one day wonder who stood beside them through their years of oppression. The United States and its partners should make certain where they stand.
    In documenting North Korea's crimes, demanding accountability and protecting those who escape, the world can do just that. Moving the international glare onto Pyongyang's pattern of repression is a good first step.