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About North Korea: 'We Can't Say We Didn't Know' -- So Will China Continue to Block Defectors?

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Murder, enslavement, torture, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, deliberate starvation and political prison camps are just a few of the "unspeakable atrocities" cataloged in an unprecedented U.N. report on North Korea.

In short, you can control 25 million people if you kill, maim and imprison enough (like 100,000) of them. And if your neighbor, in this case China, cuts off escape routes.

There have been brief UN reports on the DPRK, the Democratic Republic of (North) Korea, nearly every year. But none is as extensive as the new 400-page investigation with supporting documents and interviews by a Commission of Inquiry. (see text)

The probe, mandated by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, took a year to complete with public hearings by defectors in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.

Chief investigator Michael Kirby, an Australian jurist, even warned the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself that he could face international justice for crimes against humanity, according to a January 20 letter attached to the report.

No Parallels in Contemporary World

"The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the report said. There was "a systematic and widespread attack against all populations that are considered to pose a threat to the political system and leadership."

"These are not the occasional wrongs that can be done by officials everywhere in the world. They are wrongs against humanity. They are wrongs that shock the consciousness of humanity," Kirby said. (See news conference)

"Now is a time for action. We can't say we didn't know," Kirby said.

North Korea's mission in Geneva rejected the report in a two-page statement, saying it was an attempt to dislodge the government under the pretext of human rights. The report was an "instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system" and defaming the country, Reuters reported.

To the ICC?

The report recommended that the UN Security Council refer the case to the International Criminal Court. Alternatively, the 15-nation Council could create a tribunal as it did for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But with China having veto power on the Council, this appears unlikely.

The report also says that the 193-member UN General Assembly, which has no veto, could set up an ad hoc tribunal operated by a set of willing countries, although this would have limited enforcement powers.

China Holds North Korea Together

China, which delivers fuel to North Korea and a good deal of its food and other supplies, fears chaos on its border if the regime collapses. And further down the road there could be reunification with the South and American troops on its frontier (again).

China, in the report, was accused of forced repatriation (refoulement) of migrants and defectors, who were then imprisoned, tortured or killed, subject to forced abortions or having their "mixed race" children murdered. Women in particular are often forcibly married to Chinese men or trafficked.

The Commission of Inquiry estimated that there are 10,000 to 25,000 children born of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. "The status of most of these children appears to be effectively stateless, as the Chinese families have been discouraged from registering such children because of the illegal status of their mothers," it said.

And the Commission said that North Korean agents "appear to be operating on Chinese territory and attempting to gather information about DPRK citizens and persons supporting them" and even resorted to abduction.

In a letter to Chinese diplomats in Geneva, included in the report, Kirby said that handing defectors back to North Korea could be considered "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity."

Beijing's ambassador in Geneva, Wu Haitao, repeated China's contention that the defectors were not seeking political asylum but entered illegally for economic reasons and some were engaged in theft and robbery. He said that some North Koreans enter China several times, proof that torture is "not true" when they are repatriated. Wu's letter is included in an annex to the report.

China has, however, imposed some sanctions against North Korea, for its nuclear weapons as has the UN Security Council.

But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that "By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation."

So will anything happen?

One example of the testimonies: A former guard in a prison for political prisoners told the commission, "Inmates...are never meant to be released... They are supposed to die in the camp from hard labor. And we were trained to think that those inmates are enemies. So we didn't perceive them as human beings."

The depravity is difficult to ignore and will certainly isolate North Korea further. But any real pressure will have to come from China.

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North Korean defector sketched "stress position" and torture in prison camp (UN report photo).