During the six-decade rule of the despotic Kim family, North Korea has violated most international norms in the treatment of its citizens. Consequently, no one is shocked by scattered reports about how the regime uses mass incarceration, starvation, and capital punishment to maintain its grip on power.
As a Stalinist state incapable of feeding itself without global aid, North Korea tries to exercise control over every aspect of the public and private lives of its citizens. Every sign of defiance or deviation is dealt with swiftly, before it can flower into mass dissent that could topple the regime. This is a depressingly familiar story, as long-time North Korea watchers will attest.
Still, a report released this week by United Nations investigators about the scope of the crimes of Kim Jong Un’s regime offers a devastating reminder that no matter how bad you believe a despot to be, the reality is often worse.
The Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea collected testimony from defectors, eyewitnesses, prison camp escapees, refugees, and others in a position to know about the regime’s abuses firsthand.
An estimated 120,000 prisoners sit in North Korean gulags and prison camps, but not much was known about the torture and abuse that many of them undergo daily until the testimony of former prisoners brought these conditions to light. The world now has a better idea of the extent to which the regime uses rape, starvation, and other crimes against humanity to maintain power.
Kim Jong Un is on notice that he could be held responsible by an international criminal court for the excesses of his regime, although China has indicated it won’t go along with that. China is North Korea’s most important neighbor and ally, and a guaranteed veto against collective U.N. action to punish Pyongyang.
Still, it is better to have a record of North Korea’s atrocities, so that future deniability by the international community isn’t possible. The world is approaching the point at which allowing North Korea to continue down its murderous path with Western aid will be an indictment of other nations as well.