Ms Shin* didn’t know she was a victim of human rights abuses in North Korea until years after coming to South Korea. Attacked one day by a drunk police officer, she was wounded so badly she was kept in a cell for weeks until her injuries were less likely to draw suspicion from her neighbours. Years later, she continues to suffer from the physical and emotional after-effects of the attack.
At the time, she knew that what was happening to her was unjust. She says, however, that she felt “powerless to do anything about it”. It was only after escaping the North and settling into South Korea that she realised that she was in fact entitled to certain human rights.
This month marks five years since the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (UN COI) published its landmark report, stating that crimes against humanity have been committed “pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state”.
The report called for the referral of the North Korean leadership, including Kim Jong Un, to an international criminal justice mechanism. This point drew a furious response from the regime. It also prompted a concerted effort on the part of the transnational advocacy community to look into the question of criminal accountability for the regime’s violations.
Yet five years on, we are no closer to achieving this goal. While the last year has seen great strides in dialogue between the leaders of the United States, North Korea, and South Korea, discussion of human rights issues has remained very much off the table.
The regime’s survival in its current form is inextricably linked to the heavy-handed repression of its people, making genuine improvement in adherence to human rights norms a fundamental threat.
Criminal accountability for regime leaders is one aspect of what is typically referred to as transitional justice: a set of practices, mechanisms, and concerns that arise following a period of conflict or repression, aimed at confronting and dealing with past violations of human rights and humanitarian law.
There is no way of knowing when or how a political change will occur in North Korea – change that allows the pursuit of transitional justice. Whatever way it comes about, the transition process will be long and painful.
Many people who have experienced violence and unlawful treatment at the hands of the North Korean regime are likely to demand revenge from the former North Korean elite. A process to handle such grievances will be an important early step in any transition, alongside efforts to alleviate economic inequality, establish the rule of law, and re-build the nation around an identity where the Kim family no longer governs all national loyalty.
A number of civil society organisations in South Korea have been looking into the mechanisms that might be applied to achieve such goals, while understanding what can be learnt from North Korean victims of the regime who have escaped.
Transitional justice processes commonly claim to be ‘victim-centred’, recognising that the success of such processes depends on how well they meet the needs of those who have suffered most in situations of conflict of repression. However, with no direct access to the North Korean population, defining victim groups and assessing their needs is an ongoing challenge.
North Korean escapees residing in South Korea and a small number of other countries are our best source of information on those who might be considered victims, yet defining ‘victim’ as a category attached to harm is far from straightforward.
Social science researchers have rightly questioned why it is that certain victims come to be recognised over others, and by whom and for what purposes. Victimhood is inherently political: it involves choices, labelling, and selection processes over which the victim often has little control.
When it comes to human rights violations of the magnitude committed in North Korea, forms of victimisation vary widely, and not all choose to associate their experiences with a victim identity.
For example, while some escapees share their experiences of victimisation and survival on television or in memoirs, others prefer to stay silent, sometimes even privately questioning the truth of narratives they suspect of being exaggerated or untrue.
Moreover, engaging escapees in research and advocacy on North Korean human rights issues – in ways beyond serving as somewhat passive providers of information – remains a challenge.
Fear of bringing harm on family members remaining in North Korea is the leading reason cited for their unwillingness to take more decisive roles in monitoring the situation and helping plan accountability mechanisms, as found by a recent survey of North Korean escapees by the Seoul-based NGO, Transitional Justice Working Group.
Yet the same survey found that 84.6 per cent of the research participants consider themselves victims of the North Korean regime’s human rights abuses. Their preferences for modes of redress varied, and while punitive measures against perpetrators of abuses did feature highly, greater preference was shown for future measures focussed on truth-seeking, such as a national truth commission.
Without a better sense of the needs arising from experiences of state violence and denial of rights, it is difficult to argue that any efforts to plan for a future transitional justice process in North Korea are sufficiently ‘victim-centred’.
Civil society organisations focused on North Korean human rights, therefore, face an important task in pioneering new methods of engaging North Korean escapees, while empowering them to see a place for themselves in facilitating the recovery of their own people from decades of abuses.
Failure to do so now means missing a crucial opportunity to develop grassroots-oriented plans to swiftly dismantle the entrenched behaviours and structures that may allow the continuation of violence, marginalisation, and suffering during and after a political transition.
Oh survived a period of time in prison as punishment for a failed defection attempt. The day she saw a pile of deceased inmates being burned on a gruesome pyre, she decided that she would not suffer the same fate but would fight to live. Much like Shin, she is in need of continuous treatment for the harms she endured, but may never see her abusers – including those who had authorised the crimes – brought to justice.
Although we cannot know when or how the opportunity to pursue accountability may come, there is much that can be done in the present moment. Now, more than ever, efforts must be concentrated on working with the North Korean escapee community to increase their role in planning for North Korea’s future.
*Names of North Korean interviewees quoted in this article are pseudonyms.
This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.