Beijing's backing for Kim's brutal regime is prolonging the suffering of millions in its neighbour while also damaging its standing on the world stage
A damning United Nations report has placed North Korea in hot water. The reclusive regime is, of course, no stranger to unwanted global attention.
But this time around, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is urging world leaders to place North Korea before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity.
“North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities,” UN investigators said on Monday.
“We now need strong international leadership to follow up on the grave findings of the Commission of Inquiry. I therefore call on the international community, in line with the report’s recommendations, to use all the mechanisms at its disposal to ensure accountability, including referral to the International Criminal Court,” Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva.
The independent UN investigation was led by Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge. Kirby suggested that if charges against Pyongyang could not be brought at the ICC, the world body could set up a special tribunal to hear the case.
The UN report also criticised North Korea’s backer, China. Beijing responded by saying the report was “unreasonable” and an attempt to politicise the issue of human rights. Any move by the UN Security Council to bring Pyongyang to book would likely be vetoed by China.
But instead of such a knee-jerk reaction, Beijing should be courageous enough to respond to the criticism with action to rein in Pyongyang, rather than obstructing truth and justice in North Korea.
The 372-page report describes widespread atrocities in North Korea and catalogues acts of unspeakable brutality being visited upon its own people by the ruling Kim family.
It talks of the systematic use of rape, murder and torture and reports that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners remain behind barbed wire in North Korea prison camps. Many are put there because members of their family allegedly failed to show enough loyalty to the Kim dynasty.
The UN report will come in handy should there be a regime collapse in North Korea, as it could form the legal basis for prosecuting the leadership for its crimes.
But that remains wishful thinking so long as North Korea still has such a powerful friend as China, which continues to provide its hermit neighbour with economic and diplomatic aid.
In addition, Beijing also obstructed efforts by UN investigators to interview exiled North Koreans living along the border. Beijing needs to wake up and ask itself which side of history it wants to be on.
If humanitarian grounds are not enough to spur intervention, perhaps it should think about its own diplomatic strategy. Beijing likes to talk about past atrocities committed against the Chinese people by foreign powers. But atrocities are being committed just across its border, and the whole world is watching what Beijing will do to influence positive change in its neighbour.
How China handles the North Korea humanitarian crisis will say a great deal about its political values. Positive action on the issue would also help strengthen Beijing’s moral stance when it speaks of historical mistreatment of Chinese at the hands of outsiders.