The United Nations’ human rights chief said on Tuesday that “apparently systematic” human rights violations in North Korean detention centres, including sexual violence against women and girls, could amount to crimes against humanity.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the alleged violations appeared to have taken place under the “direct authority of two ministries” and with the likely involvement of “higher authorities” in North Korea. She did not name the ministries.
Bachelet told the Human Rights Council during an update on North Korea that the allegations were based on her office’s improved monitoring of the reclusive country.
“They may amount to crimes against humanity, which could engage the individual criminal responsibility of DPRK officials,” she told the 47-member council in Geneva, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.
Pyongyang’s delegation stayed away during Bachelet’s brief speech.
The UN high commissioner said her office was trying to identify the people most responsible for the crimes.
At the same time, Bachelet said her office is also looking at the alleged abduction of foreign nationals, including people from Japan and South Korea.
“We are working with states, civil society and other partners to identify and promote a number of avenues for accountability.”
Bachelet said an accountability project for North Korea was challenging and that management of an information and evidence repository was an “enormous undertaking” because it requires sophisticated software.
It is unclear what the international body would do next to address the alleged abuses.
In the past, Pyongyang has warned that UN and the Security Council that it would consider any discussion of the country’s human rights situation a “serious provocation” that would increase tension in the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has repeatedly rejected accusations of human rights abuses and blames sanctions for a dire humanitarian situation. The country has been under UN sanctions since 2006 because of its ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes.
In October 2019, the UN independent investigator on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana said there had been no improvement in North Korea’s human rights situation during his three years as special rapporteur.
Quintana also said that people continue “to live in the entrenched fear” of being sent to a political prison camp on suspicion of being “a spy” or a “traitor”.
A 2014 UN report on North Korean human rights also concluded that North Korean security chiefs – and possibly leader Kim himself – should face justice for overseeing a state-controlled system of “Nazi-style atrocities”.
A November 2014 resolution also asked the UN Security Council to refer the leadership in Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for possible charges of “crimes agaisnt humanity.”