Speech

Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at a UN Security Council Meeting on the Situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

| Dec. 10, 2015

Thank you, High Commissioner Zeid for the efforts of you and your team to document the human rights violations in North Korea, and to make such violations known. Thank you, Under-Secretary-General Feltman for briefing the Council today. In addition, while they are not briefers here today, I would also like to thank the brave individuals who – after escaping from North Korea – have taken great risks, profound risks to share their testimonies. Were it not for their determination to make their experiences known, much of what we know today about the suffering of the North Korean people would remain hidden.

Almost a year ago, on December 22nd, 2014, the Security Council met for the first time ever to discuss the human rights situation in the DPRK. The Council brought this issue into the chamber because the widespread and systematic human rights violations being committed by the North Korean government were not only deplorable in their own right, but they posed a threat to international peace and security.

I would like to address those who believe that what is happening in the DPRK is not a threat to peace and security. I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security? I assume they don’t think that. So, could this level of horror be seen as neutral? A level of horror unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Is it neutral – have no effect at all on regional and international peace and security? Really? None? It stretches credulity and it sounds more like cynicism. These arguments – some of which we’ve heard here today – will not go down well in history, particularly when North Korea opens up. For those who have charged double standards, I would ask: where are there in the world conditions like these ones, like the conditions behind the lines of the DPRK? Where? This regime has no double.

The Commission of Inquiry Report itself said that the human rights situation in North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The comprehensive report produced by the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry was based on more than 200 interviews with victims, eyewitnesses, and former DPRK officials, whose testimony was corroborated by other evidence such as satellite imagery. The Commission concluded in February 2014 that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.”

The Commission found evidence that provided reasonable grounds to determine that, in the DPRK, “crimes against humanity have been committed… pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State.”

The Council is meeting again on this issue today, Human Rights Day – for the first time since it was formally added to the agenda last year – because the North Korean people continue to endure a real-life nightmare, and because that nightmare is a threat to peace and security. The UN’s reporting is explicit. The Secretary-General’s report, released in September, found that from September 2014 to August 2015, “there were no indications of improvements in the exercise of freedom of expression.” This is in a country where, according to the COI’s report, the State “operates an all-encompassing indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood…to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader,” and where “citizens are punished for any ‘anti-State’ activities or expression of dissent.”

The Secretary-General’s report similarly found that “there were no indications of changes in the use of political prison camps.” Political prison camps where, by UN estimates, between 80 and 120 thousand people are currently being held; and prison camps where, according to the Commission of Inquiry’s report, tens of thousands of prisoners have for generations been “gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape, and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion, and infanticide.”

It is not only the blanket denial of enjoyment of freedom of expression and these infernal conditions in the prisoner camps that persist – but all of the grave human rights violations perpetrated by this regime: the summary executions; the use of torture; the decades of enforced disappearances with no accountability, including of citizens from neighboring countries, whose families continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loved ones. The list is long, the abuses vast, and the anguish profound.

Also unchanged is the immeasurable suffering experienced by many millions of North Koreans who continue to go hungry as a result of the regime’s actions – causing malnutrition that has repercussions for the rest of victims’ lives, and in countless instances, leads to death. According, again, to the Secretary-General’s September 2015 report, one-third of children in the DPRK under the age of 5, and almost half of children between 12 and 23 months, are anemic.

The systematic human rights violations persist for a simple reason: the North Korean government wants them to. They continue because the State still seeks to intentionally dehumanize, terrorize, and abuse its own people. The regime depends on this climate of fear and violence to maintain its grip on power.

When we speak of the massive scale of the regime’s abuses, it can be easy to lose sight of how they affect real people living in North Korea. So let me briefly share the experiences of just two individuals, who are with us today here in the Security Council; I would ask them to please stand while I share just a small part of what they have gone through.

Growing up in North Korea, Grace Jo witnessed three generations of her family starve to death. Her grandmother starved to death after digging for grass for the family to eat. Her father starved to death as he was transferred between prison camps, where he had been sent for leaving the country in search of food for his family. Two of her brothers starved to death. And Grace, too, nearly starved to death. It was hunger that drove Grace and her surviving family members to try to escape North Korea, but they were returned repeatedly against their will. As punishment, Grace was sent to an orphanage where she said children were forced to work from 6 in the morning to 7 at night. She and her remaining two family members finally managed to escape in 2008, when they came to the United States as refugees. And I’d just take this occasion to stress how important the United States’ refugee program is, how essential it is at times of crisis like this one.

Jung Gwang Il served for a decade in the army and another nine years in the Worker’s Party before going to work for a trading company, where he was detained for doing business directly with South Koreans – that was his crime. State security agents beat him viciously with wooden clubs, breaking all of his teeth and leaving scars that he still bears, pressuring him to confess to being a spy.

He refused. As punishment, Mr. Jung later told the Commission of Inquiry, he was subjected to what is known in the DPRK as “pigeon torture.” As he described it: “You are handcuffed behind your back and then they hang you… so you would not be able to stand or sit.” He was left in that position for days at a time. When, after ten months of this and other forms of torture, he agreed to confess, he was sent to Kwan-li-so number 15, a labor camp known as Yoduk. He spent three harrowing years there, witnessing by his count 26 people die, most of them from malnutrition. Since escaping to South Korea, he started an NGO that recently released a report listing the names of more than 180 fellow prisoners from his time in Yoduk and demanding information about their whereabouts.

These are just two individuals of millions, yet their experiences are a powerful reminder of the human impact of the regime’s horrors. Grace and Mr. Jung, thank you for being with us today, and for bravely sharing your stories.

No member of this Council, or of the UN, can afford to ignore this situation. North Korea continues to demonstrate that regimes which flagrantly violate the human rights of their own people almost always show similar disdain for the rules that help ensure our shared security. We see this in the DPRK’s flouting of prohibitions imposed by the Security Council on its nuclear and ballistic missile activities, including by undertaking launches. We see it in the destabilizing rhetoric the DPRK routinely uses to threaten the annihilation of its neighbors. And we see it in the DPRK’s aggressive response, as the High Commissioner has mentioned, to the opening of an office in Seoul by the OHCHR – an office aimed at gathering ongoing information on human rights conditions in the DPRK.

In March of this year, before the OHCHR office opened, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea – a DPRK-sponsored group, like every other group allowed to exist in the country – said that, “as soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May, a DPRK-controlled newspaper issued a near identical threat. And in June, the regime issued a statement accusing “hostile forces” of using the UN office to “make confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights.” It is hard to imagine another UN Member State making such threats against a UN office or staff; and we as a Council cannot take them lightly.

This is part of a well-established pattern of intimidation and escalation by the DPRK in response to criticism of its human rights record. Alarming and unacceptable as this pattern may be, it shows that the regime is deeply nervous about the growing international scrutiny of its abusive practices. And that is a good thing. It is another reason we must ensure the OHCHR office continues to document such abuses.

If we accept that the human rights situation in the DPRK is as abysmal as ever, as the UN’s reporting informs us that it is; and if North Korea continues to flout the rules that ensure our shared security, as we have seen that it does – then it is clear that we must continue to shine a light on the human rights situation in North Korea, as we are doing today. Even more, it is incumbent upon this Council to ask what we can do, individually and collectively, to change the situation.

We must continue to take steps that one day will help us hold accountable the individuals responsible for the horrors like those experienced by our guests today.

We cannot let immediate obstacles to accountability undermine our determination to document atrocities and identify those who order and carry them out, so that one day the perpetrators will be brought to justice. That is why the comprehensive report compiled by the Commission of Inquiry is so essential, and it is why it is so crucial that the UN’s new office in Seoul provide a place where individuals can continue to recount their experiences and provide key information.

Of course, multilateral and human rights organizations should continue to seek unconditional access to the DPRK – I agree very much with the comments of other Council members. And this is access that the regime has too long denied, no doubt because of what it would reveal. But it would be a grave mistake to think that in order to obtain such access any country or anybody should soften its criticism of, what is by every measure, the most repressive regime on the planet. We must do the exact opposite, speaking with objectivity and firmness about the real conditions on the ground.

For the UN Security Council it is critical not just to meet on the DPRK, but to consider the Commission’s recommendation that the situation in North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court, and that we consider other appropriate action on accountability – as 112 Member States urged the Council to do just a few weeks ago.

Our continuing spotlight on this situation sends a clear message that we hope will reach the North Korean people, tight as the regime’s control over information may be: We will not turn a blind eye to your suffering. You, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with dignity. And we will continue to press for the nightmare you are living to end. To the regime, our message is just as clear: We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them.

And UN Member States, and particularly members of this Council, must stop sending people who try to flee the DPRK back to the country. We know the gruesome punishments that await North Korean escapees who are sent back against their will, and yet the practice continues. A report published in September 2015 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that, according to multiple interviews with former prisoners who had escaped the country, approximately 800 of the 1,000 women held in one prison labor camp – Kyo-hwa-so Number 12 – were people who had been forcibly returned to the country – they’d made it out. Instead of returning people fleeing the DPRK to gulags, countries should welcome the North Korean refugees and asylum seekers who reach their territory. And the rest of us must do our part in terms of resettlement.

Let me conclude, finally. In April 2015, the United States co-hosted an event here at the UN in which three people who had escaped the DPRK shared their experiences. One of them was a young man named Joseph, who told how he had been orphaned when he was 12 years old, after his father starved to death and his mother was sent to a prison camp for trying to cross the border. Joseph said he spent his days begging in the streets, and his nights sleeping beneath bridges – a life he described as marked by loneliness and hunger.

After three years, Joseph managed to escape, and eventually made his way to the United States, where he now lives. Joseph told the people at that meeting that while he was grateful to have escaped, he felt an unshakable burden knowing that millions of his fellow North Koreans were still trapped in the conditions that he had managed to escape. That is a burden that Joseph should not bear alone. We – the Security Council, the UN, the international community – we must all bear this burden with him. That is the reason this Council must meet regularly to discuss the human rights crisis in North Korea. And it is the reason we must all bring greater urgency to not only witnessing and documenting these horrors, but to taking steps that will help stop them, and one day to bringing to justice the perpetrators of these crimes.

Thank you.

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