North Korean Rights Abuses, Public Execution, Under Spotlight

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The situation in North Korea takes center stage this week at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights meeting in Geneva, where campaigners plan to screen secretly filmed footage of a recent public execution in the Stalinist state.

Former inmates of North Korea's notorious prison camps also will tell their stories and describe the plight of tens of thousands of others still there.

On Tuesday, a U.N. special rapporteur delivered a report to member states, urging immediate action to stop numerous rights abuses in North Korea.

The rapporteur, Thai law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, was appointed under a resolution passed at last year's commission session. Since his appointment, Pyongyang has refused him access to the country.

In his 21-page report, Muntarbhorn urged North Korea to improve its prison system, abolish capital punishment and forced labor, and not punish those who attempted to leave the country.

North Korea should also ensure that humanitarian assistance to the impoverished nation, including food aid, reached those for whom it was intended, he said.

The report noted a number of other "critical challenges" that need to be addressed, including the right to life, security, freedom of movement, education, and freedom of expression.

The government also should uphold "democracy, peace, sustainable development and demilitarization, with greater space for civil society participation at all levels of decision-making and implementation."

He noted that the North Korean government had signed four international treaties on human rights and said it should abide by them.

Responding to Muntarbhorn's report, North Korean representative Choe Myong-nam said his country did not accept the rapporteur's mandate.

Choe dismissed the report as "tricky political propaganda" and said it was part of a "plot" by hostile forces who "would not hesitate in fabricating anything with a view to overthrowing the state system of the country."

Other members of the commission expressed surprise at Choe's references to Muntarbhorn, with envoys from Japan and Canada saying North Korea should immediately allow the rapporteur entry into the country and to have free and unlimited access to its citizens.

Violations in North Korea will be highlighted further on Thursday, when non-governmental organizations in Geneva show a movie clip of a public execution reported to have taken place on March 2.

Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR), a Japan-based NGO, said the footage was secretly taped in Yuson district near the Chinese border and smuggled out at great risk.

The clip shows a cursory public "trial" in an empty lot of two people, accused of illegal border crossing and human trafficking. One is sentenced to death, and the other to 10 years' imprisonment.

The blurry footage shows the execution, watched by a crowd, carried out minutes later. The condemned person is tied to a post and three soldiers ordered, in Korean, to "aim at the enemy ... fire."

As the soldiers force the body into a sack with apparent difficulty, an official is heard to intone: "You have witnessed how miserable fools end up. Traitors who betray the nation and its people end up like this."

According to LFNKR, North Korean defectors have corroborated key aspects of the footage, saying the execution depicted was similar to ones they had themselves witnessed in past years.

Refugee flight

The NGO noted that the region were the execution took place was on a major escape route into China, and said it was likely the regime intended the public killing as a warning to others not to try cross the border.

Last Friday, Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in a report citing ethnic Korean sources in China that North Korean authorities had begun a large-scale investigation aimed at finding out who had filmed the execution.

The sources also said that the number of North Koreans crossing the border had dropped recently, from more than 50 a day to around 10.

In recent years tens of thousands of North Koreans have made their way into China where they live in fear of being caught and sent back home by a government that refuses to recognize them as refugees. Some have managed eventually to reach South Korea, at times after seeking asylum at foreign diplomatic missions in Chinese cities.

Beijing's actions have been strongly condemned by the U.S. and other Western governments, which say repatriating the refugees violates international conventions.

Thursday's program in Geneva will also include the testimonies of two North Korean defectors, both former prisoners at a prison camp known as "No. 15."

According to the NGOs organizing the event, one of the two, 69-year-old Kim Young-soon, says she and other family members spent eight years in the camp as punishment for their association with her husband, who disappeared after being accused of an unspecified crime.

Her parents and youngest son died in the camp, which she describes as "'a living hell where prisoners were treated as less than animals." Another son was executed after trying to flee the country.

Kim herself managed to escape, eventually making her way to South Korea in 2003.

The other defector, Kim Tae-jin, escaped to China where he converted to Christianity but was later arrested by Chinese police and repatriated. Jailed without trial at camp No. 15, he was brutally tortured. Kim was later released, fled a second time and eventually arrived in South Korea in 2001.

Also participating in the program will be Bill Rammell, a junior British foreign office minister responsible for human rights issues, who visited North Korea last September.

Earlier this month, Rammell told the Geneva session that members of the Commission on Human Rights too often "seemed to focus on averting action rather than promoting and protecting human rights."

He said the commission must not lose sight of its responsibilities to people suffering under regimes like North Korea, "widely considered to have one of the worst human rights records in the world."

See also:
US Accuses China of Violating Obligations to North Korean Refugees (Mar. 14, 2005)
Babies Killed In North Korean Prison Camps, Observers Say (Jun. 12, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow