On Friday, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), a body established by the United Nations Human Rights Council, released the results of a year-long investigation into conditions in North Korea. The 372-page report was characterized by the BBC as "one of the most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations."
A letter from the Commission of Inquiry dated January 20, 2014, warned Kim Jong-un that he could face international prosecution for crimes against humanity under the doctrine of command responsibility. After describing the concept of military command responsibility, the letter states, "On the same basis, a civilian superior will incur personal criminal responsibility if (1) the civilian superior knew, or consciously disregarded, information which clearly indicated that subordinates within his effective responsibility and control were committing crimes against humanity, and (2) the civilian superior fails to take all necessary and reasonable measures within the superior's power to prevent or repress their commission or to submit the matter to competent authorities for investigation and prosecution."
The Commission of Inquiry's findings and recommendations are detailed and extensive. Some are addressed to China, urging respect for the legal principle of non-refoulement. The report urges the UN Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution. These and many other recommendations are offered against the backdrop of this stinging rebuke to the United Nations:
The fact that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as a State Member of the United Nations, has for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community. The international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity, because the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has manifestly failed to do so. In particular, this responsibility must be accepted in the light of the role played by the international community (and by the great powers in particular) in the division of the Korean peninsula and because of the unresolved legacy of the Korean War. These unfortunate legacies help not only to explain the intractability of the human rights situation but also why an effective response is now imperative. (Para. 1217)
The findings of this report may offer nothing new in terms of our understanding of what has been happening in North Korea, but the Commission of Inquiry deserves gratitude for thoroughly documenting the extraordinary human rights disaster existing there and boldly challenging the international community to move beyond the status quo that has persisted since the end of the Korean War. It will be interesting to see how the UN Human Rights Council, which must accept or reject the report's conclusions and recommendations, will now respond.