Justice for NK Human Rights Victims Elusive in Transitional Period


Image: TJWG

Accountability and justice for North Korea’s brutal human
rights violations present significant challenges in an era of transition, said
experts at the recent seminar “Transitional Justice and North Korea” held at
Seoul’s Korea University. 

During the conference, hosted by Transitional Justice
Working Group (TJWG), SSK Human Rights Forum, and the International Human
Rights Center at Korea University, the expert panel gathered to discuss how to
approach justice for North Korean officials and workers at political prison
camps and victims of abuses on a unified Korean Peninsula.

Holding the North Korean authorities accountable for
massive and systematic violations of residents’ human rights will prove
“immensely difficult,” head of TJWG, Lee Younghwan, stated during the seminar.
Determining who gets prosecuted and punished falls into obscurity given the
pervasive, structured network contributing to the omnipresence of human rights
infringements in the isolated nation. 

“What do we use as a standard to decide who gets prosecuted
or punished? There are many cases in which someone is both a victim and a
perpetrator,” added Baek Bum Suk, a professor at Kyunghee University. 

At the very least, however, “there will probably be
prohibition of former North Korean Party cadres from assuming governmental or
public posts upon reunification,” Dr. Kim Kyu Nam from Institute of
International Relations at University of Warsaw elaborated. Kim based his claim
on comparable cases, namely that of Poland and the Czech Republic, where former
officials were greatly limited in their positions after the fall of the
communist state. 

Meanwhile, last December, the United Nations General
Assembly urged the Security Council to consider referring Pyongyang to the
International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Issues of
countries that lack stable legal foundations or the ability to hold trials
domestically are filed to the ICC.

However, in the event of a socio-political transition,
including a reunified Korean Peninsula, the North Korean authorities may be
tried under the ICC, but more likely by a domestic legal system or a hybrid
court presided over by international and Korean judges. Lee based this
assertion on the notion that South Korean jurisprudence and legal mechanisms
could be a foundation for dealing with North Korean abuses therefore lessening
the need for any new international court.

He added that, presumably, North Korean authorities lack
feelings of culpability in their actions because the atrocities have been woven
into society for such a protracted period of time with a legion of people at
every level methodically sustaining the system. “If one person is responsible
for something, it is easier for that person to feel guilty about his or her
actions. But in North Korea, where human rights violations involve multiple
perpetrators, the perpetrators’ sense of guilt decreases,” he noted. 

Unfortunately, the greatest impediment in moving forward
with any form of trial or justice in the future is the lack of forensic
evidence of the human rights violations perpetrated in the isolated state. “It
is unlikely that we can easily obtain legal documents or tangible proof that
clearly shows the structure of the crimes,” Lee explained. “Securing this
forensic evidence is not only essential to seeking accountability, but also
identifying and providing reparations to the true victims,” he continued.

Kim Yong Sun, a survivor of North Korea’s notorious
political prison camp in Yodeok County, known as Camp 15, confirmed this,
pointing out that people are routinely sent to political prison camps in North
Korea without knowledge of their alleged crime–let alone a trial. “I was not
at all informed of what ‘crime’ I committed,” she said. “I was told at the
prison camp, ‘You unconsciously defied the State. You deserve to die, but the
great, magnanimous Leader decided to spare you.’” Families of the victims are
kept equally in the dark, not knowing if their loved one has passed away or has
been sent to an internment camp. 

Dr. Kim from the University of Warsaw, also weighed in on
the discussion, addressing the oft-drawn parallel between North Korea and Nazi
Germany. “The case of North Korea is quite different from the Nazis. When the
Nazis sent Jews to concentration camps, they meticulously recorded everything,
because they planned to flaunt the eradication of Jews as a ‘great
accomplishment’ once the war was over,” he noted, adding that in the case of the
North Korea, however, sufficient records are not likely to be kept when someone
is sent to or dies in a political prison camp.

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