Monday, November 24, 2014

North Korea dictatorship goes nuclear after UN presses for criminal court

How has North Korea reacted to a historic United Nations vote to begin the process to refer its leadership to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity?

By threatening nuclear strikes on the US, Japan, South Korea and all US "followers". In other words, by offering to commit further crimes against humanity.

"It would be funny if it were not so serious," says the man who gathered the evidence for the case, Australia's Michael Kirby.

"You should always take seriously threats by someone in charge of a nation state, especially if they have possession of a reported 20 nuclear weapons," Kirby tells me.


But, tellingly, North Korea seems more frightened by Kirby's report and the consequences than any of its target countries are by its threat of "unimaginable and catastrophic consequences."

Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, aged approximately 30, has done everything possible to stop Kirby's report and to avoid its consequences.

Under a UN mandate, Kirby chaired a year-long inquiry into human rights abuses in the dictatorship.

North Korea has been repressing its people brutally and systematically under all three generations of the Kim family dynasty since they first took power in 1948.

Yet, believe it or not, this was the first time the UN has taken the problem seriously enough to order an official inquiry.

Pyongyang refused to co-operate so the former High Court judge and his two fellow commissioners, one from Indonesia and the other from Serbia, travelled to various countries and took evidence from about 80 North Korean escapees and expert witnesses.

Their findings? "The commission finds that the body of testimony and other information it received establishes that crimes against humanity have been committed" in North Korea, said the report published in February. 

"These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."

They specifically named as a "main perpetrator" the supreme leader himself.

Pyongyang furiously denounced the report as a "fraud" and a tactic of "the frantic human rights racket" and labelled the witnesses who had come forth as "human scum." But all the testimony, given in public, is now on the public record, on the UN website, for all to see.

Like the story of Jee Heon-a, who was arrested during the government-induced famine in 1999 for the crime of collecting grass to eat.

Together with a younger girl who was caught with her, her punishment was to be forced to eat clods of grass covered in soil. The other girl was immediately gripped by diarrhoea, she said: "Suddenly she couldn't get up or turn over. She died with her eyes open because she didn't have the strength to close them."

Jee also told of how she witnessed a mother giving birth in a prison camp and being forced by guards to drown her own baby in a bucket of water. Jee eventually managed to flee to South Korea.

Or the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, an escapee thought to be the only person to escape alive from Camp 14. Shin was born in the camp. He told of the seven-year-old girl in his class who was beaten to death by guards for pocketing five grains of wheat.

Shin had been encouraged to inform on his family. He said he was proud of himself at the age of 14 when he reported his mother and brother for planning to escape.

"My older brother was publicly executed and my mother and brother were hanged in front of me and my father." Now 31, Shin says he thinks he misunderstood his mother's conversation and that there was no escape plan.

"These are systemic, grave and violent crimes against humanity, the sorts of crimes the Nazis committed," Kirby says.

When the UN committee for human rights decided to put the Kirby report to a vote so it could go to the UN General Assembly and then to the UN Security Council for possible referral to the International Criminal Court, North Korea launched into the next phase.

It went on a charm offensive. In an effort to head off the vote, the Kim regime freed three American citizens it had had been holding in jail. It signalled that it was open to discussing its nuclear program with the US. And so on.

But last week the UN human rights committee cast a strong vote to refer the Kirby report to the UN general assembly, by 111 votes to 19 with 55 abstentions.

This sent Pyongyang into its fury phase. It said the vote compelled it to conduct another nuclear weapons test, which would be its fourth, and threatened nuclear attack on the US and its allies.

Why is Pyongyang so afraid? Even if the report goes to the UN Security Council, even if North Korea's traditional protectors China and Russia decide not to exercise their veto, even if it is referred to the International Criminal Court, the chance of ever getting Kim into the dock at the Hague must be a very small one. The country already labours under a raft of international sanctions.

"I think the regime is genuinely shocked," says Kirby. "North Korea is not used to being the issue, and sailing under the radar. Those days are over. The international community has had enough."

As the matter goes to the full General Assemby and then the Security Council in the days ahead, we will find out whether that it true.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor SMH

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