An HRNK Interview with Justice Michael Kirby, Former Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK

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Q1: In regards to an improvement in North Korean human rights, what was your original expectation of the impact of the Commission of Inquiry and how has it either been met or fallen short?

Justice Kirby: The situation in North Korea has been going on, as the Commission of Inquiry found, for a very longtime—decades. Therefore, we didn’t expect things would change overnight. We did not expect that the Commission of Inquiry would be permitted to come into North Korea and we, therefore, prepared our methodology on the assumption that we would not be given access to the country, but that didn’t stop us doing our job because there were 26,000 people from North Korea who had fled from that country, living in South Korea and many others living in other countries. So we had plenty of testimony. To what extent were things different from what we expected? Well, I think the value of the inquiry was that it connected a great deal of information from people, who in many cases quite recently, had recently been in North Korea and they could give their testimony and indicate what they went through, what their experiences as human beings were. And they demonstrated that very serious offenses to human rights had occurred and some of those were crimes again humanity, which the international community has promised to react to and respond to. So, that is where the Commission of Inquiry led us. It led us to fact-finding and to reaching conclusions on a high level of standard of proof and making recommendations for the improvement of the human rights situation in North Korea.

Q2: What role does China play as a member of the P5 (US, UK, France, Russia, and China) in the UN Security Council in regards to North Korean human rights?

Justice Kirby: Well, the Commission of Inquiry understood right from the start that the cooperation of the People’s Republic of China was really a key to getting progress in respect of human rights in North Korea. That is because, in part, of the economic links between the DPRK and China, also the historical and fraternal party links between the two countries, the geographical contiguity—China has a border with the DPRK—and the large Korean minority, many of them themselves descended from, or in person, refugees from North Korea who live on the border on China.

Q3: The Commission met with roughly 300 witnesses during its investigation. What struck you as the most compelling and significant issue that victims of the Kim regime face today?

Justice Kirby: The situation in respect to their testimony was graphic. I think the aspect of the testimony that I will never forget was the sheer necessity of food in the human being. Human beings can last for so long without literature, without art, and without the accoutrements of ordinary life, but food is absolutely essential. In our report, there is a very important chapter—very well written if I can say so—explaining how the daily grind of getting food is, for most people in North Korea or outside of the elite, a continuing grave burden on the people. We heard testimony, which was extremely graphic, of the situation of the lack of food in the detention centers. One person, who gave testimony, had the job of leading a wheelbarrow around the encampment to pick up the emaciated bodies of the people who had died overnight and put them in a vat, where they were burned. Their ashes and the body parts were then scattered on the nearby fields in order to help grow the rudimentary needs of food for the detention centers. I am of such an age that I remember seeing vivid images of emaciated bodies at the end of the Second World War, when the Allied soldiers opened up parts of the Nazi-occupied Germany. Sitting there, listening to this testimony, brought home to me that here was I, decades later, listening to testimony of a somewhat similar kind. Therefore, that was the most vivid testimony that I heard. The testimony of women and the suffering they had undergone; the testimony of disadvantaged groups; of disabled people; the testimony of people who could not practice their religion without very grave punishments—all of this was horrific in this day and age that this goes on, and in a country that is a member of the United Nations and has signed up to the United Nations treaties. So there is a job to be done here and it is the obligation of the whole world to make sure that those who are responsible for the crimes against humanity are rendered accountable before the bar of humanity for their crimes.

Q4: What were some of the findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding North Korean detention camps?

Justice Kirby: The forms of torture that were inflicted on people in the detention camps in North Korea were all horrible: the motorbike torture, the airline torture, but the most horrible of all was the pigeon torture—when people were manacled and held above the floor so they couldn’t stand; they couldn’t rest; they couldn’t sleep; they vomited; they defecated; and they didn’t want to continue to live.

Q5: Do you foresee the public release of the names of the alleged perpetrators as part of an accountability or transitional justice measure?

Justice Kirby: We recommended that the matter should be referred by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court, where there is a prosecutor, who could have access to the material of the Commission of Inquiry and that prosecutor’s own investigations. That was the correct way to go about it. This is yet another instance of the fact that the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea acted with great propriety and care. We were prudent and we were careful. We thought that the step of launching a prosecution was a step that should be taken by a prosecutor, not by the Commission of Inquiry. Our job was to find facts, and that is what we did and all that we did.

Q6: What do you believe HRNK and other NGOs can do to ensure accountability for crimes against humanity in North Korea as an international goal?

Justice Kirby: Make sure that the world hears your voices. The voices of the people of North Korea cannot be heard. They cannot have access to the Internet. They cannot speak to us, but we can speak out for them and to them. It’s important that the United Nations should make our voices heard in North Korea and that is an important message that we should bring. Civil society should bring it and they should remember the motto: never give up; never give up; never give up. That is the motto they should accept for the voices of North Korea and they should become the voice of North Korea today, tomorrow, and until the human rights situation in North Korea is radically changed for the better.

Q7: What message would you like to send to HRNK’s board of directors, staff members, interns, volunteers, and supporters?

Justice Kirby: I have completed by duties in respect to North Korea, but your duties continue. Your duties involve lifting your voices, not being satisfied with inaction on the report. Getting a report is a good thing. It has put this matter on the agenda of the international community, but a report of itself does not change things in North Korea. It’s important that the change agents should be you. The change agents within North Korea are difficult to organize because of the totalitarian regime that exists there. Therefore, they need friends. They need friends outside North Korea. They need people who will lift their voices and pursue their actions peacefully in order to promote the changes that the Commission of Inquiry recommended. My recommendations and my words to those in HRNK would be to:

Stay the course, continue your efforts, and never give up in your efforts to bring human rights to North Korea. Be absolutely sure that in the end, human rights will come to North Korea. We humans are genetically programmed to search for rationality and to love one another and because of that fact, we will ultimately see an end to the oppression of human rights in North Korea. When that happens, HRNK will have an honored place in those who have worked for human rights for the people of North Korea.


Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Original transcription by Caitlin Lenzner-White, HRNK Research Intern

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