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The Peninsula

A Conversation on Human Rights in North Korea with Justice Michael Kirby

Published February 25, 2016
Category: North Korea

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Justice Michael Kirby who led the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea. The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the conversation can be found at

Jenna Gibson: It’s now been two years since the Commission of Inquiry’s report was first released. How do you see things, have they changed much in those two years, and can you see some long-term impact?

Justice Michael Kirby: The DPRK is a very closed society. We can’t really know for sure what is going on either in the community generally or in the leadership except insofar as we are permitted to know by the propaganda and broadcasts and media from that country. Therefore we can’t be certain. On the whole, I think the report of the Commission of Inquiry had some impact, possibly for example, in what appears to be going on in the form of rationalization of the detention facilities in North Korea where we found that between 80,000 and 120,000 citizens of that country were detained effectively, political and other like crimes. But it’s true that not a great deal appears to have changed for the better, there is still serious shortage of food which is one of the most lasting impacts of the evidence on me and there are many other abuses that are almost certainly still occurring, and therefore what we have to ask ourselves in the international community and the United Nations is do we just tolerate this, do we just look away, do we get on with something which is more likely to be fruitful for outcomes, or is this so intolerable that as an international community we resolve to do something about it, and I think we will answer that question that it is not tolerable and the international community has to move things along particularly in respect of crimes against humanity .

Jenna Gibson: When your report first launched in February 2014, KCNA, or the official news outlet of the DPRK said that it was fake, it’s basically an unfounded attack on North Korea, that you have some sort of vendetta against the regime. So how did you deal with this response and how do you, do you write off the attack, do you try to confront it directly?

Justice Michael Kirby: Don’t forget, before I chaired the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, I had been a judge for nearly 35 years and therefore I was used to people not particularly liking an outcome. The nature of the judicial role is that you are bound, almost daily, to upset somebody. It’s just part and parcel of the job. Therefore, the fact that people attack the decisions and our recommendations and our findings, that wasn’t particularly surprising to me. So, what did I do about it? Well, I said which was the fact, if you don’t accept the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry, you should go online. If you can go online, you should have a look for yourself. There, on the web, is the testimony of the witnesses who gave evidence in our public hearings and anybody who doesn’t believe the conclusions that we reached can have a look at them and if they think as the government of North Korea said, that they are human scum, well that wasn’t the conclusion we reached. We reached the conclusion that the witnesses who came before us were decent people who were horrified with what had happened to them and were willing to take the risks of speaking up on camera in order to try to improve their country and improve the situation of human beings in their country. So that’s what I say today, if you don’t believe the Commission of Inquiry, fine. Have a look for yourself. Google it, go online, have a look at the witnesses and reach your own conclusion on whether the horrible stories that they they tell of their own lives and what they seen and felt in North Korea are true or false.

Jenna Gibson: So outside of that relatively predictable response on the DPRK itself, were there any responses that surprised you after the report was released?

Justice Michael Kirby: I was surprised at the rather banal approach. Instead of being clever, instead of responding to my repeated requests to invite the Commission of Inquiry to go to Pyongyang, I offered with no pre-conditions to go into their country, to answer questions to see situations which they said were different and were much better than painted in our report and I said, if in fact I was convinced that in any way the report was unfair or unjustified, I would acknowledge that fact. But they continued their strategy, “Pull down the barriers, pull up the drawbridge, have no communication”, and expect that the world will accept the word and assertions of a government which if the victims are even partly right is horrendously oppressing its people and has been doing so for decades and North Korea refused to allow the Commission of Inquiry into their country, it refused to allow the special rapporteur on human rights into their country, and it has so far not allowed the High Commissioner for Human Rights to go to their country. So, I think the world draws the inference, they won’t have these representatives of the United Nations come in even though they are a member state of the United Nations, even though they’ve signed up to the treaties of the United Nations, they wont allow it because they are afraid that they would see confirmation of the raw and cruel circumstances in which the people of North Korea are forced to live.

Jenna Gibson: One concern for any major international issues like the North Korean human rights situation is keeping the world’s public interested and engaged. Do you see sustained public engagement now two years on? Do we need another Commission of Inquiry report or something similar to keep the interest alive?

Justice Michael Kirby: We do in fact see a renewed engagement two years on, but unhappily that’s because of two recent events in in the DPRK. The first is the underground explosion of the fourth nuclear test which has been claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb, and the second following closely after that was the launch of a rocket, a missile system, which was said to be to put a satellite in orbit, but which anybody seeing the congruence of those two events would be reasonable to conclude is part of a weapons ballistic missile system designed to deliver a nuclear weapon. And that is an extremely dangerous thing, it would be dangerous for any country to have such weapons but it’s particularly dangerous for North Korea first of all because it’s an explosive country, it is a country which is performing and continues to perform extremely cruel oppressive and totalitarian acts against its own people over many decades but its also a country which is executing people who are thought to fall out of favor with the leadership elite in the country and that is a very unstable circumstance. One of he dangers that is presented by North Korea is not just that they have the fifth largest standing army in the world for a country with a population of twenty-three, twenty-four million, not just the fact that they are closed off, but the fact that accidents can happen, mistakes can happen, and in a situation where there is so much oppression of so many people, there is a real risk to the region and to the world of this sort of country developing not only nuclear weapons and not only missiles, but now a submarine facility which can harass the whole pacific and can harass its neighboring countries including Japan and China itself. So this is really a dangerous situation and therefore, that focuses the attention of the world. But it’s probably true and inherent in your question, has there been an ongoing interest in human rights in North Korea? I think not. I think in North Korea, the concern now is nuclear weapons and the attention to the shocking state of human rights has diminished and we must make sure that it is really positioned and becomes an important matter because it is interrelated to the dangers to peace and security that the weapons of North Korea has.

Jenna Gibson: So I want to follow up on that, because I think that that’s really important, the fact that there is the nuclear issue, there is the security issue, and with the nuclear test, the missile launch in the last few weeks, people have been talking about North Korea a lot, they’ve been talking about tougher sanctions, THAAD deployment in South Korea, taking these kind of security or hardline tactics towards North Korea. So, do you see ways that we can integrate human rights into this conversation that might be helpful?

Justice Michael Kirby: I think the greatest weapon that the United Nations has at its disposal is not on this occasion blue helmets or a renewal of the United Nations force, is not a military solution, but the greatest weapon is knowledge, the greatest weapon is information, the greatest weapon is to be able to jump the wall that divides North Korea from its neighbors and the rest of the world and I think it’s a pity actually that the United Nations which is very good at organizing a Commission of Inquiry and getting people of experience and integrity to perform the work on them, it’s not so good in delivering the report after it’s done. And it’s rather old fashioned in the way it does so. It has the report in hard copy and it’s put on the table of the human rights council, it is available online, but it’s not user friendly. And my own feeling is that one step that should be taken is to have our report published in an attractive form, have it at every airport in the world, have it so that people who are only partly interested or not even particularly interested in North Korea can pick it up and start reading about this horrendous circumstance in North Korea. Actually, our report, the one on North Korea, is I think, very well written. It’s easy to read, and it contains very powerful text from our witnesses. Having public hearings is not the usual way the UN conducts most commissions of inquiry but it was the way we decided to conduct this Commission of Inquiry in order to give the dignity of a voice to the people who had fled from North Korea and allowed them to speak directly to the United Nations and to the world, and throughout our report on every page, or every second page, there are indented passages of the actual voice of the people who have suffered, and what they’ve suffered, and how they’ve suffered, and how their families have suffered, and what they feel about it and I think that really speaks very directly to the human heart and that’s why I’ll be urging during this week in Washington that steps be taken urgently to get that report in every airport in the world.

Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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