Concludes Washington Visit; heads towards analysis of testimony and starts considering conclusions

UN Commission on Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK wraps up Global Tour of public hearings

Washington, D.C., 1 November 2013 -- Victims of human rights violations in North Korea now residing in the United States of America and a host of experts with deep knowledge of the situation in the Asian nation, presented their testimony to the United Nations-mandated Commission of Inquiry in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), chaired by former Australian Justice Michael Kirby, heard evidence from witnesses as part of its probe into human rights violations in the country.

During public hearings, conducted by Mr Kirby and his fellow UN Commissioner Sonja Biserko of Serbia, two North Korean women who had fled the DPRK revealed how they were subjected to torture, abuse and starvation.

The first of the two witnesses providing testimonies through an interpreter, Ms Jo Jinhye, described how she experienced severe malnutrition, the loss of two younger brothers and her grandmother to starvation and the arrest of her father and mother for crossing back and forth into China in search for food. When she was only 10 years old, she recounted, her baby brother died of starvation while she was holding him in her arms. She also described how her father, weakened from prolonged torture and detention, died of starvation, when while he was being transferred between prison facilities and the train in which he was locked was blocked on the tracks for 10 days.

A second witness, who asked not to be named for fear of possible retaliation, described how she was arrested and accused of prohibited religious activities. She recounted her detention in a jail for 10 days where she experienced ill-treatment such as being forced to stand outside barefoot for an entire day in below zero temperatures and was repeatedly beaten during interrogations.  Under threat of re-arrest and further punishment, she escaped to China for what she thought was a temporary period, but she ended up not being able to return to DPRK leaving behind two young daughters, one who was only five years old.  She recounted how her daughters and ex-husband were subsequently punished and made homeless because she had fled the DPRK.

The testimony of researchers, academics and experts highlighted that human rights have not figured very highly in shaping the international community’s and US policies on DPRK. Experts also analysed the food and food assistance situation in the Asian country, examining the emergence of chronic food shortages in the DPRK and the use of the food shortage as a means of control. The Commission received information on the capability of using satellite imagery to discern information about North Korea’s vast political prison camp system. The Commissioners also heard about the treatment of women prisoners in the DPRK, other violence against women and the refoulement of North Korean women from China notwithstanding the existence of a well-founded fear of persecution, torture and other gross human rights violations in the DPRK. The Commission also received testimony about US soldiers who were taken as prisoners of war during the Korean War and on the Responsibility to Protect principle and its possible applicability to the DPRK situation.

During their stay in Washington, the two Commissioners met with a wide range of actors from civil society who are concerned with the human rights situation in the DPRK and some who have longstanding experience in advocating for international and domestic mechanisms of accountability for widespread human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The Commission also met with the chair and members of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and with US State Department officials.

Speaking at a press conference today in Washington, D.C., Chairperson Kirby announced that with the conclusion yesterday of the public hearings, the Commission is wrapping up its global investigative activities and will now move into analysing the content of the testimony gathered so far as well as the large amount of other evidence and information collected during the last four months of investigation.

Established in March 2013 by the Human Rights Council, the Commission of Inquiry started its work in July after the President of the UN body appointed Ms Sonja Biserko, a human rights activist from Serbia, and Mr Michael Kirby, a retired Justice of the High Court of Australia. The third member of the Commission is Mr Marzuki Darusman, currently the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in DPRK, a former Attorney General of Indonesia. The President of the Human Rights Council additionally appointed Mr Kirby to serve as the Chair of the Commission.

In August, the Commission of Inquiry held five days of public hearings in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and two days of hearings in Tokyo, Japan, listening to the testimony of many people who had left the DPRK, victims and witnesses of abuses, family members of Japanese citizens who have been allegedly abducted by agents of the DPRK, and experts, researchers and academics. Last week, another series of public hearings was also held in London. In addition to these countries, the Commission also visited Thailand, where it held confidential hearings with family members of a victim of an alleged case of international abduction by the DPRK. In addition to receiving public testimony from more than 70 witnesses, hundreds of confidential interviews were conducted by the Commission with witnesses and victims who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals. The Commission has already provided oral updates to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The final report of the Commission of Inquiry will be discussed by the Human Rights Council in March 2014.

Noting the harrowing testimonies of some of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission, Mr Kirby reaffirmed the determination of the three members to accomplish their task and deliver the report to the Human Rights Council as per the mandate entrusted to them. “After the conclusion of the Washington public hearings, we are now confident that we have a substantial body of evidence and information that will allow us to address all the areas of investigation that the Council has requested us to cover. We will now  turn our attention to the most difficult and important request of the Council, that we look into the issue of accountability and crimes against humanity. These are issues that we cannot take lightly. No such determination can be made if we are not fully satisfied that the evidence we have gathered provides a solid base for our conclusions”, Mr Kirby said.

“Women are really at the centre of all the testimony that has been presented to us during these four months,” - Ms Biserko added. “They are the victims of the worst abuses: in detention, when they are tortured, sexually assaulted and raped; when they fend for their families suffering the effects of food shortages; by taking the dangerous routes to illegally cross into China to find ways to feed their children”.

The public hearings in Washington were held at the Kenney Auditorium at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.