The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea began a special session on August 20, 2013, in Seoul’s Yonsei University. Escapees from North Korea – former prisoners of North Korean labour camps – were provided with the opportunity to tell their stories in the presence of anyone who wanted to hear them.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea was established on March 22, 2013. The idea came from the UN Council on Human Rights, which considers that Pyongyang’s supposed violations in the humanitarian sphere can be qualified as crimes against humanity. A corresponding resolution has been submitted by Japan and the European Union. All 47 members of the UN Council on Human Rights voted in favour of it. The basis for the resolution was a report by UN Special Representative Marzuki Darusman concerning the human rights situation in North Korea, where the North Korean authorities were suspected of violating citizens’ rights to life and access to food, as well as torture, kidnapping, discrimination, and restriction on freedom of speech.
In theory, on the whole the commission should focus on checking information concerning forced-labour camps in North Korea (it is assumed that in these camps prisoners have the status of slaves, they are tortured, raped and deprived of food), and also on reports of disappearances and murders. In addition, the UN believes that the North Korean authorities deliberately deprive the general public of sufficient quantities of food, using food as a means of control over citizens.
Formally, we have the first attempt to carry out a serious investigation of the human rights situation in North Korea, launched at a UN level, and therefore it has a high international status. The result of this investigation may have important international implications, because the value-judged declarations of human rights defenders, people who demonstrate their personal opinions, are one thing, and a “court order” is another thing. The data on human rights violations in North Korea may become the basis for charges against the North Korean leadership of crimes against humanity, and the international organization even hopes to bring the perpetrators to justice, although it is not known how this would take place.
Supporters of North Korea announced in advance that the court would not be objective, and their position is understandable, because the human rights situation in this authoritarian country is not the best. The question is whether the commission will be able to make sense of the problem and come up with an objective verdict, despite the massive amount of anti-North Korean propaganda that has built up over a period of 60 years.
The task is difficult, because North Korea has not granted the commission access. Therefore, its members will have to make decisions based in part on circumstantial evidence and in part on the evidence that will be available to it. Naturally, this already makes for a certain bias.
Consider who exactly authorized the investigation and then on what basis the commission will draw its conclusions. It consists of three people, and is headed by 74-year-old Australian judge Michael Kirby, a former member of the High Court of Australia. Apart from him, the commission includes 65-year-old Serbian human rights activist Sonja Biserko and the aforementioned 68-year-old former prosecutor general of Indonesia, human rights defender Marzuki Darusman, who from 2010 has been authorized by the UN to monitor the human rights situation in North Korea.
In 2006, the head of the commission, Michael Kirby, was listed as one of the hundred most influential Australians. A former member of the High Court of Australia, winner of the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education and a famous lawyer. A man who in his writings and in his practice has stood against formalism and dogmatism. He spoke out against laws criminalizing the transmission of AIDS. He worked on developing a code of ethics for judges. He is openly gay, which is quite an important point in Australian society, which is more conservative than the West. He has not been involved in scandals concerning “selective justice”, yet it is unclear to what extent he will be an active investigator, rather than a ceremonial figurehead, whose authority will be used to just sign off on conclusions not produced by him.
For the moment it is known that he has stated that he intends for the commission to act with “full independence” and without “preconceptions” and that North Korea would be given “due process”. “Of course I would like to try to cooperate with North Korea, so we would be able to receive the most reliable and accurate materials for the UN, which, in the end, will confirm or refute this information,” he said.
Marzuki Darusman is a former Indonesian prosecutor general under the rather authoritarian Suharto regime. In this position he reportedly fought against corruption and when the regime fell, he survived as one of the intermediaries between the former and new government. As a representative of the United Nations he has been involved in several such investigations, which, however, did not provide significant results, but aroused tension in society. After his visit to Sri Lanka, the authorities declared him persona non grata and crowds burnt his effigy. He is also known as an expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti, although, judging by how his name is remembered in this context, the situation there did not cause him to express such righteous zeal.
Darusman has already been involved with North Korean issues for several years in his role as UN special rapporteur for human rights for North Korea. His reports have repeatedly led to disputes and even fights between North Korean and South Korean representatives at the United Nations. The creation of the commission is largely his idea and the subject of crimes against humanity has been the subject of his speeches more than once.
The third member of the commission is Sonja Biserko. A prominent human rights activist and head of the Helsinki Group on Human Rights in Serbia. A former diplomat, who spoke against the policies of Milosevic. She played an active role in the collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent informational support for the “humanitarian intervention” against Serbia, attributing responsibility for the civil war to only one side. At home Biserko evokes fierce hatred from patriots, but we are much more interested in her reaction to the large number of new facts that demonstrate that the events in Yugoslavia were by no means simply a one-sided massacre: “Some of Serbia’s intelligentsia has for years been trying to deny responsibility for the genocide by the Serbian side, a fact that has been proved by several ICTY processes and confirmed by the UN International Court of Justice. So this point already does not need proof. Srebrenica is a dramatic milestone in history. No one can deny that what took place there happened, there are attempts to reduce the number of those killed, to reduce the significance of the massacre, shift the responsibility to the Muslims, focus attention on victims who subsequently were supposedly found alive. This whole process is accompanied by the release of books, research, alleged evidence. … This is an attempt to relativize, show the relative value of Srebrenica as a terrible crime in the Bosnian war.”
This is a very good quote, because it ideally illustrates the approach of “I know the truth, and do not bother me with the facts”. New evidence? New witnesses? This is just an attempt to cover up the truth!
Since then, Biserko has worked together with the journalist Blaine Harden. He helped her to demonize the Milosevic regime, and today is well known in Russia as the author of the book “Escape From Camp 14″, in which he retold the story of a man, Shin Dong-hyuk, who positions himself as a fugitive from one of the most secretive North Korean concentration camps. We will return to this man later.
Thus, two of the three members of the commission are anti-Pyongyang inclined. Darusman, as the initiator of the project, is interested in the fact that his assumptions be confirmed, and in connection with what she has already stated, Biserko’s reputation clearly indicates a lack of objectivity. It should be noted that the elderly age of all the members of the commission can point not only to their wisdom, but also narrow-mindedness.
Now on to how the materials are being gathered. The North Korean authorities have called the witnesses “human scum” and do not recognize the commission or grant it access to the country’s territory. Such a reaction will hardly evoke a warm attitude among the commission members toward Pyongyang and aerial photographic data leaves quite a lot of room for interpretation. A new building with a chimney can be interpreted as a torture cell with a crematorium or as an amenities building with a kitchen.
As a result we must rely on witnesses. At the time when this text was written, the commission has had time to interview several people, including Kang Chol-Hwan. Coming from a family of Japanese Koreans – “a member of a family of an enemy of the people”, he spent 10 years in a camp from the age of 9 to 19, then moved to the south and is now a journalist at the Chosun Ilbo daily. He has written the book “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” (co-authored with Pierre Rigoulot, known as the author having contributed to The Black Book of Communism), which tells quite a lot about the camps and the life beyond. Describing what Kang saw, the collection of horror stories does not particularly shock, and the book is even worth looking at in comparison with the rest of this sort of literature.
Of course, many of his stories will not be pleasant to those who believe that North Korea is the last small island of communist spirituality, however, the darling of the press turned out to be not him, but 30-year-old Shin Dong-hyuk, who is almost the most famous fugitive from North Korea and, according to him, the only person who managed to escape from the special prison for political prisoners. Shin was allegedly born in the concentration camp, lived there until he was a little over 20 years old, and then escaped safely first to the South before moving on to the United States.
Shin’s testimonies have been widely reported in the foreign and Russian press, and there is no need to repeat them again. However, it was a repeat of what was written in a book from his words by American journalist Blaine Harden. A public execution as a first childhood memory, hunger, torture and abuse; a middle finger snapped off the boy for dropping a sewing machine, which stopped working after the fall; the denunciation of a mother and brother in the hope of better treatment; and other stories in a similar style “and then they threw me in an open-hearth furnace under a pavement roller, but I had warm boots and so I survived”.
Such torments will shock the unprepared, but the prepared public will have a lot of questions.
First, it is unclear why Shin has an accent that is totally different from the North Korean accent.
Second, his testimony is full of oddities, and some fragments seem like obvious fiction. This also concerns how he got to China from the camp, which is located almost in the middle of the country, and the description of the torture that he was subjected to, if everything was just he writes, anyone in his position would either die or become disabled for life. A torn-off finger in fact to be a lack of the phalanx, which may well be the result of a work injury or a wound as was typical with modern South Korean patriots, who cut off their fingers in protest against the policies of Japan.
In general, an interesting point should be noted here. Either South Korean propagandists were inspired by the stories of Christian martyrs, or in this case it is the particular Korean national character of Han, which can be defined as a combination of pathos, melancholy and drama, but from the point of view of the observer they strongly overdo everything with “heart-rending details”, aimed at evoking emotional reactions.
Third, if you believe everything in his story is true, you can ask yourself one more question: How far can you trust a man who informed on his own family and sent them to their death in order to receive better treatment in a camp? I think that some of these questions have occurred to Kirby. It is not surprising that Shin’s book has such overblown descriptions of the “horrors in the North”, that in the end, the publisher of this tale does not advertise it as a defector’s testimony, but as a “bestseller, based on a true story”.
The other stories fall relatively between those of Kang and Shin. Some have inspirationally recalled events of 30 years ago as if they happened yesterday, one described the 1995-97 famine, forgetting that during these years, it was hard not only on prisoners, but that a series of natural disasters and the subsequent waves of disease and malnutrition killed at least 600,000 people.
What is the validity of all these statements? Oral retelling, especially when a witness is someone’s loved one (“. . . grandfather told me that . . .”), is often perceived as more credible than an official written text. However, the hypothetical grandfather can also have reason enough to not tell the whole truth to his grandchildren to maintain a positive image in their eyes. The majority of qualified lawyers agree that “97 percent of those in the prison camp firmly believe that they have been imprisoned for having done nothing wrong. And only 3 percent consider that they were convicted fairly.”
For the same reason, information that comes from defectors can not be taken as absolutely reliable, especially when they are applying for refugee status. Such a status is not given everyone and not just like that, and so it is very tempting to present oneself as a person who is “revealing the terrible secrets of the regime” and give the other side what they want to hear. Especially in a situation where the information is impossible to double-check.
A good example of such a witness was the Iraqi defector, code named Curve Ball (the Russian translation of the memoirs of then-CIA Director George Tenet – “Feint”), who in 2010 confessed that he lied about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, because he wanted to “do something to bring down the regime”. It was necessary to believe it – and so they believed it.
Then there are witness statements – this is the interpretation of a particular person, and no single witness can remember a situation with complete precision. Especially when one remembers an event after a long period of time, many of the details are consciously or unconsciously distorted, even in the case that they are not affected by a political situation.
In theory, having collected a very large amount of evidence one could weed out the extremes, as “250 people can not identically lie concerning all the details,” but the format of the public hearings do not provide for such a possibility. As a result, a total of 30 witnesses appeared before the UN commission, and it then continued its work in Tokyo.
So it is not surprising then that on September 17, 2013, on the basis of the dialog with Shin Dong-hyuk and co. the following preliminary conclusions were made: “Famine and terrible atrocities are being observed.” According to Michael Kirby, interviews with freed prisoners from North Korean camps point to widespread human rights violations in North Korea. “Our independent investigation will further investigate which North Korean institutions and specific officials are guilty of these crimes,” he added. In March 2014 the commission must submit a written report and the results of the hearing will be transferred to the appropriate UN authorities and the UN Secretary General. The matter may also be referred to the International Criminal Court, which is not part of the UN, but deals with crimes against humanity.
What happens next remains to be seen, because the audience remembers how long it took to catch the Serbs and Croats after similar investigations in Yugoslavia. It is no accident that the defectors’ presentations were before only a few dozen people, including journalists. South Koreans raised more serious and high-profile scandals.
It is worth paying attention to another matter. According to Shin Dong-hyuk, this investigation is almost the last chance for the citizens of North Korea, because they are not in a position to hold an armed uprising as in Libya or Syria. However, we can hope that this time the Curve Ball will definitely fly out of the field.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Exclusive for the New Eastern Outlook online magazine.