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White Press Office Feed

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
New York, NY
December 22, 2014


Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you Assistant Secretary-General Simonovic and Assistant Secretary-General Zerihoun, for your informative and appropriately bleak briefings; and for the ongoing attention that your respective teams give to the situation in the DPRK, in spite of persistent obstacles put up by the North Korean government.

Today’s meeting reflects the growing consensus among Council members and UN Member States that the widespread and systematic human rights violations being committed by the North Korean government are not only deplorable in their own right, but also pose a threat to international peace and security.

A major impetus for the Security Council taking up this issue was the comprehensive report issued in February 2014 by the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry. The Commission of Inquiry conducted more than 200 confidential interviews with victims, eyewitnesses, and former officials, and held public hearings in which more than 80 witnesses gave testimony. Witness accounts were corroborated by other forms of evidence, such as satellite imagery confirming the locations of prison camps.

North Korea denied the Commission access to the country, consistent with its policy of routinely denying access to independent human rights and humanitarian groups, including the Red Cross and UN special rapporteurs. And despite repeated requests, the DPRK refused to cooperate with the inquiry.

The main finding of the Commission’s thorough and objective report is that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The Commission found that the evidence it gathered provided reasonable grounds to determine that, “crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State.”

If you have not watched any of the hours of victims’ testimony, or read from the hundreds of pages of transcripts from the Commission’s public hearings, I urge you to do so. They show North Korea for what it is: a living nightmare.

A former prisoner of Prison Camp 15, Kim Young-soon, said she and other prisoners were so famished they picked kernels of corn from the dung of cattle to eat. She said, “If there was a day that we were able to have mouse, that was a special diet for us. We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat we could find. Everything that flew, that crawled on the ground, any grass that grew in the field.”

Ahn Myong Chul, a former guard at Prison Camp 22, spoke of guards routinely raping prisoners. In one case in which a victim became pregnant and gave birth, the former guard reported that prison officials cooked her baby and fed it to their dogs. This sounds unbelievable and unthinkable; yet this is what a former guard told the Commission of Inquiry at a public hearing. His account fits a pattern across witnesses’ testimonies of sadistic punishments meted out to prisoners whose “crime” was being raped by officials.

The Commission estimates that between 80 and 120 thousand people are being held in prison camps like the ones where so many of these crimes occurred.

Many who testified before the Commission were tortured as punishment for trying to flee North Korea. One man who was sent back to the DPRK from China described being held in prison cells that were only around 50 centimeters high, just over a foot and a half. He said the guards told him that because the prisoners were animals, they would have to crawl like animals. A woman from the city of Musan told how her brother was caught after fleeing to China. When he was returned, North Korean security officials bound his hands and chained him to the back of a truck before dragging him roughly 45 kilometers, driving three loops around the city so everyone could see, his sister testified. “When he fell down, they kept on driving,” she said.

Nor are the horrors limited to prison camps or those who try to flee. The Commission found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association” in the DPRK.

On December 18th, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution expressing grave concern at the Commission’s findings, and roundly condemning the DPRK’s “widespread and gross violations of human rights.” One hundred and sixteen member States voted in favor, 20 against, and 53 abstained. The resolution also encouraged the Security Council to “take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through consideration of referral of the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court and consideration of the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible.”

The Security Council should demand the DPRK change its atrocious practices, which demonstrate a fundamental disregard for human rights and constitute a threat to international peace and security.

We should take this on for three reasons. First, the DPRK’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s report – and even to the prospect of today’s session – shows that it is sensitive to criticism of its human rights record. Just look at all the different strategies North Korea has tried in the past several months to distract attention from the report, to delegitimize its findings, and to avoid scrutiny of its human rights record.

The DPRK ramped up its propaganda machine, publishing its own sham report on its human rights record, and claiming “the world’s most advantageous human rights system.” The DPRK tried to smear the reputations of hundreds of people who were brave enough to speak out about the heinous abuses they suffered, calling them “human scum bereft of even an iota of conscience.” This was in a statement North Korea sent to the Security Council today. And North Korea launched slurs against the Commission’s distinguished chairman, Justice Kirby.

The DPRK deployed threats, saying any effort to hold it more accountable for its atrocities would be met with “catastrophic consequences.”

All of North Korea’s responses – the threats, the smears, the cynical diversions – show that the government feels the need to defend its abysmal human rights record. And that is precisely why our attention is so important.

The second argument for exerting additional pressure is that when regimes warn of deadly reprisals against countries that condemn their atrocities, as the North Koreans have done, that is precisely the moment when we need stand up and not back down. Dictators who see threats are an effective tool for silencing the international community tend to be emboldened and not placated. And that holds true not only for the North Korean regime, but for human rights violators around the world who are watching how the Security Council responds to the DPRK’s threats.

The DPRK is already shockingly cavalier about dishing out threats of staging nuclear attacks, and has routinely flouted the prohibitions on proliferation imposed by the Security Council. In July, North Korea’s military threatened to launch nuclear weapons at the White House and the Pentagon, and in March 2013, it threatened to launch a pre-emptive strike on the United States, saying, “everything will be reduced to ashes and flames.”

In the most recent example of its recklessness, the DPRK carried out a significant cyber-attack on the United States in response to a Hollywood comedy portraying a farcical assassination plot. The attack destroyed systems and stole massive quantities of personal and commercial data from Sony Pictures Entertainment – not only damaging a private sector entity, but also affecting countless Americans who work for the company. The attackers also threatened Sony’s employees, actors in the film, movie theaters, and even people who dared to go to the theaters showing the movie, warning them to “Remember the 11th of September.” Not content with denying freedom of expression to its own people, the North Korean regime now seems intent on suppressing the exercise of this fundamental freedom in our nation.

North Korea also threatened the United States with “serious consequences” if our country did not conduct a joint investigation with the DPRK – into an attack that they carried out. This is absurd. Yet it is exactly the kind of behavior we have come to expect from a regime that threatened to take “merciless countermeasures” against the U.S. over a Hollywood comedy, and has no qualms about holding tens of thousands of people in harrowing gulags. We cannot give in to threats or intimidation of any kind.

Third, the international community does not need to choose between focusing on North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons and focusing on its widespread and ongoing abuses against its own people. That is a false choice. We must do both. As we have seen throughout history, the way countries treat their own citizens – particularly those countries that systematically commit atrocities against their own people – tends to align closely with the way they treat other countries and the norms of our shared international system.

On November 23, a week after the UN’s Third Committee adopted its DPRK resolution, North Korea’s military said “all those involved in its adoption deserve a severe punishment” and warned, again, of “catastrophic consequences.” Now here, presumably, “all” would imply the more than 100 Member States who voted for the resolution. The military also that said if Japan “continued behaving as now, it will disappear from the world map.”

When a country threatens nuclear annihilation because it receives criticism of how it treats its own people, can there be any doubt regarding the connection between North Korea’s human rights record and international peace and security?

North Korea did not want us to meet today, and vociferously opposed the country’s human rights situation being added to the Security Council’s agenda. If the DPRK wants to be taken off the Security Council’s agenda, it can start by following the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations to: acknowledge the systematic violations it continues to commit; immediately dismantle political prison camps and release all political prisoners; allow free and unfettered access by independent human rights observers; and hold accountable those most responsible for its systematic violations.

Knowing the utter improbability of North Korea making those and a long list of other necessary changes, it is incumbent on the Security Council to consider the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation that the situation in North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court and to consider other appropriate action on accountability – as 116 Member States have urged the Council to do.

In the meantime, the United States will support the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a field-based office to continue documenting the DPRK’s human rights violations, as mandated by the Human Rights Council, as well as support the work of the Special Rapporteur. Both should brief the Council on new developments in future sessions on this issue.

It is also crucial that all of DPRK’s neighbors abide by the principle of non-refoulement, given the horrific abuses to which North Koreans are subjected to upon return, and provide unfettered access to the UNHCR in their countries. The United States will continue to welcome North Korean refugees to our country, and help provide assistance to North Korean asylum seekers in other countries.

It is reasonable to debate the most effective strategy to end the nightmare of North Korea’s human rights crisis. What is unconscionable in the face of these widespread abuses – and dangerous, given the threat that the situation in the DPRK poses to international peace and security – is to stay silent. Silence will not make the North Korean government end its abuses. Silence will not make the international community safer.

Today, we have broken the Council’s silence. We have begun to shine a light, and what it has revealed is terrifying. We must continue to shine that light, for as long as these abuses persist. Today’s session is another important step – but far from the last – towards accountability for the crimes being perpetrated against the people of North Korea. The Council must come back to speak regularly about the DPRK’s human rights situation – and what we can do to change it – for as long as the crimes that brought us here today persist. That is the absolute minimum we can and must do.

Thank you, Mr. President.