SPEAKING FREELY Pyongyang's crimes lost in power plays
By Nazery Khalid
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Tensions between North Korea and South Korea over the former's brinkmanship have somewhat overshadowed the human-rights situation in the so-called "Hermit Kingdom".
It is a safe bet that few among the public took note of the call by the United Nations High Commissioner in January 2013 to step up
efforts to address what he termed as a "deplorable" situation.
It is worth lamenting that when we speak or think of North Korea, what immediately comes to mind is a country whose gung-ho leadership is hell-bent on destroying its sworn enemies, its southern neighbor South Korea and the United States.
These days, the international community trains much more of its focus on Pyongyang's nuclear program than on the plight of north Korean citizens.
Many observers tend to tar the people of the country with the same brush used to paint the picture of the oppressive, brutal regime. To certain critics, the people and the leadership are the same entity.
The view that all North Koreans are all "brainwashed" conveniently ignores the burden of living under the watchful eye of the regime in a climate of constant fear and horrific living conditions.
The famine that struck North Korea a few years ago - and by all accounts, widespread hunger and malnourishment among the population are still prevalent - is not just to unfavorable weather conditions but also the failure of the centrally-planned economy and the "ways of the regime".
The leadership demands absolute deference to its leader that borders on idol worship yet it denies the population even basic human rights. Pyongyang spends much of its resources to prop its military and develop weapons to threaten others while its people suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
Pyongyang's latest intimidations indicate lavish spending on its weapons development program at the expense of the welfare of its people.
Little attention is spared on the poor people living in hunger, fear and squalid conditions under a brutal regime that tolerates no opposition and subjects those deemed a potential threat to imprisonment, hard labor and torture in prisons and detention camps.
Pyongyang is also guilty of crime against citizens of other countries. This has incurred condemnation from the Human Rights Council which issued a statement in January 2013 demanding a full-fledged international inquiry into what it termed as "serious crimes" in North Korea.
The Special Rapporteur of the council stressed the need to establish an inquiry mechanism to investigate and document the "grave, systematic and widespread" violation of human rights in North Korea and the unresolved cases of abductions of citizens from various nations by the country, including South Korea and Japan.
However, his calls for North Korea to allow him access into the country to inspect the labor camps and prisons have been flatly refused by Pyongyang. It is bad enough North Korea denies its citizens of fundamental freedom as guaranteed under the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human rights and other human rights instruments.
Summary execution, torture, slave labor, arbitrary detention, inhuman treatment, and violations of freedom of expression and movement and the right to life are par for the course in this hermit country.
Little wonder then that the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea to escape the brutal regime and abject conditions in their country has been on the rise in the past decade. It was estimated that in early 2012, a total of 24,000 North Korean refugees fled to South Korea.
It is even harder to believe in this day and age, there is still a country which has a policy of kidnapping the nationals of other countries. One can imagine the pain and suffering inflicted on the victims and their loved ones arising from the "enforced disappearances".
Time for action
The time has come for the international community to take seriously calls to determine and clarify the fate of those kidnapped by North Korea. Not to be forgotten too are the South Koreans rounded up during the Korean War and taken up north.
Few, if any, are believed to be still alive but their long-suffering families deserve redress and justice and to know the truth about their loved ones and put their agony over the disappeared to rest.
The international community must act in concert to take urgent, firm and sustained action to address the plight of those abducted by North Korea and remedy the suffering of their loved ones, and also help the beleaguered citizens of North Korea. Condemnation means nothing if not followed with meaningful action.
We are finding this out as the drama of missile-nuclear testing and threats by North Korea to turn its enemies into a sea of flames unfolds. All talk and no action, and support from a certain backer, have emboldened Pyongyang to talk and act callously and not feel any sense of accountability over its actions.
To this end, the proposal by the Human Rights Commissioner to set up an independent commission of international inquiry and embark on a fact finding mission to North Korea must be taken seriously by the international community.
Strong condemnation must also be directed towards countries providing support to North Korea. Without financial and political support, North Korea would not be so bold in threatening other countries, mistreating its own citizens and kidnapping other nationals.
Those kidnapped by North Korea and their loved ones, and the people of the country, have suffered long enough. It would be a blotch on us if we did not do anything within our lifetime to ease if not end their torment.
This of course does not always mean through "regime change". There are many ways to coerce Pyongyang and to hold it accountable for its actions and atrocious human-rights record, including through economic sanctions and diplomatic channels.
Their lack of effectiveness in reining in North Korea should not be used an excuse by the international community to give up trying and resort to a more direct and forceful approach, which could create havoc to regional peace and stability and inflict more suffering to the country's citizen.
The soft approach includes admonishing those who support North Korea and tolerate its wayward ways. It is vital to send a strong message to Pyongyang's backers that those who support a country which regularly violates human rights are themselves guilty of such violation and should be widely condemned, if not punished.
Nazery Khalid is a Malaysian-based policy analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.