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Reasons to Record and Remember North Korea’s Tragic Human Rights Situation
Lawyer & Chairman
Special Committee on North Korean Human Rights
National Human Rights Commission of Korea
The North Korean Human Rights Documentation Center and Archives operated by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea marked its first anniversary on March 15. Before the center`s opening, there had been scattered testimonies and record keeping on North Korean human rights violations. The center became the first state-run institution to compile individual cases amounting to criminal offenses and to document them for comprehensive and systematic management and preservation.
More than 23,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea so far. These defections, braving China`s adamant policy of forcible repatriation, clearly indicate that there are human rights problems that are more serious than food shortages in the North Korean system. Under these circumstances, the National Human Rights Commission set up the North Korean Human Rights Documentation Center and Archives to provide the legal foundation to seek punishment of violators of universal international human rights norms, thereby establishing the basic order of free democracy after reunification.
Furthermore, the archival data will be utilized as reference sources for recruiting North Korean personnel after unification, as well as evidential matter for reinstatement, retrial or damage compensation for victims and basic material for human rights education.
As early as November 1961, West Germany established the Central Registry of State Judicial Administrations in Salzgitter to verify human rights violations committed by the government of East Germany before reunification, which turned out to be quite successful. In Korea, the National Human Rights Commission, an independent and quasi-international organization, has assumed the comparable role to provide international agencies such as the United Nations with reliable data, taking significant and efficient steps toward improving the human rights situation in North Korea.
As of February 28, a total of 81 cases of human rights violations in North Korea, involving 834 individuals, have been reported to the center. All of these cases are serious enough to deeply shock human consciousness and would prompt a nationwide demand for new leadership if they happened in South Korea. Especially, human rights abuses in North Korean prisons, called kyohwaso, meaning “re-education center,” which have drawn less attention than concentration camps for political prisoners, have been found to be extremely serious.
According to the testimony of a North Korean defector, who was confined at Re-education Center No. 12, also known as Chongori Re-education Center, from the second half of 2007 to early 2010, some 3,000 inmates at the center had been forcibly deported back from China and more than 70 people died from malnutrition every month. Another defector, who was detained at Re-education Center No. 11, or Chungsan Kyohwaso, around June in 2005, said that he had carried the body of a dead prisoner on an oxcart and buried it on a bare mountain called “Flower Garden.” The corpse was numbered 3721, so the defector believed he was the 3,721st inmate to die at the prison that year.
The National Human Rights Commission finds out about brutal infringements of the basic human rights of North Korean residents and keep records on cases violating the four major international human rights treaties, to which North Korea is a signatory, particularly the “Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” which defines crimes against humanity according to international standards.
North Korea`s ruling class looks to be firmly united from the outside, but in fact they must feel very uneasy about the fate of the Kim Jong-un regime. As they fret about regime collapse, the message that the world is watching their evil deeds and documenting them would have tremendous repercussions. The impact would be even stronger than what East Germany felt about the activity of the West German registry on its human rights violations.
If the North Korean Human Rights Documentation Center and Archives produces “letters of indictment” against North Korea`s new leader, who ordered the execution of any defector during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il, and officers in charge of carrying out his orders to systematically abuse the fundamental rights of their population, the center will effectively compile historical records on brutal crimes committed by the communist regime. Thus its very existence will help reduce human rights violations in the North and send hope and comfort to victims