North Korea’s Overlooked Atrocities

Pyongyang’s decision to move forward with its December 12th ballistic missile test—last year’s second—was made in defiance of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and repeated warnings from the United States and the international community. More than two decades of engaging and negotiating with North Korea on security issues while relegating mass-atrocity crimes occurring within the country to a low-grade status, has borne no fruit and, for the millions who suffer from a state-induced famine and the hundreds of thousands of innocents languishing in hellish concentration camps, this approach has proven to be not only unethical but harmful. In the wake of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s January 14th call for an international inquiry into what “may amount to crimes against humanity,” and with reports of North Korea’s plan to conduct a third nuclear test in the very near future now surfacing, it is high time for the world community to fundamentally reassess policy on North Korea to focus on the unparalleled humanitarian and human rights emergency unfolding in the country today.

The North Korean government spent an estimated $1.34 billion on its rocket program last year, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. An official with the ministry stated these resources could have taken care of food shortages within the country for “four to five years.” Recent missile tests have taken place at a time when North Korea’s famine is reportedly at one of the worst points in the nation’s history. An October report (pdf) from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that North Korea’s hunger situation is at the “serious level,” with its Global Hunger Index (GHI) at 19 points, substantially higher than that of 15.7 in 1990. This is very alarming news, especially since the famine in the 1990s claimed the lives of between 2 to 3.5 million people. According to the IFPRI, North Korea had the highest GHI growth rate since 1990 (21 percent) of any country in the world, in spite of significant international humanitarian assistance.

Those who cite poverty or natural disasters as the antecedents for North Korea’s perpetual famine are gravely misguided. The UN’s former special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, stated categorically in his sixth and final report (pdf) to the General Assembly in 2010 that the DPRK, which has the largest per capita army and the highest military expenditures in the world according to GDP, was not by any measure poor. Muntarbhorn noted that North Korea has very large mineral resources and generates billions in export and trade, but that the profits from this activity are being used entirely on the party elite and for militarization. He concluded, and has since reiterated in interviews, that the DPRK has the means at its disposal to feed its people and that the real issue is not a lack of resources but the military-first policy, blatant discrimination, and misappropriation of provisions (including the mass diversion of international humanitarian aid) by the authorities in Pyongyang. One must never forget the fact that the North Korean state has brutally and systematically starved masses of people within its prison camps for over six decades. 


Among several important reports analyzing North Korea’s human rights crimes issued over the past 20 years, the law firm DLA Piper published Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea (pdf) in 2006, which found that North Korea’s discriminatory and exploitative food policy, resulting in famine, and its inhuman treatment of political prisoners constituted crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The report recommended the UN Security Council adopt a resolution urging open access to North Korea for humanitarian relief and for the release of political prisoners. In an op-ed for the New York Times the same year, the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik (who commissioned the aforementioned report) called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to “make his first official action a briefing of the Security Council on this dire situation.” Again, in 2009 (pdf) and 2010 (pdf), the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea urged for the “totality of the United Nations system, especially the Security Council,” to be mobilized “to take measures to prevent egregious violations and protect people from victimization,” and for an “end to impunity.” These recommendations have yet to be implemented.

North Korea’s mass atrocity situation continues annually to be the subject of a vast and growing body of documentation. In recent years, the North Korean state has been found to be comprehensively violating the UN genocide convention by targeting for destruction every group protected by the international treaty while also employing every method defined as genocidal in Article 2. Genocide Watch, a nonpartisan NGO that exists “to predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide” and whose board of advisers includes respected anti-genocide activists such as the retired Canadian general Roméo Dallaire and Samantha Power (current senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights for the US National Security Council), published a report (pdf) on December 19, 2011, that determined conclusively that North Korea has committed genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin’s 1948 convention, stating that there is “ample proof that genocide has been committed and mass killing is still under way in North Korea.” Genocide is taking place through the DPRK’s decades-long, racially based policy of killing the half-Chinese babies of North Korean women forcibly repatriated by China (constituting genocide on national, ethnic, and racial grounds) and through its targeted and systematic extermination of its indigenous, religious (predominately Christian) population and their families (genocide on religious grounds).

Ignoring mass atrocities in North Korea is no longer a viable option. Mass human rights violations within the country amount to the most egregious of international crimes and a clear obligation to act has been flouted for too long, and at an inconceivable cost. What is long overdue is for the United States and other members of the world community to bring the matter of crimes against humanity and genocide in North Korea before the UN Security Council and, in all bilateral or multilateral discussions and initiatives on North Korea, to now prioritize the fundamental freedoms, rights, and lives of the North Korean people.

Robert Park is a minister, human rights activist, and founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, a nonprofit working to provide life-saving resources to victims and their families in North Korea.

Photo Credit: Gilad Rom

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