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North Korea: The World's Principal Violator of Responsibility to Protect

Feb 15, 2012

At the 2005 UN World Summit, the largest gathering of heads of state in history made a landmark commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.1Has North Korea (DPRK) violated this international norm, known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), to the degree that intervention is warranted? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

The Case for Genocide in North Korea

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide2 and Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court3 define genocide as five specific actions committed with "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

What is indisputable is that North Korea has employed each of the five acts characterized as genocidal through (a) executions and state-sanctioned murders, (b) the systematic use of torture, (c) state-induced mass starvation in political prison camps (and arguably elsewhere), (d) forcible abortions and infanticide, and (e) the forcible transfer and enslavement of children.4

The argument that North Korea has directed these attacks against the specific human groups protected under the Genocide Convention and Article 6 of the Rome Statute is also very strong.

Genocide on religious grounds

In 2007, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published a report based on seven years of research and written by international lawyers, which concluded that there are indicators of genocide taking place against religious groups in North Korea, specifically against Christians.5 Christian watchdogs, such as Open Doors and Release International, rate North Korea as the world's most egregious violator of religious rights.6 But North Korea's policy towards its indigenous religious population extends far beyond "persecution." Religious believers and their families to three generations—including non-religious relatives and babies still in the womb—are being exterminated.

Before the installation of the Kim Il-sung regime by the Soviets in 1945, the north was considered to be the center of Christianity in East Asia; 25-30 percent of Pyongyang's population was Christian.7 Today all traces of this once-flourishing religious community and culture have been obliterated. Recognizing the inherent threat posed by faith to totalitarian rule and the Kim cult of personality, the DPRK regime has, since its inception, committed genocide against religious believers and their families.

There are many indications of the specific intent to destroy religious groups in North Korea. Former North Korean police and security agents who were tasked specifically to identify and "eliminate" Christian groups have testified that the DPRK regime considers religion, and particularly Christianity, to be the primary threat to national security. Accordingly, the harshest punishment is meted out to forcibly repatriated North Korean refugees who have had contact with missionaries and churches in China. After their return, these refugees are brutally tortured and interrogated to find out whether or not they had any contact with religious groups.8 Those that confess to or are suspected of having met with missionaries in China or converting to Christianity are either killed or banished to concentration camps for life along with their entire families, including children, to three generations. Open Doors estimates between 50,000-70,000 Christians are imprisoned in North Korea's concentration camps today.9

The aforementioned Christian human rights organizations believe that North Korean Christians who have not been publicly executed or killed by beatings or starvation in the prison camps have in many instances been used as guinea pigs in chemical and biological weapon experiments—an allegation which is by no means new.10 North Korean refugees, including former prison camp guards who played a role in these atrocities, have been speaking out in an attempt to get the international community to pay attention for over a decade, but to no avail.11

In 2004, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, made an urgent appeal to then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to act upon reports of "political genocide" in North Korea; a call that, needless to say, went unheeded.12 The entreaty went out in the immediate aftermath of a BBC report, which included interviews with two prison camp survivors and with Kwon Hyok, a former North Korean army intelligence officer and chief guard at Prison Camp 22.13 Camp 22 is a gargantuan lifetime imprisonment camp from which no one has ever escaped, located on the northeastern tip of North Korea about 20km from the city of Hoeryong.14

Hyok drew elaborate illustrations and spoke to journalist Olenka Frenkiel in meticulous and precise detail about gas chambers in North Korea and the conducting of chemical and biological weapon experiments on political prisoners, including children in the camp divisions known as wan-jeon-tong-je-kyuk (total-control zones).15

A brief excerpt from his eyewitness account:

"I watched a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber: Parents, one son, and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying but until the very last moment they tried to save their kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing. For the first time it hit me that even prisoners are capable of powerful human affection."

When asked by Frenkiel if Hyok believed the children deserved to die such a death, Hyok frankly replied:

"It would be a total lie to say I felt sympathy for the children dying such a painful death. In the society and the regime I was under, I just felt they were enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all."16

The 2004 report, which corroborated accounts from prison camp escapees dating back to the late 1990's,17 has never been discredited, but on the contrary continues to be given credence through fresh accounts and studies conducted with North Korean refugees, over 10,000 of whom have made it to South Korea in the past eight years.18

Genocide on national, ethnical, and racial grounds

Equally compelling is the case for genocide taking place on national, ethnical, and racial grounds through North Korea's fixed policy of killing the half-Chinese babies of North Korean women who have been forcibly repatriated by China.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been forced to flee to China in order to survive famine and oppression.19 The majority of these refugees are women, 80 percent of whom have become victims of sex-trafficking or have been sold into forced marriages.20 Yet even if a North Korean woman is married to a Chinese citizen, the PRC authorities will still repatriate every North Korean refugee they can find per a 1961 treaty and a subsequent 1986 border protocol with the DPRK,21 also in flagrant contravention of its obligations under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.22 When forcibly returned, refugees suffer torture, imprisonment in camps, and even execution, as North Korea criminalizes exit from the country.23

China refouls over 5,000 North Korean refugees a year,24 a large number of whom are North Korean women that have become pregnant through rape. Once forcibly returned, these broken refugees are once again subjected to senseless and unrestrained brutality at the hands of DPRK officials for "carrying foreign sperm."25 Some North Korean refugees have stated that while in China they would always have a razor blade or arsenic on them in case they got caught by Chinese police.26 North Koreans would understandably rather commit suicide than face the cruelties of the DPRK after repatriation.

Through infanticide and forced abortions, North Korea continues to systematically and brutally exterminate the children of North Korean women believed to be fathered by non-North Koreans (usually Chinese or Chinese-Koreans). According to the U.S. State Department, "The reason given for this policy was to prevent the birth of half-Chinese children."27 The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has officially acknowledged North Korea's "continued violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, in particular the trafficking of women for prostitution or forced marriage, ethnically motivated forced abortions, including by labour inducing injection or natural delivery, as well as infanticide of children of repatriated mothers, including in police detention centres and labour training camps."28

Multiple reports over the last ten years have indicated that infanticide and forced abortions on ethnic grounds is taking place systematically in North Korea's prisons. This practice, which also constitutes "ethnic cleansing," corresponds with the DPRK's obsession with racial purity, and the intent to destroy racially "mixed" babies on ethnic grounds.29

Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea

Several legal reports, such as "Concentrations of Inhumanity" published by Freedom House in 200730 and "Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea" by DLA Piper in 2006, 31 have been able to pronounce definitively that North Korea has and is actively committing crimes against humanity as defined in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 32 through its treatment of political prisoners and its exploitative and discriminatory food policy, which has been the primary cause of millions of deaths.

With the possible exception of apartheid, every act defined as a crime against humanity is being committed on a systematic level in North Korea's political prison camps.33 Amnesty International released a report and satellite images in May of 2011 which showed that the camps have grown dramatically over the past ten years, warning that "As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability… the prison camps appear to be growing in size."34


Following the death of Kim Jong-il, the DPRK regime under Kim Jong-un has vowed to continue the late Kim's genocidal policies. Officials have declared that they will carry out "immediate executions when people are caught trying to cross the borders" and will hunt down, imprison, and kill three generations of family members left behind by North Koreans who attempt to flee the country, whether successful or not. A South Korean official told the Seoul newspaper, Joongang Ilbo, "there was nothing like the eradication of three generations in the Kim Jong-il era, but now it's happening under Kim Jong-un."35

"Consolidating power" for a criminal and genocidal state such as the DPRK can only mean mass purges, arbitrary arrests, and terrorizing the population into absolute submission. It happened under Kim Jong-il and it is happening now under Kim Jong-un.36 We must never forget that immediately after Kim Jong-il came to power in 1994, there began the famine known as the "arduous march." Estimates are that from a population of approximately 22 million, between 2 million and 3.5 million people died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses.37 In spite of one of the largest international aid efforts in modern history,38 more innocent people died in this 1994–98 famine-genocide than in the 1994 Rwandan and Darfur genocides combined. Today, 15 years later, a devastating man-made famine rages on in North Korea, which cannot be stopped save by the intervention of the international community. North Korea has systematically starved political prisoners in its prison camps since its inception in 1945. The DPRK authorities are unrivalled masters at leveraging access to food as a means to their main political end: to keep the entire North Korean population under slavery.

According to the Responsibility to Protect norm, the international community has an obligation to intervene when a given state manifestly fails to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, or is the actual perpetrator of these crimes, first by "appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means" and then by force, if necessary.39

As a genocidal government of the first order, North Korea is incontrovertibly in the category of state perpetrator and is manifestly demonstrating this "failure to protect." It is high time for the international community to act in North Korea.

It is noteworthy that the reputable Genocide Watch, an international NGO which "exists to predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide" and whose board of advisors includes many admirable anti-genocide activists such as Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Samantha Power (special assistant to President Obama and head of the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights), published a report on December 19, 2011, which found conclusively that North Korea has indeed committed genocide as defined in Raphael Lemkin's 1948 Convention, stating that "Genocide Watch has ample proof that genocide has been committed and mass killing is still underway in North Korea."40


1 Paragraphs 138-139 of the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome Document, at

2 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, at

3 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 6, at

4 "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK," Vitit Muntarbhorn, February 17, 2010, at

5 "North Korea - Case to Answer - A Call to Act 20/06/2007," Christian Solidarity Worldwide, at

6 "North Korea Ranked Worst Persecutor of Christians for Tenth Straight Year," Ginny McCabe, January 10, 2012, at

7 "North Korea's Missionary Position," Andrei Lankov, Asia Times, March 16, 2005, at

8 "A Prison Without Bars: Refugee and Defector Testimonies of Severe Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea," United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, April 15, 2008, at

9 "50,000~70,000 North Korean Christians Detained in Gulags," Kim So Young, Daily NK, August 16, 2006, at

10 "Revealed: the gas chamber horror of North Korea's gulag," Antony Barnett, The Guardian, February 1, 2004, at

11 "Former guard: Ahn Myong Chol," MSNBC, January 15, 2003, at

12 "Yad Vashem Reacts to Gas Chambers in North Korea," Yad Vashem, February 3, 2004, at

13 "Auschwitz Under Our Noses," Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post, February 4, 2004, at

14 "No.22 Prison Camp, Hoeryong, DPRK,", at

15 "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps" David Hawk, U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, October 22, 2003, at

16 "Access to Evil," BBC, February 1, 2004, at

17 Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee, June 21, 2002, at

18 "N. Korea tests weapons on children," Steve Chao, Al Jazeera, July 24, 2009, at

19 "Saving North Korea's Refugees," Nicholas Eberstadt and Christopher Griffin, The New York Times, February 19, 2007, at

20 "International Protest to Save North Korean Refugees 2011," Suzanne Scholte, North Korea Freedom Coalition, at

21 "North Korean Refugees in China," 2005 Annual Report, Congressional-Executive Commission on China, at

22 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, at

23 2010 Human Rights Report: Democratic People's Republic of Korea, U.S. Department of State, April 8, 2011, at

24 "North Korea cracking down on defectors in wake of Kim Jong-il's death," Jung Ha Won, Agence France-Presse, December 26, 2011, at

25 "N. Koreans Talk of Baby Killings," James Brooke, The New York Times, June10, 2012, at

26 "North Korea Refugees," Lucky Severson, PBS, January 6, 2012, at

27 "Korea, Democratic People's Republic of," U.S. Department of State, February 8, 2005, at

28 UN Resolution 2005/11, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at

29 "Nation under a nuclear cloud: 'Racially impure' children killed," Michael Sheridan, The Sunday Times, October 15, 2006, at

30 "Concentrations of Inhumanity," David Hawk, Freedom House, May 21, 2007, at

31 "Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea," DLA Piper, October 30, 2006, at

32 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, at

33 "Summary and Analysis of the North Korea Witness on the Crimes against Humanity in North Korea," Daily NK, 2006, at

34 "Images reveal scale of North Korean political prison camps." Amnesty International, May 3, 2011, at

35 "North Korea's Kim Jong Un wages defector crackdown," John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2012, at

36 "North Korea warns policies will not change," Christian Oliver and Kang Buseong, Financial Times, December 30, 2011, at

37 "The Politics of Famine in North Korea," Andrew Natsios, 1999, United States Institute of Peace, at

38 "Feeding the Dictator," Fiona Terry, The Guardian, August 6, 2001, at

39 Paragraphs 138-139 of the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome Document, at

40 "Genocide and Politicide Alert: North Korea," Hye-won Kim, Genocide Watch, December 19, 2011, at

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