North Korea Commission of Inquiry to International Community: Bear the Responsibility to Protect the Population of the DPRK

The Commission of Inquiry (COI), tasked by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 21 March 2013 to investigate human rights abuses in North Korea, revealed its findings at a press conference in Geneva on Monday, 17 February.

In its compelling 372-page report of detailed findings, the Commission found “reasonable grounds” to establish that crimes against humanity, meaning (1) intentional inhumane acts that (2) form part of a widespread or systematic attack, are committed with impunity in the DPRK and that these crimes are “based on decisions and policies approved at the highest level of the state.”[1]

The COI also found (1) violations of the freedoms of thought, expression and religion; (2) discrimination on the basis of State-assigned social class (songbun), gender and disability; (3) violations of the freedom of movement and residence, including the freedom to leave one’s own country and the prohibition of refoulement; (4) violations of the right to food and related aspects of the right to life; (5) arbitrary detention, torture, executions, enforced disappearance and political prison camps; and (6) enforced disappearance of persons from other countries, including through abduction.

Although denied entry to North Korea, with DPRK publicly stating at the outset that it would “totally reject and disregard” the UN resolution establishing the Commission, which it considered to be a “product of political confrontation and conspiracy,”[2] the panel was able to gather the testimonies of more than 80 witnesses and experts during public hearings conducted in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington. Aside from also conducting more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses, the COI received 80 formal submissions from different entities.

In addition to testimonies, the Commission also considered satellite images to confirm the existence of four political prison camps, as well as clandestinely recorded videos and photographs that support allegations of human rights violations in the DPRK. The COI also reviewed data generated by the United Nations and information provided by the DPRK in publicly available documents, such as state reports to the Universal Periodic Review and the Treaty Bodies, as well as DPRK’s responses to letters of allegations transmitted by the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.


There were numerous testimonies attributing to DPRK many features of a totalitarian state, including indoctrinating citizens from childhood to revere Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un, suppressing political and religious expressions that question the official ideology, and tightly controlling citizens’ physical movement and their means of communication. Victims and witnesses gave alarming accounts of people tortured or imprisoned for watching foreign movies or soap operas, for crossing or attempting to cross the border to China, or other petty offenses.


The report also contained accounts of public executions, which are usually done by firing squads and, in more exceptional cases, through hanging. “Almost every citizen of the DPRK has become a witness to an execution… In many cases, the entire population living in the area where the execution takes place must attend, including children.”[3] The Korea Institute for National Unification, by gathering testimony from persons who fled the DPRK, documented 510 public executions between 2005 and 2012.[4]

Aside from wide-ranging recommendations to the DPRK, the report calls the international community, through the United Nations, to take the responsibility to protect the population of the DPRK. An international tribunal must be given jurisdiction, without delay, to ensure that those most responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable. The Security Council could refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or the United Nations could establish an ad hoc tribunal.

The fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a State Member of the United Nations, has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community. The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has manifestly failed to do so.[5]

China, one of five nations, along with the U.S., Britain, Russia and France, holding veto power in the UN Security Council, has however indicated that it would oppose any move at the U.N. to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. “I myself haven’t seen the report, but our relevant position is clear-cut on this. Issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying to reporters in Beijing.

North Korea rejected the accusations as unfounded. “We totally reject the unfounded findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding crimes against humanity. We will never accept that,” a spokesman for North Korea’s UN Mission in New York said to AP.

The COI is comprised of Michael Kirby, a former Australian High Court judge who sits as the COI’s Chairman; Sonja Biserko of Serbia; and the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation North Korea Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, the Executive Director of HRRC. The panel is due to present its final report at the 25th session of the UN Human Right Council, scheduled to open in Geneva on 17 March 17 2014. 

[1]United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, (hereafter COI Report), Paragraph 1199.
[2]COI Report, Paragraph 21.
[3]COI Report, Paragraph 827.
[4]COI Report, Paragraph 829.
[5]COI Report, Paragraph 1227