North Korean crimes constitute genocide

February 26, 2014

A commission at the United Nations accused the North Korean government of committing crimes against humanity in a report released on Feb. 17. The investigation documented an extensive list of crimes — “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” It is important that the phrase “crimes against humanity” never loses its meaning. It refers to acts so monstrous that they devalue the dignity of every single human being — living, dead and not yet born. Despite the propriety of this comprehensive phrase, it fails to capture the crushing expanse of the Kim dynasty. There is, and has been, a genocide in North Korea. The UN is too timid to acknowledge it.

The 1947 draft of the Genocide Convention defined genocide as the “destruction of racial, national, linguistic, religious or political groups of human beings.” Joseph Stalin objected to the inclusion of political groups, and the phrase was deleted. Accordingly, the U.S.S.R. was not held accountable for the murder of 20 million innocents during the Great Purge. The document now defines genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Those who think that this definition shields North Korea from prosecution for genocide are mistaken. The phrase “in whole or in part” closes the gap available to Stalin in the years after World War II. A literal interpretation of the document allows for political killings to be considered genocidal, and they should be.

The North Korean government holds around 180,000 people in gulag-like political prisons where they suffer enslavement, torture and rape. A million people are thought to have died in this captivity. A further 3.5 million have died during a famine caused by government policies. The comparisons to Nazi Germany are appropriate and the parallels are direct. Still, there is no mention of the word genocide in the entire report from the UN commission. Its absence prompts further questions.

There is a legal duty embedded in the convention to “prevent and punish” genocide. This duty can be, and has been, easily avoided by misleading words. Former President Bill Clinton knew that genocide had engulfed Rwanda in April 1994 but his administration labeled it “black on black violence” to justify his inaction. Leaked minutes show that American and British diplomats used the term genocide in private.

Clinton apologized to the Rwandan people from the steps of Air Force One. He said, “never again must we be shy in the face of evidence.” There is an omission in the UN report and the world’s superpowers cannot shy away from acknowledging it.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 26 print edition. Peter Keffer is opinion editor. Email him at pkeffer@nyunews.com.

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