At Last, a Serious UN Inquiry into North Korea’s Reign of Evil

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Last month, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution establishing a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to look into conditions in North Korea. Given Pyongyang’s recent nuclear bombast and its loud threats to reduce South Korea to rubble and chase the United States from the region, it is no wonder that a human rights investigation of this kind has received little attention. There are, however, reasons to welcome the new effort to come to grips with North Korea’s regime of domestic repression.

First, North Korea clearly merits closer scrutiny. Over its six decades of existence, the leadership has built the world’s most devastating political system, a monument to totalitarian thoroughness and durability. While other communist dictatorships may have spilled more blood or exerted more international influence, they have largely collapsed (Soviet Union), been overthrown (Khmer Rouge), or undergone far-reaching transformations (China). None has rivaled North Korea’s ability to perpetuate the system—sealed off, unreformed, unmoved by the suffering of its own people—for year after year, decade after decade. Other communist regimes have produced monsters like Stalin and Mao, but the same states sometimes raised up relative moderates like Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping, and even the occasional Gorbachev. By contrast, North Korea has produced just three leaders in its 65-year history: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. If anything, Kim Jong-il’s reign was more destructive than that of his father, as he imposed policies that led to the massive famine of the 1990s, a politically induced catastrophe that killed as many as 3.5 million people. Kim Jong-un shows no sign of swerving from this course, and may yet prove to be the worst of his line.

Second, the COI is important as a sign of progress at the UNHRC. For years, the UN’s human rights entities focused like a laser on Israel, almost to the exclusion of other countries. In recent years, however, the council has begun to direct its energies toward more severe abusers, such as Syria and Iran. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, is said to have personally pushed for the North Korea COI in response to the utter lack of change in policies after Kim Jong-un’s first year in power.

Third, the resolution that established the COI called for it to be “adequately resourced,” meaning it will have the means to carry out a serious investigation. Particularly encouraging is the fact that the COI’s mandate stipulates an investigation into the full range of regime abuses. Nine areas are specified: violations of the “right to food,” treatment of prison camp inmates, torture and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination (meaning, among other things, the calibrated deprivation of families based on perceived degree of loyalty), violations of the right to life, restrictions on personal movement, and enforced disappearances, including of foreign nationals.

The broad range of subjects marked for investigation suggests something approaching a top-to-bottom audit of the North Korean system. A microscopic analysis of North Korea’s methods of control and regimentation by a UN entity is long overdue. The resolution indicates that in some quarters at least, there is no longer a willingness to let security concerns trump all else and overshadow Pyongyang’s appalling human rights practices. Likewise, there is now reason to hope for the demise of the hoary argument that publicizing the crimes of the Kims is unnecessary because “everyone knows” that North Koreans live under a dictatorship.

In fact, while practically everyone does know that North Korea is not a democracy, not everyone is familiar with the superlative nature of the totalitarian system. To give just one example, many regimes embrace censorship and monopolize the commanding heights of the media. But North Korea is unique in its determination to prevent the exposure of its people to any version of current affairs or history other than the ludicrously warped official interpretation. The pervasive nature of information control gives Kim Jong-un the license to fill his country’s airwaves with preposterous bluster, including the regime’s threat to “break the waists of the crazy enemies” and “totally cut their windpipes,” its reference to the “venomous swish of skirt” of South Korean president Park Geun-hye, or its promise to “set fire to the dens of crimes and bases of aggression with its powerful and sophisticated nuclear strike means and completely wipe them out on the earth.”

Here is how North Korea’s media conditions are described in excerpts from Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2012 report:

North Korea remained the most repressive media environment in the world…. The one-party regime owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of the North Korean people to access information…. All journalists are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets serve as mouthpieces for the regime….

Under the penal code, listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered “crimes against the state” that carry serious punishments, including hard labor, prison sentences, and the death penalty. Even though North Koreans have been arrested for possessing or watching television programs acquired on the black market, there has been an increase in the flow of news and information into North Korea thanks to foreign radio stations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that send multimedia content across the border….

North Korean media portray all dissidents and foreign journalists as liars attempting to destabilize the government, and authorities sharply curtail the ability of foreign journalists to gather information by seizing their mobile telephones upon arrival, preventing them from talking to people on the street, and constantly monitoring their movements…. The dictatorial regime does on occasion invite the foreign press to cover events such as parades and festivals that shed a favorable light on the state….

There are currently no accurate statistics measuring the rate of internet penetration in the country. However, the online presence of North Korean media has increased in recent years. Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, launched a new website in February 2011, while the KCNA website has improved since debuting in 2010. The website of the Korean Friendship Association, a major channel for promoting propaganda abroad, offers multimedia content, including videos. North Korea maintains YouTube and Twitter handles under the name of Uriminzokkiri. These new connections, however, have little significance for average citizens. Global internet access is still restricted to a handful of high-level officials who have received state approval, and to foreigners living in Pyongyang. For average citizens, web access is available only to a nationwide intranet that does not link to foreign sites. The Korea Computer Center, a government information technology research center, controls the information that is allowed to be downloaded onto the intranet. As personal computers are highly uncommon in homes, most access occurs via terminals in libraries or offices.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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