North Korean defectors gave graphic testimony about deprivation and violence, in contrast to the image of socialist prosperity promoted by dictator Kim Jong Un at recent banquets celebrating a new ski resort and water parks.
Jo Jin Hye, 26, cried yesterday as she told United Nations human rights investigators in Washington about her father’s death en route to a gulag, a sister abducted while searching for food and forced into sex slavery in China and a newborn brother who died for lack of milk.
Jo’s testimony opened two days of public hearings in Washington before a UN Human Rights Council panel conducting the world body’s first investigation into human rights in North Korea. Academics and analysts will testify today on the country’s network of political prisons and lingering food shortages. The panel has already collected more than 200 testimonials, some at previous hearings in Seoul, London and Tokyo.
North Koreans aren’t permitted to freely travel outside the country, and are cut off from South Korea by one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders after the Korean War sealed the division of the countries. Still, more than 24,000 have managed to defect to South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, the South’s Unification Ministry estimates. Defections have slowed since Kim took over almost two years ago.
A total of 1,509 North Koreans defected to Seoul in 2012, down from 2,706 a year earlier, according to Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. Only 1,041 escaped in the the first nine months of this year, he said.
“This represents a reversal of the trend of steady increase in the number of annual arrivals since 1998, possibly due to recently tightened border control” or the return of defectors to the North, Darusman told the General Assembly’s Human Rights committee on Oct. 29.
North Korea has ignored the UN panel’s request to visit the country, accusing the investigators of relying on “faked materials” that were “fabricated and invented by the forces hostile” to the North, Michael Kirby, chairman of the three-member investigative panel, told the same committee on Oct. 29.
“Nobody in their right mind chooses to publicly shame themselves with lies about being sexually trafficked, tortured and reduced to nothing,” said Jo, who successfully sought asylum in the U.S. in 2008 after four failed attempts to escape the North.
Since becoming leader in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has ordered construction of leisure facilities such as amusement parks and horse riding clubs, to reinforce the impression of socialist prosperity. He has also defied the UN by testing long-range missiles and a nuclear device, scuttling a February 2012 deal with the U.S. that would have provided food aid.
North Korea should end its “belligerent” military-first policy that “uses food as an instrument of political and economic pressure” on a populace at “risk of mass famine,” Darusman told the the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee earlier this week.
The UN’s investigative panel will submit its final report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council next March, with conclusions on the North’s network of gulags, access to food and the distribution of international humanitarian aid. It will also investigate the regime’s role in a 1990s famine dubbed the “Arduous March” that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
“The international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take” to protect the North Korean people, Kirby told the General Assembly on Oct. 29.
The UN Security Council would have to approve any request to refer the panel’s report for action by the International Criminal Court. Russia and China, which have veto power in the 15-member Security Council, have consistently opposed UN Human Rights Council resolutions on North Korea.
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