Mass concentration camps where thousands are tortured, executed or worked to death are almost invariably associated with the Nazis and a bygone period of gross inhumanity unsurpassed ever since. Yet away from the eyes, and all to often the attention, of the international community, such camps exist at this very moment – in North Korea.
The similarities between the regimes of Kim Jong-Il and Adolf Hitler are in fact far closer than many world leaders would be comfortable to admit: even gas chambers and human experimentation have been documented by defectors. And the scale of the atrocities is almost incomprehensible: satellite photographs obtained by Amnesty International earlier this year reveal a network of camps estimated to hold as many as two hundred thousand detainees.
These people are often held for crimes that were committed by family members, sometimes before they themselves were even born. In North Korea, guilt by association is built into the oppressive legal system and falling foul of the regime is enough to condemn a family for three generations; as a consequence many of those detained are just children- forced to undertake gruelling manual labour and held in inhumane conditions. One report describes a child thrown into a tiny cell, too small to stand up or lie down in, for a period of eight months. Like the adult detainees they regularly risk starvation or freezing to death without clothes or shelter in the gruelling winters.
But despite the extent of this barbarity, governments and even major human rights organisations have been reluctant to tackle it head on. Their reasons are clear: the issue of nuclear weapons, which overshadows all dealings with North Korea; Kim Jong-Il’s proximity to China, and the diplomatic protection that brings; the difficulty of obtaining information about such a secretive state from which escape is so rare; and the overwhelming pessimism of ever achieving real progress.
Yet all of this is about to change.
Over the past week more than thirty human rights organisations have come together to form The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea. The magnitude of this is dramatic: North Korean defectors and refugees, joining with veterans of freedom struggles around the world and experienced organisations to take on the regime in an unprecedented manner.
Their first goal- to achieve a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on crimes against humanity in North Korea, is certainly an achievable one. With some twenty-two thousand North Korean refugees in South Korea alone there is a huge pool of potential evidence, even if Kim Jon-Il’s regime expectedly refuse to allow access to a UN Rapporteur. The organisations involved also have the resources to support an investigation – which owing the scale and nature of the atrocities in question would be hard for UN member states to block, even with China seeking to protect its client.
Of course many will ask what such an inquiry will actually achieve? Certainly it will not bring instant respite for the those trapped in North Korea’s modern day Birkenaus; but it will reflect an historic step forward in the struggle for human rights there. Ha Tae Keung, President of Open North Korea points out that the new coalition will ”help move human rights to centre stage in all of the international community’s interactions with North Korea” –something that will inevitably be bolstered if the Commission of Inquiry is secured. States will no longer be able to side-line the concentration camps, torture and execution as they discuss nuclear and security issues, shifting the plight of those suffering to the highest diplomatic levels.
It will also present a further obstacle to China’s appalling deportations of those who manage to cross the border. For over a decade the international community has protested against Chinese authorities returning refugees to face death or a life of torture, so far with little success. A formal Commission of Inquiry, will at least be harder to flagrantly violate, perhaps protecting some escapees from the horrors that would await their return. Even that would make it worthwhile.
Perhaps most importantly of all though; this is the start of a concerted fight-back against atrocities that the world has ignored for too long. With a leadership handover looming, and the recent illustrations that even the most entrenched regimes can come crashing down, this could be the opportune moment. Those involved in the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea have a monumental task ahead of them. They need, and deserve, all of our support.