Decades after the construction of city-sized gulags, it appears that the world’s attention may finally be focusing on human rights abuses in North Korea. Predictably, after North Korea’s latest statements on the probability of a nuclear test in the near future, the spotlight is back on the regime. In the past, boisterous proclamations about their nuclear program elicited attention solely on the program. This time, however, “citizen journalists” and Google Maps contributors have shifted the focus to the fate of citizens of North Korea, not just their government, becoming the latest push to expose the country’s miserable human rights record.
Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed advocating for increased engagement with North Korea over its human rights abuses:
Abuses are so widespread and severe that the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, described the country as “sui generis — in a category of its own.” He called on the United Nations to take up the case “at the pinnacle of the system” and urged the international community to “mobilize the totality of the U.N. to … support processes which concretize responsibility and an end to impunity.” Until very recently, his calls fell on deaf ears.
Momentum is now gathering pace, however, for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea. For the first time, factors favorable to achieving this have come together, providing a window of opportunity. But that window is narrow.
The current composition of the U.N. Human Rights Council means that such a proposal, at the approaching session in March, stands a good chance of being passed. So it is now a matter of leadership and initiative. A government, or a group of governments, most likely from Europe but with strong backing from Japan, South Korea and the United States, needs to respond to the challenge and put forward a recommendation.
Last week I discussed the possibility that North Korea’s newfound belligerence is due to its desire to secure more international aid amidst a famine. Thanks to “citizen journalists” recruited inside the reclusive nation, more details are coming to light about the famine and reported instances of cannibalism:
The grim suggestion that North Koreans are turning to cannibalism were reported by the Asia Press, and published in the Sunday Times.
They claim a ‘hidden famine’ in the farming provinces of North and South Hwanghae has killed 10,000 people, and there are fears that cannibalism is spreading throughout the country.
The reports come as sanctions are tightened against the backdrop of angry rhetoric over missile testing.
In one particularly disturbing report, a man was said to have dug up his grandchild’s corpse. Other lurid reports included the suggestion that some men boiled their children before eating them.
Asia Press is a specialist news agency based in Osaka, Japan, which claims to have recruited a network of “citizen journalists” inside North Korea. The reports are considered credible.
Today Google Maps added numerous North Korean locations for the first time, making the existence of several city-sized gulags accessible anyone with an internet connection (that includes only several hundred North Koreans, most of whom who have no access to the Internet as we know it). While the information has been available on Google Earth for some time, this is the first time that the more widely used Google Maps application will feature information on the most closed-off country in the world.
With a nuclear test close on the horizon, North Korea is drawing the world’s attention to its nuclear capabilities, but Kim Jong-un and his associates may want to be careful what they wish for. Increasingly that attention isn’t just focusing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but also its human rights abuses–which just became a bit more difficult to hide.