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North Korea: Do You Hear the People Sing?

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If you have been to see Les Miserables, you may remember more than the tunes. Perhaps the lyrics of some of the songs have stayed in your head? Perhaps the opening scene, of prison slave labour, remains in your mind? Perhaps the chilling, relentless, heartless attitude of Javert, the prison guard and policeman, made an impression?

If you took more away from the film than some good melodies to hum, you might ask yourself the question: is there any relevance of the story from nineteenth century France to today's world. The answer is yes there is.

There are a wide range of contemporary situations which have much in common with the opening scenes of Les Miserables. You could name Burma, Zimbabwe, China, Iran, Eritrea, Cuba for a start. But I want to focus on the world's most oppressed, most closed and most enslaved state, North Korea. Watch this video to see why.

Over 200,000 people are trapped in a network of prison camps, akin to Stalin's gulags, where they are tortured, beaten and used for forced labour on a daily basis. Sexual violence is commonplace; executions are not unusual . The conditions in the camps are dire - and people are forced to forage for food to supplement their appalling rations, or face starvation. They end up eating rats and sifting through faeces to find kernels of corn to survive.

North Korea is ruled by the only dictatorship in the world that is both a dynasty and, in its own propaganda, a deity. If you worship anything other than the Kim family, you end up in one of the prison camps, or kwan-li-so. If you are suspected of not showing the Kim family enough respect, or are disloyal, you go the same way. Society is divided into political classes , as divisive as South Africa's apartheid system or India's caste system. If you're in the wrong political class, your chances of a job, medical care or food rations are slim.

Given that the country is so closed, and that it is impossible for human rights monitors to conduct research on the ground, how do we know these things? Over recent years, thousands of North Koreans have escaped from the country, and ended up in South Korea, Europe or the United States. Several have told their stories, including a few who survived the gulags. They have testified at the British Parliament, the European Parliament, the US Congress and the UN . Their stories corroborate others. Several human rights organisations, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, have documented escapees' testimonies and produced detailed reports. So although North Korea is closed, no one can say 'we didn't know'.

For these reasons, the time has come for the UN to hold an international commission of inquiry, to examine the evidence and assess what it means in terms of international law. The violations are so grave that it is likely they amount to crimes against humanity, something an inquiry is needed to determine.

Calls for the establishment of a commission of inquiry are growing. In 2007, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published a report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, endorsed by the well-respected human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC. In 2011, over 40 human rights organisations from around the world, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and CSW, came together to form the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), with the specific goal of achieving the creation of a UN inquiry. Leading international expert on human rights law, Professor William Schabas, and the former chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, gave the idea backing early on.

Late last year, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, proposed an inquiry, describing North Korea's human rights abuses as "egregious". His predecessor, Vitit Muntarbhorn, had described North Korea as "sui generis - in a category of its own". He called on the UN to consider whether this question should be "taken up ... at the pinnacle of the system," mobilising "the totality of the United Nations to ... support processes which concretise responsibility and an end to impunity."

At the end of last year, a letter was sent by 179 North Korean escapees to foreign ministers of a number of countries, urging them to back an inquiry. Earlier this month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, gave the gathering momentum a welcome boost with a statement which described North Korea's record as "deplorable" and recommended an "in-depth inquiry" which is, in her words, "not only fully justified, but long overdue". Within the last few days, two governments, Japan and Australia , have officially called for an inquiry. The cork is out of the bottle, and it is now a question of other countries - the United Kingdom, France and other European Union member states in particular - showing leadership and taking the initiative to propose this as part of the resolution on North Korea at the UN Human Rights Council in March.

This is the best chance there has been of achieving this goal, because the composition of the Human Rights Council this year is favourable - if it is proposed, it is realistic to conceive of a majority of the membership voting in support. That won't necessarily remain the case in future years, and so the decision should not be delayed. There is a narrow window of opportunity which should be seized.

For too long, North Korea has suffered from the double whammy of being one of the world's most oppressed countries, and one of the most ignored. In the human rights community, the media, the general public and policy-makers, the gravity of the situation has been woefully mismatched by an extraordinary lack of attention. Sixty-eight years ago, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp, was liberated. Isn't it time to think about how to liberate North Korea's gulags? Tony Blair put it well some years ago when he said: "The biggest scandal in progressive politics is that you do not have people with placards out on the street on North Korea. I mean, this is a disgusting regime. The people there are kept in a form of slavery. Twenty three million of them, and no one protests!"

Well, now people are beginning to protest. So as you reflect on the tunes from Les Miserables, listen to the lyrics. "Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again! When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes. Will you join in our crusade? Will you be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see? Then join in the fight that will give you the right to be free." A commission of inquiry will not by itself free North Korea, but it will shine a long-overdue light on one of the darkest corners of the world. Will you join this fight?