For the first time, North Korea’s record on human rights has been placed on the agenda for discussion at the United Nations Security Council. The nuclear-status nation is led by capricious 31-year-old Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, whose mood swings and rages are legend both in the country and abroad.
Until now, the Council has focused primarily on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear activities and the threat they pose. In response to its violations of UN mandates nixing nuclear and ballistic tests, the Council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang that have caused severe economic hardship, but as is the case with Iran have not persuaded the country’s regime to change course.
Ultimately, the Council may consider whether or not to hold the North Korean government responsible for its alleged crimes against humanity.
The United States called Pyongyang a “living nightmare” for North Korean citizens at the first meeting held by the Council, held Monday despite an initial attempt from China to block it. The meeting opened with a procedural raised-hand vote that showed 11 of the 15 Council members supported placing the issue of North Korea’s human rights record on the agenda. China and Russia voted against; Chad and Nigeria abstained.
Testimony was compiled from North Korean exiles by a UN commission of inquiry that left no doubt as to the brutality of the country’s regime, according to U.S. envoy Samantha Power. The unprecedented talks included review of testimony from a former prison camp survivor who told of picking kernels of corn from cattle dung to stave off starvation. A former guard testified about prison wardens who routinely raped their prisoners.
In February 2014, an investigation by the United Nations found that up to 120,000 people are being held in North Korean prison camps. The report also detailed numerous cases of summary executions, torture and rape, leading the inquiry to conclude that North Korea was committing human rights violations “without parallel in the contemporary world,” ordered at the highest level of the state.
No decision was taken on Monday in response to a call to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But three of the five permanent members of the Council – the U.S., Britain and France – as well as Australia and others, said the Council should consider action on the issue.
“Rarely has such an extensive charge sheet of international crimes been brought to the Council’s attention,” said UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic.