What to do now about the most closed country in the world
by Fiona Bruce and Benedict Rogers
Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton and Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Last month, the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission launched a new report, titled – appropriately – Unparalleled and Unspeakable: North Korea’s Crimes Against Humanity. The report is the result of an inquiry held by the Commission, involving three public hearings in Parliament at which we heard evidence from North Korean defectors, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, as well as experts such as Lord Alton of Liverpool, who has pioneered a campaign on North Korean human rights in Parliament for the past decade, visited the country four times, written a superb book, Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea?, and chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. We also took into account the historic, comprehensive and chilling report of the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, and the remarks of its excellent chair, Australian judge Justice Michael Kirby, who compared the human rights crisis in North Korea with the Holocaust.
Our Commission has produced a range of recommendations. We believe the situation in North Korea is so appalling that we need to use every tool available to us. North Korea is, without doubt, the most closed country in the world, and one of the worst human rights abusers. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea has described it as sui generis – in its own category. The North Korean regime is, arguably, in breach of every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that a wide array of crimes against humanity, arising from “policies established at the highest level of State,” have been committed and are continuing, entailing “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”. The 400-page report, based on extensive first-hand testimony from victims and witnesses, documents what it describes as “unspeakable atrocities” and concludes that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. Those words gave rise to the title of our report.
Crimes against humanity simply cannot go unchallenged. That is why, firstly, Justice Michael Kirby’s inquiry recommends a referral to the International Criminal Court, and our Commission strongly supports this. There is an urgent need to end impunity and hold the perpetrators of such atrocities to account.
Secondly, and perhaps equally urgently, there is a need to break the information blockade that the regime has erected around North Korea. To bring about change, we need to flood North Korea with information about the outside world, to change mindsets and counter the regime’s propaganda. Our report presents a number of ideas, such as funding the distribution of DVDs, USB sticks and other means of distributing information into North Korea across the border from China. Brave activists are already doing this, and they deserve our full support. But in this country, we have a tool that we are not yet using, which we should deploy. We used it to great effect in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and more recently, for example, in Burma.
That tool is the BBC World Service. Our report details the case for a BBC World Service radio broadcast, in Korean and perhaps English too, to the Korean Peninsula, north and south. The case is made in even more depth in an excellent report by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea and, more recently, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, said these words: “I would like to lend my support to the effort to bring the BBC World Service to North Korea. I believe the interests of the people of North Korea and the rest of the world are best served by opening North Korea to information from the outside. The BBC World Service could clearly play an important role in that process.” It just needs the go-ahead from the Foreign Secretary and it could make a major difference.
Thirdly, we believe that the British Government needs to engage much more actively with North Korean refugees living in the United Kingdom. Outside South Korea and China, the UK has the largest number of North Korean refugees. We should be engaging with them to learn from their knowledge of their country, and to invest in equipping and developing them as the leaders of tomorrow. We should be supporting the development of a democracy movement among the diaspora, because within North Korea there is absolutely no space for civil society or organised democratic opposition, but around the world, a movement is growing among exiles.
Fourthly, we should press China much more vigorously to end its abhorrent policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, sending them back to a dire fate, and use every means available to impress on China the need to abide by its international responsibilities.
The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report contains other recommendations as well, many of which were highlighted in a House of Commons debate, tabled by Andrew Selous, held on the same day as the report’s release, and some of which were set out on this site a year ago. The Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, has given North Korea more attention than his predecessors and has demonstrated recognition of the gravity of the situation.
Momentum is finally growing. More Parliamentarians are engaging with this subject, and a new grassroots campaign, the North Korea Campaign UK, has been launched. Organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch and the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea continue to keep up the pressure. A major new book, Dear Leader, published earlier this month by a defector from North Korea who had once been Kim Jong-il’s Poet Laureate and propagandist, will help bring new attention. This book, along with Blaine Harden’s story of Shin Dong-hyuk, Escape from Camp 14, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, should be required reading.
But a further step-change is needed. The world’s worst human rights crisis requires a much greater sense of urgency and deserves to be given a higher priority at the very highest levels of government. We hope our report may contribute to ensuring that step-change, and to ending the existence of a system that resembles 1984, in 2014.