Responsibility to Protect in North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) continues to commit acts of genocide and crimes against humanity that are unparalleled in the world today in terms of brutality and loss of life.

Korean Holodomor

To date, over four million have died of starvation in North Korea since 1995. Photographs from Reuters AlertNet published in October confirm refugee testimonials of a continued famine. The United Nations reports that over six million North Koreans, particularly children and pregnant and breast-feeding women, are currently at risk of death due to starvation.

Interestingly, however, studies indicate that North Korean refugees almost universally oppose government-enforced food aid to North Korea. Despite having family and friends currently at risk, they adamantly warn that food aid via the regime will not benefit those who are in desperate need, but reinforce a genocidal system that leverages access to food as an unethical means of controlling the population.

The Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, a coalition movement spearheaded by North Korean refugees and formerly led by North Korea's highest-ranking defector, the late Hwang Jang-yop, has frequently and emphatically condemned unconditional aid to North Korea as a form of appeasement, warning that aid has not reached the average dying North Korean but has been stealthily exploited by the North Korean authorities.

Refugee Insights into North Korea, a study published this year based on interviews with over 1,600 North Korean refugees in China and South Korea by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, found that a substantial number of refugees had no knowledge of the over a decade of international humanitarian aid to North Korea, though it at one point purportedly fed more than a third of the North Korean population. Among those who were aware of international aid, the vast majority indicated they were never beneficiaries and that food aid was instead diverted to the military and to the party elite.

Citing poverty or natural disasters as the culprit of North Korea’s perpetual famine is misguided. Former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea Vitit Muntarbhorn stated categorically in his final report to the General Assembly in 2010 that the DPRK, which has the largest per capita army and the highest military GDP expenditures in the world, was by no means poor. Mr. 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 completely on the party elite and for nuclear technology development. He concluded and has since reiterated in interviews that the North Korean regime has the means at its disposal to feed its people and that the real issue is not a lack of resources but a military-first policy and misappropriation of funds by DPRK authorities.

In the 1990s, the DPRK was the recipient of more aid than any other nation in the world. Yet there is now overwhelming, verifiable evidence of the DPRK’s systematic diversion of billions in humanitarian aid during this period, which is internationally recognized as one of the most devastating famines of the 20th century, with as many as 3.5 million North Koreans dying of starvation. At the height of the famine, the DPRK regime suspended commercial imports, diverting the money saved to strengthen its military and to continue its nuclear enrichment program. The regime spent massive amounts of money on military purchases, including eight military helicopters and 40 MiG-21 fighters. This methodical diversion of humanitarian aid has been coupled with a harsh penal system centered on executions and detainment in prison camps.

Auschwitz Now

Political prison camps provide a clear example of the DPRK’s use of food as leverage in preserving its repressive policies. Following the Soviet example, political prisoners have been systematically starved since the regime's inception in 1945. Moreover, according to current Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman, as many as 250,000 political prisoners, one-third of whom are children, are at present being forced to perform slave labor on starvation rations and are subject to brutal beatings, systematic rape and torture, and execution at the whim of prison guards.

For several years, outside observers and humanitarian activists such as former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback have stated that the camps represent the worst abuse of human rights in the world. Yet, satellite images released by Amnesty International and Google Earth confirm that these camps continue to grow and hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children continue to suffer inconceivable inhumanity and die in silence.

As with the Nazi concentration camps, the full extent of the regime’s barbarism cannot be known until after liberation. Some of the most substantial and horrifying accounts of the North Korean prison camp system have come from former camp guards Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok, who, at the risk of being stigmatized or even punished in the democratic societies to which they eventually fled, have confessed to the atrocities and murders they personally carried out or oversaw in these camps. These confessions have included detailed accounts that suggest chemical and biological weapon experimentation on political prisoners is taking place systematically in North Korea.

Im Chun-yong, a former military captain in North Korea, spoke to Al Jazeera in 2009 about North Korea’s lethal biological and chemical weapon experiments on physically or mentally disabled North Korean children. Ri Kwang-chol, a physician who defected from North Korea, confirmed this account, testifying in March of 2006 that the DPRK murdered people with physical disabilities “almost as soon as they [were] born” and that the regime perceived the practice as a “way of purifying the masses.” It is undeniable that North Korea’s cruelty towards disabled individuals mirrors Nazi eugenics.

Furthering the Holocaust parallel, in the immediate aftermath of a BBC report in 2004, Yad Vashem of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem made an urgent appeal to then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to act upon reports of “political genocide” in North Korea, stating that “only six decades after the utilization of gas chambers to exterminate European Jewry, North Korea has apparently employed them against thousands of its own citizens.”

More Than a Human Rights Crisis

Beyond prison camp boundaries, the DPRK has been violating the UN Genocide Convention through systematic extermination on national, ethnic, and racial grounds, embodied in a decades-long policy of killing the half-Chinese babies of North Korean women who have been forcibly repatriated by China. Moreover, it has extended its genocide on religious grounds as well. Before the Soviet-led installation of the Kim Il-sung regime in 1945, North Korea was home to millions of religious believers, including a burgeoning Christian population. Today, all traces of a religious culture have been obliterated. Recognizing the inherent threat posed by faith to totalitarian rule, the DPRK regime has, since its inception, sustained a campaign to suppress all forms of religious activity.

North Korea is consistently ranked among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. Open Doors, a Christian watchdog monitoring international religious persecution, has for the past ten years named North Korea the number one persecutor of religious believers. Open Doors believes that between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are currently in North Korea’s concentration camps. What is more, the children and grandchildren of any perceived political offenders are placed in camps as well toward North Korea’s goal of fully eliminating the “seed of dissent.”

Over the last decade, DPRK authorities have been able to dismiss recommendations from the General Assembly, the former Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea. In response to a 2010 General Assembly resolution condemning "systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights,” Pyongyang declared defiantly that it "would not change" and that it considered criticism of the DPRK's human rights crimes as a "political plot by hostile forces.”

Indeed, the North Korean regime has proven itself most adept at employing deception in order to achieve its aims and stay in power. A prime example of such dishonest tactics is found in the pattern of belligerence and disingenuous engagement employed by the DPRK to win shocking concessions and consistently circumvent international efforts to curb nuclear proliferation activities.

In 1993, North Korea denied the request of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to access its nuclear facilities after the agency concluded that North Korea had not honestly declared its plutonium production. While the Clinton administration initially considered conducting air strikes to destroy North Korea’s nuclear complex because of the compelling evidence that North Korea was preparing to build an atomic bomb, the United States instead decided to attempt to avert military conflict through negotiation. Former President Carter went on an unauthorized visit to North Korea to speak with Kim Il-sung, and the two ostensibly reached a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear threat. The Clinton administration signed the Agreed Framework, which promised North Korea oil and other forms of developmental assistance in exchange for the dismantlement of nuclear plants producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Today, we know this deal to have been a complete failure. North Korea reneged on its agreements and secretly began enriching uranium immediately after signing the agreement, which provided an additional route to producing nuclear weaponry.

North Korean refugees and experts alike agree that the country will not voluntarily disarm under any circumstances while the current regime is in power, as the “military-first” dictatorship is profoundly dependent on its nuclear weapons program. The “cult of personality” at the heart of North Korea’s political system would come under threat if the regime were ever to denuclearize, as doing so would doubtless be considered a national humiliation. Kim Jong-il and his cohorts take pride above all things in North Korea’s military prowess. While they have diverted billions in humanitarian aid and resources to develop nuclear weapons and sacrificed millions of innocent lives, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission is still praised by state media as the world’s principal military genius. Moreover, as was evidenced by the DPRK’s commentary on the Libya intervention this year, North Korea perceives the act of renouncing nuclear weapons as losing all leverage on the international stage. In a statement issued March of this year, North Korea accused the United States of disarming Libya through negotiations as a precursor to military action and asserts that the Libya intervention confirmed that the DPRK’s military-first policy and nuclear arsenal were thus essential deterrents to invasion. It is clear that nuclear disarmament is not on the current regime’s agenda, and therefore it is futile to continue attempts to bargain with North Korea about its development of nuclear weapons.

Necessary Next Steps

Through nuclear brinkmanship on the one hand and charm offensives on the other, the North Korean government has managed to deter a decisive and robust international response to its humanitarian emergency—a response that is exigent and long-overdue. The testimonies of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees confirming that crimes against humanity and genocide continue in North Korea are overwhelming and unequivocal.

At the historic UN World Summit in 2005, heads of state and government leaders from around the world committed to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, they pledged to mobilize intervention when any given state manifestly failed to protect its populations or was the actual perpetrator of these crimes. Nations such as Guatemala and Rwanda, who had suffered genocides in the post-Holocaust era, stood at the forefront of this movement and demonstrated instrumental leadership at the summit.

Still, for the past two decades there has been no meaningful international response to the crimes against humanity continually perpetrated by the North Korean government. This international inaction is partially testament to North Korea’s ability to blackmail and equivocate. However, another major obstacle has been China—North Korea's main accomplice. In contravention of its obligations under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, China has denied the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees access to the North Korean refugee population and continues to hunt down and summarily repatriate North Korean refugees in Chinese territory per a 1986 agreement with the DPRK. When forcibly returned, refugees suffer torture, imprisonment in camps, or execution, as North Korea criminalizes exit from the country. Hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees, including tens of thousands of children, are estimated to be in hiding in China right now. The majority of these refugees are women, 80 percent of whom are victims of sex trafficking and abuse with no recourse to legal rights and protections.

Under Responsibility to Protect, the world has a duty to intervene first by "appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means" and then by force, if necessary. Due to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and China's role as its benefactor, protector, and ally, fulfilling this duty cannot begin without greater mobilization and louder outcries from the grassroots community around the world.

Additionally, there must be increased financial support for the surviving victims of the regime—the North Korean refugees. It has been confirmed through academic and government studies that thousands of refugees regularly send financial remittances to their family members or friends in North Korea via underground channels of either North Korean or Chinese activists. These remittances are important not only to meet the basic needs of the desperate population, but also to aid in exposing and undermining the DPRK system through empowering victims of the regime.

To address China’s unique complicity in the refugee crisis, it is especially crucial for South Korea to take action. Though there are networks of South Korean and foreign NGOs attempting to smuggle defectors from China to safer countries, they are able to reach relatively few of the refugees, an estimated one out of ten of whom is caught and repatriated to their peril during these "rescue" operations. However, the South Korean constitution extends citizenship to all North Koreans, giving this country the leverage to exercise its right of diplomatic protection over defectors in China. In the interest of maintaining friendly relations with the South, one of its main trading partners, China would likely feel pressure to accept the premise that the defectors have dual citizenship. Thus, South Korea stands in a pivotal position, as confirmed by the success of small-scale interventions by Seoul in recent months on behalf of North Korean refugees. The highest branches of South Korea's government must now begin to vouch more persistently and forcefully for the North Korean defectors on the grounds that these refugees are their nationals by law.

Still, the onus is on the international community at large to invoke its "Responsibility to Protect.” General mobilization and mass demonstrations are key to revealing and responding to the mass human rights violations taking place in North Korea today. In what is one of the most devastating genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, strong, decisive, and swift international commitment to action must replace granting further time and concessions to the DPRK regime.

Editor's Note: For more information on North Korea’s violation of the Genocide Convention, see http://hir.harvard.edu/north-korea-and-the-genocide-movement.