Imagine a world, where prisoners subsist under starvation conditions, forced to survive on grass and rodents. Imagine a world, where a leading politician is arrested, tried and executed in four short days all before the glare of TV cameras. Imagine a world, where the mere possession of a soap opera is considered a major offense against the state.

Far from a late chapter scene from an Orwellian novel, these are just some of the evocative images of North Korean human rights abuses that Michael Kirby discussed in an address to the ANU on Tuesday the 19th of August. The address focused on the former High Court judges’ recent report to the United Nations in his capacity as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The report was published in late February and found that ‘widespread and gross human rights violations’ are committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (‘DPRK’). These abuses are linked inherently to state policy, with the main perpetrators ranging from ‘the State Security Department, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the Korean People’s Army’ to ‘the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the judiciary and the Workers’ Party of Korea’. The report has recommended that the perpetrators of all crimes against humanity in the DPRK be prosecuted.

Pyongyang, as one might expect, has rejected the report and its findings.

In fact, it has refused to accept a single recommendation of the one hundred and eight seven recommendations made by the UN to improve human rights breaches in North Korea.

In his lecture on the report, Kirby focused upon three areas, the report itself, its methodology, and its current progress within the UN machinery. The Commission arose directly as a response to North Korea’s obstinacy towards the UN – it refused access to the Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman – and subsequently it was the only Commission of Inquiry created without a motion for a vote. Kirby believes it armed the commission with strength and resolve to know that there was virtual unanimity that the situation needed examination.


The Commission was given a nine point mandate that covered, per the report: ‘violations of the right to food; the full range of violations associated with prison camps; torture and inhuman treatment; arbitrary arrest and detention; discrimination, in particular in the systemic denial and violation of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms; violations of the freedom of expression; violations of the right to life;  violations of the freedom of movement, and; enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other States.’

In his lecture, Kirby specifically addressed abuses regarding detention centres, restrictions on movement, food and discrimination. North Korea operates large prison camps, though the DPRK deny they exist. The Commission has been able to corroborate their existence through cross-referencing testimony and satellite imaging. It is estimated between 80,000 and 120,000 people are currently imprisoned in these camps in conditions Kirby described as of ‘great deprivation.’ As mentioned above, food is scarce, with prisoners subsisting on grass and rodents to survive. What is more shocking, is that up to two generations of a prisoners family will be imprisoned alongside them. The goal, according to Kirby is to ‘remove the scourge from society’. North Korea refused the commission access to the detention centres.

Perhaps more startling are the figures on malnutrition. North Korea suffered a famine in the mid-90s that, while the result of natural causes, was only exacerbated by the disorganisation of the state’s markets. The improvements since are hardly worth applause. On North Korea’s own figures, 27% of newborn children are born stunted as a result of malnutrition in the womb. This malnutrition amongst neonates and their mothers causes long term health problems. In the face of this poverty, North Korea strictly regulates movement between hamlets, and controls the influx of foreign information. Possession of South Korean soap operas is considered a major offense, due to the image they provide of a prosperous, middle class life of motor cars, international holidays and capitalist brands.

What Kirby highlighted as an element of his report that he did not think received enough attention was discrimination on the grounds of religion. At partition, North and South Korea had roughly the same sized Christian population. The Christian population of North Korea now stands at 0.8% of the general population. The big question Kirby raised, is the uncertainty behind the cause of this decrease. It is unknown whether Christians have been purged from North Korea, have fled, or have denounced religion out of self-preservation. It remains a serious offense to be in possession of Christian paraphernalia, which is often found in possession of would be escapees returned to North Korea by the Chinese. The escape routes into China and South Korea are mostly run by Christians.

The last area of human rights abuses that Kirby raised in his lecture were that of the caste system and abductions. North Korea has operated a caste system since the days of Kim Il-sung, and the population is broken down into over fifty subclasses, but it is more broadly sorted into three categories – the elite core class, the subdued but untrustworthy wavering class, and the enemies of the state, the hostile class – people who for one reason or another are identified as having loyalties beyond the DPRK. The hostile class are denied education, and according to Kirby sent to work in arduous conditions in mines in North-East Korea.

North Korea has also exercised a practice of abduction for people they perceive to be of benefit to the economy. Towards the end of the Korean War it is believed North Korea abducted approximately 100,000 South Koreans, mostly young men. This is in addition to their practice of taking large numbers of Prisoners of War, of whom only 7000 were returned after the armistice.

The Commission was able to access now declassified archives from the Soviet Union, where there are records of conversations between Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung that not just confirmed the abduction policies, but also contradict North Korea’s account of how the Korean War began, confirming the UN’s long-held assertion that it arose out of a North Korean invasion of the South and not, a response to a South Korean attack on the North.

These are just some of the examples of the human rights abuses alleged by the Commission of Inquiry against North Korea. As Michael Kirby was quick to point out, the unique methodology of this Inquiry allowed for records to be kept of all witnesses, and for the report to be discursive and detailed. The report is expected to be tabled for discussion by the UN General Assembly in September, having already been the subject of an ARIA briefing attended by the majority of the Security Council. It is then expected to progress to the Security Council, which Kirby is hopeful will refer the report on to a prosecutor at the International Court.

The full report, including transcripts of testimony and evidence, is available on the OHCHR website. Michael Kirby’s full lecture, including a detailed discussion of the Common Law methodology of the Commission, and the progress the report is making in the UN, can be accessed on ANU’s youtube channel.


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