Shocking they may be, but the "unspeakable atrocities" being committed in North Korea come as sadly little surprise. Despite the best efforts of three generations of the Kim regime, enough tales of repression, famine, and a network of brutal gulags have trickled out for there to be few illusions as to the crimes against humanity being perpetrated.
The report published by a United Nations commission yesterday is still a landmark, however. Not only do the findings of the year-long investigation, compiled from public hearings with more than 80 victims and witnesses, paint the most detailed picture yet of the appalling reality of life in the world’s most closed state. The resulting catalogue of rape, murder, torture and enslavement is also the UN’s first official indictment of North Korea’s human rights record and one that concludes with the explicit recommendation that the situation be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The question now is what happens next. And the most probable answer is not a huge amount. There are any number of practical hurdles to overcome. The ICC’s jurisdiction only extends back to 2002, for example; any crimes pre-dating the court require a special tribunal, such as that set up in Sierra Leone, which in turn would need support from within the country. But it is not the logistics that are the primary stumbling block here. Rather, it is that such plans would need to be passed by the Security Council, one of whose permanent, veto-wielding members is China, North Korea’s sole ally.
There was some evidence, during Kim Jong-un’s most recent bout of military posturing, that Beijing was losing patience with its outcast neighbour. Not opposing further sanctions in response to provocative war games is one thing, though, and upholding the reach of international law quite another.
At best, the UN may extend its mandate for monitoring human rights in North Korea. Any extra pressure is, of course, welcome. But so long as the Kim regime has China’s backing, little will change. It is not the judges in The Hague that must act on this harrowing report, then. It is the politicians in Beijing.