Beijing: Systematic torture, deliberate starvation, rape and other human rights abuses carried out by North Korean authorities have been catalogued in unprecedented detail in a new United Nations report, but a push for leader Kim Jong-un to face prosecution by an international tribunal is likely to be vetoed by China, the regime’s closest political ally and trade partner.
The panel’s recommendation for the UN to refer the report to the International Criminal Court threatens to put Beijing in an awkward diplomatic position. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has the right to a veto, which China indicated it would likely exercise.
“Our relevant position is clear-cut on this: issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing.
“To submit this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in one country.”
The exhaustive report, prepared by a UN Human Rights Council panel chaired by retired Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby, is seen by rights activists as a milestone in international debate on the reclusive and secretive regime. It has also prompted renewed attention in China’s role in sustaining the North Korean regime through its close economic relationship and direct aid.
The 400-page report relied on testimony from more than 320 witnesses, including former inmates of North Korea’s notorious political prison camps, where as many as 120,000 people are currently being held.
It estimated that hundreds of thousands of people had died in the camps over the past decades, citing “deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide”.
At a press conference to launch the report in Geneva, Mr Kirby said there were “many parallels” between the evidence he had heard and the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
But the international community could not say they did not appreciate the true extent of the crimes, as happened with the Nazis.
“There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know,” Mr Kirby said. “It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”
Despite their close ties, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been stretched since Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power in late 2011, with China sharing global concerns over the North’s cavalier attitude to testing its nuclear weapons.
Beijing also received no prior warning before the December arrest and execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, widely seen as China’s chief conduit into the North Korean regime, and a strong promoter of the free trade zones being set up along their shared border.
Leonid Petrov, a researcher at the Australian National University, said China would continue to express public support but would be “revisiting its North Korea policy” given its strained ties. . “China would like to see North Korea survive, but in its current state North Korea’s survival is in jeopardy politically, economically [and] morally,” Dr Petrov said.
Despite likely persecution awaiting those who are caught tyring to defect, China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans caught crossing the border illegally.
In a written response to the Human Rights Council’s inquiry, Wu Haitao, the Ambassador to the UN office in Geneva, said China had repeatedly made clear that its position on North Korean defectors who cross the border into China was that they did so illegally for “economic reasons”.
“Therefore they are not refugees. Their illegal entry not only violates Chinese laws but also undermines China’s border control.”
Mr Wu said NGOs and religious groups from South Korea engage in the smuggling of North Korean citizens “under the pretext of humanitarism”.
“China firmly opposes any attempt to make this issue a refugee one and to internationalise and politicise the issue.”