Editorial: UN pinpoints human suffering in North Korea

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
‘Too many times in this building, there are reports and no action. Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.” Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge who headed a United Nations panel that investigated human rights abuses in North Korea, spoke those words last week when he released his commission’s findings.

Kirby’s three brief sentences nailed a couple of key points and raised a hard-to-answer question.

First, he rightly noted that too many UN-backed reports over the years documented injustices around the globe, then gathered dust. He also correctly noted that, after spending a year holding public interviews with those who have escaped and survived North Korea’s prison camps and other brutalities, the outside world can no longer simply say, as Kirby put it, that “we didn’t know” what was going on in that isolated country.

The U.N. panel’s report on the North Korean leadership’s use of torture, enslavement, murder and rape did what many investigative reports fail to do: It broke new ground by broadening the scope of concerns about Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Until now, most of the criticism of North Korea has centered around worries and warnings about its weapons programs. Kirby’s commission made the case that the leadership has committed grave, widespread human rights violations and should be held accountable. Based on the evidence it examined, the panel said, North Korea’s behavior rises to the level of crimes against humanity — and, as Kirby said, it’s “time for action.”

That’s where those tough questions come up. What action? By whom? To what end?

To its credit, the commission at least did more than lament the suffering in North Korea and express outrage. It suggested specific next steps: It recommended that the UN Security Council refer its findings to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

It also recommended that the UN continue and extend its human rights monitoring of North Korea, and that it establish a structure for accountability.

Given China’s powerful role as North Korea’s ally and defender — and its veto power as a member of the UN Security Council — it’s entirely possible that even those proposals will come to nothing.

So here’s the bottom line: North Korea isn’t going to voluntarily reform itself, nor is any other country willing or able to single-handedly force that reform.

That leaves the United Nations — often-maligned, and often ineffective as it is — to carry the ball.

The Kirby commission deserves credit for having shed light on North Korea’s hidden crimes, and for pointing out a path ahead.

Now it’s up to the U.S. and other Security Council members to insist on and support the needed follow-through.