January 15, 2013

Challenges to Human Rights Information Gathering in North Korea

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair, HRNK Board of Directors

This blog is based on a statement given at the International Forum on North Korea,
sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Korea Institute for National
Unification and the Henry Jackson Society, November 28, 2012, London, England.

Over the past decade, non-governmental organizations have been bringing to light
extensive information about human rights conditions in North Korea. As a result of their
meticulous work, governments and the United Nations have been able to develop policy
positions on North Korea and use the information as the basis of their own reports.

Some point out that public execution may be on the decline in North Korea, in
part because of international criticism. We also hear that North Korea's participation in
the Paralympics’ games may signal a change in policy toward the disabled. And some say
fewer people are dying from starvation because they have learned to survive by growing
their own food, which the government is increasingly permitting. All these areas are
being researched as are the prison camps, where particular efforts are being made
to ascertain whether one camp has been closed and another relocated and the significance
of such information.

This certainly contrasts with the past when the world was largely in the dark about
human rights conditions in North Korea. It was not until 40 years after Kim Il-sung
assumed powerin the late 1970s and 80sthat international NGOs first began to
report on the human rights situation. More recently, following the arrival in South Korea
of some 25,000 North Korean defectors, information has become more plentiful about
all aspects of human rights in North Korea. Hundreds of former prisoners and former
prison guards have been providing testimony about their prison experiences. And since
2003, satellite photos of the camps have helped verify the information provided by
former prisoners and guards. North Koreans hiding in China have also been providing
information. The report of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Lives for
Sale, is based on interviews with North Korean women who made their way to China.
And North Koreans still inside North Korea are providing information by means of new

Nonetheless, many obstacles remain to information gathering. Let us focus on three.

(Continued after the jump...)

The first is the severe crackdown being carried out at the border since Kim Jong-il's
death. Shoot to kill orders, intensified surveillance and other restrictive measures have
reduced the number of defectors arriving in the South and the information they bring. In
2012, the total number of North Koreans who reached the South was 1,508, about half
the number who arrived the year before. North Korea’s efforts to reduce the number is
in great measure a response to all the information North Korean defectors have been
providing to the outside world (and which also goes back into the North). China for its
part has been discouraging North Korean departures to prevent instability in the North, but also to reduce the bad publicity Beijing has been receiving for forcibly repatriating
North Koreans who on return are then subject to severe punishment. An international
discussion is needed on how to address the restrictions imposed on North Koreans
trying to exit and the forced repatriations of those who manage to cross the border.
Governments, international organizations, NGOs and defectors should all be part of this

A second difficulty to information gathering is the continued lack of access to North
Korea by international human rights groups and United Nations human rights
rapporteurs. The only time that a human rights organization was invited to the North
was in 1995 (nearly 20 years ago) when Amnesty International was allowed in, subject
to heavy restrictions. That same year, North Korea invited the UN Special Rapporteur
on Violence against Women to visit, but only to discuss World War II's comfort women
and Japan. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, who was
appointed in 2004 to investigate and report on the human rights situation, has never
been allowed into the country. Nor has the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
the UN’s chief human rights advocate. For nearly 10 years, the High Commissioner has
been trying to establish a dialogue and technical assistance programs with North Korea.
North Korea, however, has made it known that it might only allow a visit of the High
Commissioner in exchange for something elsethe termination of UN resolutions on
the human rights situation. UN member states, however, are not inclined to bargain away
their resolutions, and rightly so. An overall international strategy needs to be developed
for addressing the lack of access.

A third difficulty arises when UN officials and governments do not give full weight
to defector testimony. Because the UN and governments cannot directly assess the
situation themselves, they have often qualified the information they received from
defectors, sometimes even making it seem doubtful. UN High Commissioners for
Human Rights for example, pointed out over the years that the UN could not form its
own independent diagnosis of the situation because they could not verify it directly.
As a result, no High Commissioner ever issued a separate, stand-alone statement on
North Korea’s human rights situation until January 2013 when Navi Pillay finally
acknowledged publicly that “the deplorable human right situation in DPRK...has no
parallel anywhere else in the world” and called for greater international attention to the
abuses reported by defectors. She no longer pointed to lack of direct access as a rationale
for inaction on North Korea, although she stated that, “We know so little about these
camps, and what we do know comes largely from the relatively few refugees who have
managed to escape from the country.”

The latest US State Department Human Rights Report on North Korea (for 2011)
also contains a disclaimer that says that no one can “assess fully human rights
conditions or confirm reported abuses” in North Korea and that defector information
can be dated. The language on political prison camps in the report therefore rings a
bit tentative: the camps are attributed to reports of defectors or NGOs, which presumably
can not be confirmed.

Yet former prisoners and prison guards have regularly provided first hand accounts
of their experiences for many years. The report Hidden Gulag, issued by the Committee
for Human Rights in North Korea in 2012 and authored by David Hawk, contains the
testimonies of 60 former prisoners and guards. And the accumulated testimony often
corroborates other testimony, thereby making it factual. Sometimes the testimonies are
accompanied by drawings. Satellite photos further provide verification of the camps.

Shouldn’t a new approach be developed for dealing with human rights information
coming from those who directly experienced severe and unspeakable abuses? The
idea that international monitors have to verify each and every piece of information
through a visit to the country and its prisons sets up a gold standard of proof that would
be inapplicable to many situations. Even if a visit were ever permitted, the access allowed
would not permit the kind of verification sought. To Shin Dong-hyuk, the prisoner who
escaped Camp 14, “more and more people are dying in the camps. We cannot wait for
more tangible evidence.”

Since 2008, reputable NGOs have found the violations reported so grave as to warrant
calling upon the UN General Assembly and Security Council to investigate whether
North Korea is committing crimes against humanity. A coalition formed in 2011 of more
than 40 organizations is calling for a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against
humanity in North Korea. The UN Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has expressed
support for such a mechanism of inquiry, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
after meeting for the first time in December 2012 with Shin and other former prisoners,
has now endorsed a full fledged inquiry into the crimes reported. The UN Secretary-
General and many governments have yet to fully weigh in.

There remains a considerable gap between what the NGO's and independent experts
are calling for and what senior UN and government officials are ready to acknowledge
and act upon. The gap of course benefits North Korea. Regularly calling attention to the
lack of verifiable information in North Korea unintentionally lends support to its efforts
to hide its human rights recordparticularly the camps which are hidden away in the
mountains. It also unintentionally lends support to its claim that human rights abuses are
unfounded allegations emanating from those who betrayed their country.

Why not convene an expert meeting on the information gap? It should identify
the information that is available and the information that is lacking, ascertain which
information constitutes crimes against humanity, and decide how such information can
best be presented to and used by UN and government officials. The information could be
broken down to encompass specific issuessuch as the imprisonment of whole families
because of guilt by association, the incarceration of children in camps, and the cases
of specific prisoners about which information has come to light. Such a meeting must
address why governments and the UN haven’t yet figured out an effective way to shine a
spotlight on the prison camp systemabout which so much information has come out.

Further, it would be valuable for governments to monitor the camps via satellites and
when possible share the information with NGOs. The Committee for Human Rights
in North Korea has been adept at working with Google Earth and Digital Globe to
establish a watch over the camps, but interpretation of the information could benefit from
government expertise.

Finally, greater support is needed to get new technology into North Koreawhether
USB flash drives, phones or miniature recording devicesin order to bring
more information out. And greater support is needed for radio broadcasts, DVD's and
mobile media equipment to send information into the country. North Korea has been
making extensive efforts to restrict information into and from its country because the
more North Koreans learn about conditions in other countries, the more likely it will be
that they will seek reform of their own.