We Three Kims of Orient Are: Time to End North Korea's Reign of Terror

17/12/2013 11:17 GMT | Updated 15/02/2014 10:59 GMT

In North Korea, the only Christmas carol that is permitted to be sung is "We Three Kims of Orient Are". Two years ago today, the second member of the Kim trinity, Kim Jong-il, died, and a week ago his son, North Korea's young ruler Kim Jong-Un, executed his own uncle and airbrushed him from the country's history. No dissent, no wavering from total devotion to the Kim dynasty, is tolerated.

There were some who believed that the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un, with his penchant for stetsons and fairground rides, and his newfound friendship with American basketball player Dennis Rodman, might be a reformer. His first two years in power suggest quite the opposite. While he has developed a superficially more engaging personal style than his reclusive father, shaking hands with the people and delivering speeches, he has proven to be even more ruthless.

The execution of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song-thaek, is the most recent, high-profile and stunning example of his total disregard for human life, but in previous months he reportedly had an ex-girlfriend killed by machine gun fire and a deputy defence minister killed by mortar round. He has tightened North Korea's border with China to prevent defections, and last month it was reported that at least 80 people in seven cities on one day were executed for the "crimes" of watching South Korean television dramas or owning Bibles. Indeed, the number of public executions are believed to have more than doubled.

A purge of Jang Song-thaek's followers and associates could, analysts claim, lead to the imprisonment or execution of several thousand people. North Korean businessmen in China, and diplomats overseas, have been recalled to Pyongyang, to face an uncertain fate. How many of them will refuse to go, and choose to defect, is unclear - a decision made more difficult for them by the fact that as a matter of course the regime holds their family members hostage at home when officials serve abroad.

Yet these public displays of extreme brutality are just the tip of the iceberg. A whole system of political prison camps, or 'gulags', consigns an estimated 200,000 people to years of horrific torture, slave labour, sexual violence, chronic food deprivation and dire living conditions. Most never come out, and many do not survive. North Korea's policy of "guilt-by-association", punishing family members up to three generations for the political crimes of a relative, and the "songbun" system of political classes categorising citizens according to perceived levels of loyalty to the regime, have had devastating effects. Testimonies from survivors of the prison camps who have escaped North Korea have been documented by human rights organisations, notably Christian Solidarity Worldwide's 2007 report North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act and David Hawk's The Hidden Gulag. Tomorrow, three North Korean refugees in the UK will testify at a hearing held by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in Parliament. One of the most shocking personal stories is that of Shin Dong-hyuk, born in a prison camp, tortured severely, forced to witness the execution of his mother and brother. Escape from Camp 14, the book which tells Shin's story, is vital reading for anyone who wishes to understand the world's most closed nation.

No belief other than an unwavering loyalty to the Kim dynasty is tolerated, which means no freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. The regime is perhaps the only dictatorship in the world which is both a dynasty and portrays itself as a deity. Christians and those of other religions come in for particularly severe persecution: long terms in prison camps which often amount to a death sentence in all but name, and in some instances execution.

For many years, North Korea's human rights crisis has not received the media or political attention it deserves. Arguably it is the worst human rights situation in the world today. Arguably, every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is denied or violated in North Korea. Yet until recently, the glare of the world spotlight has not turned to this dark corner of the world. When North Korea did receive attention, it was in regard to the nuclear question, its periodic acts of military aggression against South Korea, or the eccentricities of the Kim family.

Earlier this year, this began to change when after several years of campaigning by human rights organisations, the UN Human Rights Council voted unanimously to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. The inquiry, chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, has already shone the biggest spotlight so far on the horrors of North Korea. Through a series of public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, DC, London and elsewhere, and hundreds of testimonies, a picture is emerging of widespread, systematic crimes against humanity.

The Commission of Inquiry will release its report early in 2014, and its recommendations will be considered by the Human Rights Council in March. Without prejudging their report, there are several steps that the inquiry could recommend.

First, a formal assessment concluding that the dire human rights situation in North Korea, and particularly in the prison camps, amounts to crimes against humanity would in and of itself serve a valuable purpose, and open the way forward for international action to address impunity. Resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council in March and the General Assembly in the autumn should reflect the inquiry's conclusions. The term "crimes against humanity" should be deployed every time North Korea is mentioned.

Second, a recommendation that a case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), for further investigation and eventual prosecution, would serve notice to North Korea's rulers that they will one day be held to account for their crimes, that they could face their Milosevic moment or their Nuremburg. This just may give them pause for thought, and perhaps lead to some reduction in brutality.

Third, even if the UN Security Council, the only body empowered to do so, refuses to refer a case to the ICC, it should place North Korea's human rights crisis permanently on its agenda, alongside the nuclear question. If Jang Song-thaek's execution says anything, it says that North Korea's human rights crisis is inextricably linked to questions of security and stability, and should be treated with equal significance. The brutality was not unusual, but the publicity given to it by the regime was extraordinary - and indicates a show of force but also an admission of instability.

Fourth, resources for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea should be increased. Currently he has just one-third of an assistant, and like all rapporteurs, he is an unpaid part-time expert. To give the crisis in North Korea the attention it needs, he should at least have a full-time assistant.

These are just some of the possibilities for the UN. North Korea is, as former special rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn has said, "in a category of its own" and should be addressed by "the totality" of the UN system. But dealing with North Korea should not be left to the UN alone. There are steps individual member states can take, and contributions people outside government can make.

Perhaps the most significant element needed now is to break the information blockade which the regime has successfully imposed on its people. In contrast to every other dictatorship, North Korea's regime has kept its people largely isolated from the world, suffocating before birth any possible opposition to its rule. This is beginning to change, as North Korean people gain access to outside information through foreign radio broadcasts, USB sticks, CDs and DVDs smuggled across the border, and mobile phone technology. While there is virtually no Internet for ordinary North Koreans, these other means of channelling information are beginning to show signs of making a difference.

For this reason, tomorrow a new policy paper will be published launching a campaign for the BBC to establish a Korean-language broadcast service. In other struggles for freedom, most recently in Burma, the BBC World Service foreign language broadcasts made a significant contribution to keeping hope alive. While other foreign radio stations are broadcasting into North Korea, they are either American-run or led by North Korean defectors based in Seoul. They play a vital role and do superb work, but they are handicapped by the political stigmas which the regime can easily attach to them. The BBC does not have the same political baggage, and is therefore less easily dismissed.

There is a need for a grassroots movement for North Korea's freedom, of the kind we have seen around the world in the struggles against apartheid in South Africa, justice for East Timor or democracy for Burma. Campaign groups such as Liberty in North Korea and the North Korea Freedom Coalition exist, but are primarily based in the United States. The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity brings together more than 40 organisations from around the world, but is focused primarily on high-level advocacy. In the UK, until recently the only groups consistently raising North Korea were Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Amnesty International. A new group, North Korea Campaign UK, was launched this summer, and the European Alliance for North Korean Human Rights is up and running, and these provide opportunities for students and grassroots activists to get involved. The time for large-scale popular protest and pressure for change in North Korea is long overdue.

To return to that Christmas carol, there is a verse within it which is so apposite. It reads:

"Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes of life of gathering gloom

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

sealed in stone-cold tomb."

Two years into Kim Jong-Un's reign, and a week after the execution of Jang Song-thaek, it is time to unseal the stone-cold tomb in which North Korea's regime has entrapped itself, end the misery, and hold the dictators to account.