New Spotlight on North Korea’s Horrors

by Marco Rubio
A U.N report exposes gulags and systematic torture going back decades.

This week, Australian justice Michael Kirby, who led the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, is briefing members of the U.N. Security Council regarding the widespread atrocities being committed on a daily basis against innocent people by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Given Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and other global challenges, the report of this U.N. commission has not received the attention it deserves.

Under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean regime routinely engages in torture, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate disappearances, starvation, and executions. North Koreans who pay insufficient homage to the country’s deceased founder, Kim Il Sung, can be sent to prison along with their families. Prisoners are often subjected to human experiments, denied food, and essentially worked to death in North Korea’s network of infamous prison camps.

Pyongyang continues to isolate itself and its people from the rest of the world. There is no freedom of the press or access to the Internet. If you are one of the “lucky elite” in North Korea to have access to a radio, the simple act of tuning your dial to a foreign broadcast could result in your imprisonment or even execution. Similarly, there is no freedom of religion, and members of North Korea’s dwindling community of Christians face significant persecution.

The horrific, systematic violations of human rights in North Korea have been going on for many years. And for far too long, these abuses have taken a back seat to international concerns about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and other provocative behavior. Publicly and frequently documenting the widespread abuses and mistreatment of the North Korean people is an important step toward change and a potential deterrent to other would-be human-rights abusers.

This is exactly what the three-member United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea did with their report, after spending a year looking into the North Koreans’ plight. During hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, the commission heard firsthand accounts from individuals who fled torture and inhumane conditions in North Korea. Some of them will join Justice Kirby in briefing Security Council members this week.

Their report concludes that crimes against humanity were committed in North Korea over a multi-decade period “pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state.”

North Korea, unsurprisingly, refused to cooperate with the COI investigation. Many countries in the region did support the commission — with the important exception of China, which refused to grant the commission access to its territory, raising concerns about Beijing’s ongoing support for Pyongyang.

Yet despite these attempts to withhold access, more information about the brutality of the Kim regime is emerging, as North Korean defectors courageously share their personal stories of deprivation and, ultimately, survival. I was honored to be able to meet with a number of North Korean defectors on a trip to South Korea earlier this year and to hear their stories firsthand. They told me that it is important to recognize that exposing the regime’s heinous crimes against humanity as often and as publicly as possible is one of our most powerful tools against the continued brutality of the North Korean regime.

I am under no illusion that this commission will profoundly alter the present-day horrific human-rights situation for the long-suffering North Korean people. But I do believe that the work of the Commission of Inquiry will raise — and, indeed, already has raised — public consciousness about the deplorable plight of the North Korean people.

When we look back at the Holocaust and the murders of millions of innocents in Europe during World War II, many ask why we didn’t do more to stop those atrocities until it was too late for so many who did not survive to see the day the camps were liberated. Some hide behind supposed lack of knowledge, but in this day and age, we have no excuse. Anyone with an Internet connection can use Google Earth to view the modern-day gulags in North Korea.

It is time for the United States and for all who cherish freedom to make it our common cause to pressure the regime to open these camps for international inspection and to make clear that those involved in these horrific crimes will one day be held accountable.

— Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.