Monthly Archives: March 2014

On referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court

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There are an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea, a nation of 24 million people.

After the release of the report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, many country representatives supported the call to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have perished in the camps over the past half century, “gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture,’’ the report said.

“The EU believes that it is imperative that there be no impunity for those responsible for human rights violations,’’ EU representative to the UN in Geneva, Mariangela Zappia, told the council. Along with Japan, the European Union is drafting a resolution on North Korea to be voted on by the council next week.

However, North Korea’s key ally China, which has a veto at the UN Security Council, reiterated on Monday that it rejects any referral of North Korean rights abuse cases to the ICC. The recent inclusion of China and Russia in the rotating membership of the Human Rights Council may even prevent the initial resolution needed to push the case to New York.


UN Human Rights Council in Geneva discusses North Korea

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Earlier today in its 25th session in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council reviewed the human rights record of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and heard from the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) disturbing, detailed evidence of past and ongoing human rights abuses in North Korea.

During the session, COI chair Michael Kirby announced the Commission’s conclusion that a wide array of human rights abuses and violations, including some that amount to crimes against humanity, have been committed pursuant to “policies established at the highest level” and continue to take place in the DPRK.

As U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King stated at the UN Human Rights Council session, “the United States commends the Commission of Inquiry’s excellent and comprehensive report to the Council, which documents the ‘systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations’ in the DPRK, and strongly supports the Commission’s calls for accountability.”

[From a release by Robert R. King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights]

China rejects UN report on North Korean crimes

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As expected, China on Monday dismissed a UN report alleging North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, effectively confirming the fears of human rights advocates that Beijing will shield its ally from international prosecution.

Chen Chuandong, a counselor at China’s mission in Geneva, told the UN Human Rights Council that the independent commission of inquiry had made unfounded accusations and recommendations that were ”divorced from reality”.

”The inability of the commission to get support and co-operation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner,” Mr Chen said.

Mr Chen said the report was based on information and interviews collected outside the country, without first-hand information. ”The question then arises: can such an inquiry be truly credible?”

China, as a member of the UN Security Council, would have the power to veto any move to refer North Korea to the Hague-based ICC. Diplomats had already warned China was likely to object to the report, which also criticized Beijing for its treatment of North Korean defectors.

But Michael Kirby, chief author of the report, said he was convinced North Korea’s leadership would eventually face the ICC for crimes documented in the commission’s archives, which hold the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses. ”I have lived long enough to see things that looked impossible come to full fruit,” he told a news conference. ”The independence of East Timor, the independence of the Baltic states and other steps following the fall of the Berlin Wall are all indications that things can happen that don’t look certain now. They won’t meet media deadlines but they will occur.”

Shin Dong Hyuk, a North Korean born in a political prison camp who escaped after his mother and brother were executed, told Reuters he had expected China to reject the report. But the ”big purpose” of establishing the inquiry was to get the report discussed at the UN Security Council, he said.


United Nations: North Korean crimes as bad as the Nazis, Khmer Rouge

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The crimes of North Korea’s regime are as chilling as those of the Nazis, South Africa’s apartheid regime or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and must be stopped, the head of a UN inquiry said Monday.

Michael Kirby told the UN Human Rights Council, “It is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

His comments followed a searing 400-page report, released last month, that documented a range of gross human rights abuses in the country, including the extermination of people, enslavement and sexual violence.

“The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. The country is a dark abyss where the human rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people are controlled, denied and ultimately annihilated,” Mr Kirby said.

The report insisted North Korea’s leaders should answer for a litany of crimes against humanity before an international court.

“The world has ignored the evidence for too long,’’ Mr Kirby insisted, adding: “There is no excuse, because now we know.”

“If this report does not give rise to action, it is difficult to imagine what will,” Mr Kirby said.


Cell phone proliferation and use in North Korea

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The number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea doubled to more than two million last year. Koryolink, a joint venture between the state-ownedKorea Post and the Egyptian company Orascom, has passed two million subscribers in a country of about 24 million people.

North Korean defectors tell VOA that many go out of their way to purchase mobile phones, selling hard-earned crops or housewares. Cell phones have become status symbols, signs of prosperity, and one of the most noticeable examples of conspicuous consumption in North Korea. A man from Chongjin who defected in December 2012 said “cell [phones] have become so popular that a young man without a cell phone is not treated well and could not even find a girlfriend.”

In the reclusive state, mobile phones are primarily used for entertainment purposes. Think tablet computers – without the Internet.  Cell phone users use the handset to take pictures, watch videos and play games. North Koreans often use Chinese-made printers to print out photos taken with their mobile phones,

Defectors explained calls were usually reserved for emergencies, to avoid expensive top-up fees. A basic plan comes with just 200 minutes of calling and 20 text messages.

There are no signs that North Korea introduced cell phones as a means of reforming or opening up to the outside world. On the contrary, Pyongyang appears to be using the wide distribution of mobile phones to maintain and solidify its stability. One defector explained, “It is stupid to criticize the regime on the cell phone, which does more harm than good, when the call rate is exorbitant.”

It isn’t just the money factor, though, that is stopping cell phone users from actually using the handsets for communication. Authorities monitor all text messages, along with location data in real-time. Voice calls are recorded, transcribed, and stored for three years according to a former North Korean security agent. Also, there are no international calls allowed, and Internet access is banned for all but the ruling elite.

He told VOA that security guards often stop and question cell phone users on the street to search for any “politically inappropriate” content on their phones, especially South Korean soap dramas. An officer can confiscate a phone on the spot at his discretion.

Despite the North Korean government’s success at suppressing the flow of information through the mobile phone network, the network could potentially widen loopholes for information to flow to and from the reclusive state. For example, amateur reporters can record data on their cell phone memory card and transfer it to illegal Chinese cell phones to convey the information to foreign media outlets. Rimjin-gang, a Japan-based magazine featuring news and information from undercover North Korean reporters, says it has used this method to get hidden camera video out of the country.


A glimmer of financial hope in North Korea?

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A North Korean defector who now lives in South Korea has this to say about life in Hyesan, a North Korean city near the border with China: “Women are wearing clothes from Japan or South Korea that show off their figure if they have some money, and cosmetics from South Korea, too.” Since her 2012 defection, Ms Park remains in touch with family in Hyesan thanks to a mobile phone illicitly brought from China. “Seven out of 10 homes have color TV, and people can afford to make meat broth once a month . . . The quality of life has improved a lot.”

Though Kim Jong-Un has stressed a desire to strengthen the economy and “improve the people’s standard of living”, Hyesan’s growing middle class is more a reflection of the North Korean government’s surrender of control over much of the real economy than a result of improved policies. It is also a window into North Korea’s struggle to foster economic development while keeping a totalitarian political system alive.

After the starvation of up to 1m people in the famine demonstrated the state’s inability to feed its people, it was forced to turn a blind eye to the informal markets that sprang up. For residents of cities such as Hyesan, near the border with China, the opportunity to engage in illicit trade with Chinese merchants has been especially lucrative.

The capital has always offered higher living standards than the rest of North Korea, serving as a home for about 3m of those considered most dependable and loyal to the regime. Visitors to Pyongyang over the past two years also speak of growing prosperity. There are more cars on the formerly traffic-free streets – including BMWs, despite a UN ban on luxury goods imports. Children in the city’s parks use skates, department stores are increasingly well-stocked, and a growing number of once drab shops bear hoardings with eye-catching logos.

Chinese trade with North Korea hit a record $6.6bn last year, according to the Seoul-based Korea International Trade Association – the vast majority of Pyongyang’s trade and up ninefold since 2001. Says Andray Abrahamian, executive director of Choson Exchange, which provides business training to young North Koreans. “Increasingly, over the last decade, people see business as the way to get ahead rather than the traditional way, which would be getting ahead in the party or the military.”

The majority of North Koreans though still endure grinding poverty that contrasts sharply with the lifestyles of the smugglers of Hyesan, let alone the Pyongyang elite. A study last October by the World Food Programme estimated only 16 per cent of households had “acceptable food consumption”. In the northern province of Ryanggang, 40 per cent of children under five were stunted.

[Simon Mundy writing in Financial Times]

New South Korean film portrayal of Christian suffering in North Korea

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Christians in North Korea face beatings, torture, arbitrary shooting and execution. It is difficult, though, to comprehend the true nature of the terror of the victims, the extent of the persecution, and the bravery of their struggle.

A new film, “The Apostle: He Was Anointed by God,” presents a fictionalized account based on stories culled by South Korean director Kim Jin-moo.

The plot revolves around Chul-ho who wants to lead villagers across the river to China and from there to South Korea. He, his family and friends, face varying degrees of terrorism by North Korean soldiers, some of them glad to accept bribes, others promising to get tough against dissidents in their midst.

The film introduces, on a highly personal level, the types of conflicts among all these people that we can only imagine – the aging father who just wants to pay off the authorities whenever expedient, the pregnant woman who hides away but also gets killed, the Christian who praises Kim Jong-il in a sermon in one of those phony authorized churches in Pyongyang, the young soldier who himself is a Christian and attends underground services while in uniform.

One of the more interesting studies in “The Apostle” is that of the North Korean squad leader who warns Christians of the troubles they face under a new, ambitious officer and then obeys the officer when expedient, as when villagers are shot and killed as they try to flee across the snow into China. The differences among North Koreans are essential to the credibility of the film since they portray characters who suffer not only from ideological fanaticism but also from opportunism and the need to survive under a brutal regime that will kill anyone who shows any sign of insubordination.

For those who worry about the fate of unknown tens of thousands of secret Christians in North Korea, this is a powerful film with a believable story. Chul-ho dies as a martyr to his faith. Peter Jung, founder of Justice for North Korea, presenting the film, complete with English subtitles, said his organization will show it on March 17 in Geneva during debate at the UN Council for Human rights on the report on human rights in North Korea by a commission authorized by the council.

A book by Jung and activist Kim Hi-tae, “The Persecuted Catacomb Christians of North Korea,” is quoted in the report. Copies of the book, in both English and Korean, were handed out after the screening of the film. It provides an astonishing glimpse into the history of Christianity in Korea, the suffering that Christians have endured historically and the brutality that exists today in North Korea.


Kim Jong Un unanimously ‘elected’ to North Korean legislature

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North Koreans went to the polls on Sunday to approve the new roster of deputies for the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s legislature. The vote, more a political ritual than an election by Western standards, is generally held once every five years.

With no one else on the ballot, state media reported Monday that supreme leader Kim Jong Un was not only elected to the highest legislative body in North Korea, he won with the unanimous approval of his district – located on the symbolic Mount Paekdu – which had 100 percent turnout.

“This is an expression of all the service personnel and people’s absolute support and profound trust in supreme leader Kim Jong Un as they single-mindedly remain loyal to him,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

The Supreme People’s Assembly usually meets only rarely, often only once a year. In practice it has little power and when it is not in session, its work is done by a smaller and more powerful body called the Presidium.


Younger sister of Kim Jong Un – Kim Yo-Jong

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The younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has made an official debut of sorts. Kim Yo-Jong, believed to be 26, accompanied her elder brother to a polling station on Sunday when North Korea held stage-managed elections to its rubber stamp parliament.

It was not her first appearance. She was shown on state television in 2011, tearfully standing next to Kim Jong-Un as they attended the funeral of their father and former ruler Kim Jong-Il.

Since then she has occasionally been seen accompanying her brother on his “field guidance trips”.

Sunday’s outing was different as she was, for the first time, officially listed by her name and as a “senior official” attending the voting function along with several top party and army luminaries.

Ahn Chan-Il, head of Seoul-based World Institute for North Korea Studies, said Kim Yo-Jong was being groomed to play the same supporting role as her very influential aunt. “Kim Jong-Un and Kim Yo-Jong will work in a similar way as their father and Kim Kyong-Hui did in securing the future of the Kim dynasty,” Ahn said.