Tales from North Korean defectors have for years offered small glimpses into the brutal circumstances inside Pyonyang's prison camps. While information about the nature and scope of these abuses is sparse, enough stories have leaked from the air-tight regime to make it clear that the regime is abusing its citizens.
But only this week, for the first time in history, has the international community responded with a formal United Nations investigation into the abuses. A UN Commission of Inquiry is officially hearing testimony from victims this week. And, while its findings of widespread abuse may not be surprising and options for meaningful response to stop the abuses are slim, the platform offers a step in the right direction as a rare stage to put a spotlight on the abuse.
Initial testimony from regime defectors recounting their experiences is already horrific. Tales of the brutality reveal that even the most vulnerable citizens of North Korea have been the victims of horrifying repression. One survivor, Shin Dong-hyuk, told the United Nations Commission that he saw a 7-year-old girl clubbed death for "stealing a few grains of wheat." He said he himself felt lucky when the tip of his finger was cut off, rather than his life extinguished, for damaging a piece of sewing equipment in a labor camp.
A female North Korean, Jee Heon-a, testified that women in particular have been brutalized and sexually exploited, some suffering forced miscarriages through beatings "and other forms of torture" from guards at detention facilities. In another harrowing example of the brutality, she recounted a gruesome tale in which a woman was forced to drown her own baby.
"We toiled as bid and ate what they gave us, we took their beating and starved when they didn't give us anything," said Shin, who escaped in 2005. "We were expendables they were keeping as beasts of labor, to get the most out of us before we die."
The United Nations Commission was given a special, one-year mandate to investigate "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights," including possible crimes against humanity by the North Korean authorities. This is a big step, at least symbolically, for the United Nations. The international organization has been accused of bias in its dealings with human rights issues and turning a blind eye on North Korea. The International Criminal Court, for example, tasked with addressing instances of the worst human rights abuses (or "crimes against humanity") has exclusively dealt with cases on the African continent. A new focus on the Asian state is thus an important expansion of the international community's attention to crimes of this magnitude.
Despite the North Korean regime's painstaking efforts to maintain an air-tight grip on brutal tactics and ban its citizens from exiting the country, those testifying are a few of the handful of defectors who have escaped, most through Northeastern provinces in bordering China. A number of these survivors have already been able to publicly broadcast their stories to a fairly wide international audience (including this famous TED Talk by young female defector Hyeonseo Lee). But comprehensive images, statistics, and other complete details about the nature and scope of abuses have still been difficult to come by. One South Korean research agency estimates as many as 120,000 political prisoners have been incarcerated in North Korea in an estimated five prison camps since the brutal regime has taken hold.
The UN commission is a rare and important platform to address the issue. It took far too long for the international organization to give these North Koreans a voice. New testimony may help establish more credible and comprehensive figures on the nature and scope of these abuses with the help of this new testimony. But what is truly extraordinary about the commission is not the new information that will come to light, but the symbolic power the United Nations platform can provide.
Still, the commission primarily offers to highlight, rather than address abuses. The real challenge will be moving beyond this inquiry stage and toward action to alleviate North Koreans' suffering. The international community has not been able to find viable solutions to pressure the regime, marked by complex political factors darkened by the rogue regime's nuclear programs. Hope for international consensus on a meaningful strategy to address these abuses looks grim. But this week's testimony offering a rare microphone to victims is a good start.