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Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea gestures during a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva February 17, 2014.
Image: Reuters

'Unimaginable suffering'

Esther Felden
March 5, 2014

A UN commission led a months-long inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea. In a DW interview, the chairman of the three-member panel, retired judge Michael Kirby, talks about the disturbing findings.


DW: After almost one year of in-depth-research, would you say that the overall picture of the every day atrocities in the secretive country is pretty much complete - or are there still important pieces missing?

Michael Kirby: Well, the commission was set up in March 2013. But in fact we didn't really get running until July. So it is more like seven months, and I think it is a good result in such a relatively short time.

The report is very comprehensive. It contains an answer to the eight-point-mandate that was given to the commission by the Human Rights Council. That eight-point-mandate tries to cover the main points that had come to international attention concerning the abuses of human rights. The report is a good resumée, and the great advantage is that it is all in the one document. Admittedly, it is a document of 300 pages.

Of course the commission of inquiry asked for permission to go into North Korea to inspect the places that our witnesses said were prison camps, which was denied by the North Koreans - places which satellites tend to suggest are prison camps. Because we couldn't get in, we had to receive testimony from witnesses in Tokyo, in Seoul, in London and in Washington, DC.

I am sure that there are still a number of matters where we haven't got the full picture, but we have got a pretty full picture. And we have certainly got enough to demonstrate that many human rights violations have occurred and are occurring, that crimes against humanity have occurred and are occurring, that people can be identified who are responsible for those crimes against humanity and that there should be accountability before the international community.

There is plenty there, and if there is a will to act, there is a good basis upon which a prosecutor could consider bringing proceedings against those responsible for the serious international crimes which we have found.

Were you prepared for what you found out during your investigation or did the extent of human rights abuses in North Korea exceed even your worst imagination?

To be honest, I didn't really know a lot about North Korea, I am not a professional North Korea expert. I was therefore able to come as judges do in their own countries ordinarily without a great deal of background and with an open mind. I have no hostility against North Korea - I never have had and didn't have during my inquiry.

But I didn't expect the baseness of the conduct that was revealed by the testimony, and certainly not the intensity of the suffering which was brought to our notice, especially in relation to the prison camps, but also in relation to starvation, to the fact that even today, about 27 percent of babies born in North Korea are seriously stunted, seriously malnourished.

And that is going to have an impact on them all their lives. I didn't expect the extent of discrimination against women, discrimination against Christians, discrimination against anybody who has even the slightest suspected disagreement with the politics of the government.

You compared the crimes in North Korea to those committed by the Nazis in World War II. Why? Where do you see parallels?

The parallels are not exact, because a feature of the Nazi atrocities was - at least in many cases - the foundation on the aspect of race and religion. There is discrimination against Christians in North Korea, but there is relatively little evidence of discrimination on the basis of race.

There is testimony of notions of racial purity in North Korea, such that if a women who has fled into China is sent back by China and has a baby or is pregnant by a Chinese man, there is great prejudice against that child - to the extent that in one case, a woman described how she was required to put her child into a bucket of water upside-down, so the child would drown.

But the essential similarity was brought home to me by the testimony of one witness who told of the conditions in a political prison, where his job had been to dispose of the bodies of the emaciated prisoners who had died from lack of food. And he had to get rid of the bodies, but he didn't have efficient equipment.

So they were burned in a vat, and the ashes and the unburned body parts were then taken and used in nearby fields as fertilizer. He described them as good fertilizer. And I thought then of the images I saw in my childhood of the opening up of the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War and how we had thought we had gone beyond that and moved away from that ever being repeated. Yet the testimony which we received showed that similar scenes would be seen today if we could go to the political prison camps.

Before publishing your report, you sent a copy to the North Korean regime. You also personally wrote to Kim Jon Un. Do you truly expect to get a reaction from him - or was it merely a symbolical letter?

We haven't received a reply. We wrote many times to the North Korean regime and to the Supreme Leader in North Korea. When at the end of the process we had completed our report, due process required that we should supply a copy of that to the North Korean administration.

We therefore did so through the hand of the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. He has not yet replied, and he may not ever do so. The North Korean regime has said that the report is a pack of lies, based upon the testimony of human scum. Anyone in the world except in North Korea can go to the internet and have a look at the testimony of the witnesses.

Everyone can make up their own mind as to its truthfulness. It was our duty to warn the Supreme Leader of North Korea of the terms of international criminal law and that those who aid and abet crimes against humanity when they could have stopped such crimes will themselves be seen as guilty.

When you look back on the interviews with more than 300 witnesses, survivors and experts, which particular stories touched you most?

It is very hard to isolate the particular stories, because so many of them were very powerful. One of the stories was by a Mrs. Kim who gave evidence in Seoul. She had been with her husband in their home, which was close to the then border between North and South Korea.

They were fearful that the North Korean troops that were retreating to the North from the advancing United Nations force would seize and carry off her husband. And so they found a hiding place in their home. And he was there and was overlooked by the North Korean soldiers when they first went. He then made the mistake of coming out of the hiding place, and the soldiers returned.

He was seized and was taken away, presumably to North Korea. And she has never heard from him from that day. She said not a day goes by that she thinks of him and of those last moments with him. That she wishes she could throw herself upon him and embrace him. And tell him how she loved him.

These simple stories told in simple language by people who have no political hostility but simply have suffered human loss, depravation and human rights violations. These are the stories that had an impact on me, and I believe they have an impact on humanity.

A crime against humanity is one that causes revulsion and horror in human beings and there is plenty of evidence in the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea to cause those emotions and to demand that there be a resolution and a response.

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