Challenges to Human Rights Information Gathering in North Korea

Editor’s Note: These remarks were 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 on November 28, 2012, London, England.

I will focus on the challenges to human rights information gathering in North Korea. But first let me begin by emphasizing the importance of unearthing information about the extent of human rights violations in North Korea. The organizations represented here today have helped bring to light extensive information about human rights in North Korea. As a result of their meticulous work, governments and the United Nations have been able to rely on this information for their own reports and policy positions on North Korea.
We have heard today that public executions may be on the decline in North Korea, in part because of international criticism. We have also heard that North Korea’s participation in the Paralympics may signal a change in policy toward the disabled. And we have heard that 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 down 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 with the escape of some 25,000 North Koreans to the South, information has become more plentiful about all aspects of human rights in North Korea. Hundreds of former prisoners and former prison guards are among the defectors and have been providing testimony about their prison experiences. And since 2003, satellite photos of the camps have helped verify the information provided by the 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 information is forthcoming — by means of new technology — from North Koreans still inside North Korea.
Nonetheless, many obstacles remain to information gathering.  Let us focus on three:
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 with them the information they bring. This year, the total number of North Koreans expected to reach the South is 1400, less than half the number who arrived last year and in many past years. 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 has been going back into North Korea. China for its part has also 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 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 discussion.    
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 can not directly assess the situation themselves, they often qualify the information they receive from defectors, sometimes even making it seem doubtful. UN High Commissioners for Human Rights for example have long pointed out that the UN can not form its own independent diagnosis of the situation because they cannot verify it directly. This may explain in part why no High Commissioner has ever issued a separate stand alone statement on North Korea’s human rights situation. There may be other reasons as well but the lack of direct access has for too long served as a handy rationale.
The US State Department Human Rights Report on North Korea for 2011 even contains a disclaimer at the end 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 been regularly providing first hand accounts of their experiences so that there is accumulated testimony, which often corroborates other testimony, 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 in 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, in his 2012 report to the UN General Assembly himself acknowledges that certain widespread or systematic imprisonment may constitute crimes against humanity and expresses support for a mechanism of inquiry.
But there still remains a substantial gap between what the NGOs 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 a 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 if 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 information out from North Korea. And greater support is needed for radio broadcasts, DVDs and mobile media equipment to send information into the country. People to people exchanges should also be encouraged to increase the information flow. North Korea has been making extensive efforts to restrict information into and from its country but it has been failing in this enterprise. The more that North Koreans learn about conditions in other countries, the more likely it will be that they will seek reform of their own.