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'Systematic, widespread and gross' crimes against humanity

A new report by the United Nations reveals that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, detailing a long list of abuses by the government.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Aquatic Products Refrigerating Facilities, in an undated photo release by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Aquatic Products Refrigerating Facilities, in an undated photo release by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

A United Nations panel has released an incriminating report on North Korea and its long list of alleged human rights abuses committed against its citizens.

Led by three people commissioned by the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the nearly year-long investigation found "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations" committed in the remote totalitarian state. The 400-page report labels such human rights violations that include executions, forced labor, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, and widespread starvation "crimes against humanity."

UN panel chairman Michael Kirby likened the atrocities to the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, calling them "strikingly similar." 

The report's findings were also sent to the International Criminal Court and to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who could face potential prosecution.

After the full report's release Monday, the North Korean government rejected the report's findings. "It is nothing more than an instrument of political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system by defaming the dignified images of the DPRK and creating an atmosphere of international pressure under the pretext of 'human rights protection,'" the government statement read. 

China, a prominent ally of North Korea and a member of the UN Security Council, also dismissed the report, brushing it off as "unreasonable criticism."

"We believe that politicizing human rights issues is not conducive toward improving a country's human rights," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon. "We believe that taking human rights issues to the international criminal court is not helpful to improving a country's human rights situation."

The UN commission recommended that China refrain from sending North Korean escapees back to the country to protect them from further punishment or likely execution. "These people are not refugees," Chunying said, when asked about the circumstance. "We term them illegal North Korean migrants," saying that China will handle North Korean citizens "in accordance with international and domestic laws and the humanitarian principles."

"I hope that the international community will be moved by the detail, the amount, the long duration, the great suffering and the many tears that have existed in North Korea to act on the crimes against humanity," Kirby told reporters in Geneva. "Too many times in this building there are reports and no action... Well, now is a time for action. We can't say we didn't know."

Kim Kwang-Il spent nearly three years in a North Korean camp but escaped to South Korea and documented his experiences through illustrations. His drawings were included in the UN official report as they expose the specific methods of torture prison guards employ to the 120,000 detainees, according to the report.

Human Rights Watch released a video in conjunction with the report that features interviews with former prisoners, officials and defectors. One of those interviewed was Kim Hye-Sook, who spent 28 years in Camp 18, one of the country's largest prison camps. 

Kim told The Washington Post that she considered the commission's conclusion "very natural."

"I agree with their findings, but I don't expect changes to come anytime soon," she said. 

Her story, along with other prison camp survivors, have been shared by the Human Rights Watch. 

The panel obtained first-hand testimonies from over 80 victims, witnesses, and experts. The commission at one point sought access to China, specifically to the parts bordering North Korea, to conduct interviews with government officials and local experts. But the Chinese government informed the commission that "given the State’s position on country-specific mandates, especially on the Korean peninsula, it would not be possible to extend an invitation to the commission."

"Since the crimes were perpetrated by state actors, only an international tribunal can properly carry out criminal investigations aimed at holding perpetrators accountable," Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said in a statement.