By Lisa Schlein

The United Nation's top human rights official is calling for an international inquiry into what she calls the "deplorable human rights situation" in North Korea.  The high commissioner says the elaborate network of political prison camps, forced labor and torture in the country cannot be allowed to continue.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says initial hopes that North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un would bring about some positive change in the country's human rights situation have not occurred.  

No improvement in North Korea

She says the country shows almost no sign of improvement and the elaborate network of political prison camps and the atrocious treatment of the inmates remains in place.  She says she is concerned by the international community's single-minded focus on North Korea's nuclear program and periodic rocket launches, which deflects attention away from the country's dire human rights situation.

Pillay's spokesman, Rupert Colville, says nobody knows for sure how many prisoners are in the political prison camps or even how many camps there are.  He says the only information available is obtained from prisoners who have escaped.

“It is believed, but it is a very, very rough estimate that perhaps around 200,000 people are kept in these camps.  Some of them are born there," Colville says. "So, you are sort of punished from birth, very often for something your grandfather did.  And, the stories from the people who have escaped are really harrowing, awful situations.  There is no parallel really anywhere else in the world.”  

Colville says the high commissioner met with two survivors of North Korea's prison system before Christmas.  He says they described a system of unspeakable cruelty.  He says people are subject to rampant violations, including torture, summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity.

Colville tells reporters living conditions in the camps are atrocious.  He says people do not get enough to eat, there is little or no medical care and no adequate clothing.  Colville says entire families are punished for reasons unknown to them.  He says babies are born in prison.  They grow up there and know no other life.

“And, that is also alarming.  The distortion of reality that goes on in there. So people think it is perfectly normal to report on your own family and then watch your own family being executed as a result of your own words," he explains. "And, that was a situation described by one of the people the High Commissioner met.  He actually was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother and they were executed because of something he said.  He, a child at the time said they had been saying.”  

High Commissioner Pillay says it is time the international community takes a much firmer step towards applying serious pressure to bring about change for North Korea's beleaguered, subjugated population of 20 million people.

She says an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst, but least understood and reported, human rights situations in the world is fully justified and long overdue.

The U.N. Human Rights Office gave a copy of High Commissioner Pillay's report to North Korea's mission to the United Nations in Geneva.  So far, it has received no response.





"United Nations Calls for North Korea Human Rights Inquiry" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus)


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