368231649Who hasn’t heard about the notorious Kim Jong-un, the ruthless dictator of North Korea and heir to its communist dynasty? Particularly with his recent nuclear threats on the United States and South Korea, he’s pretty hard to ignore. As leader of one of the most secluded states in the world and owner of a few nuclear weapons, the young Kim has been on the front page of almost every news periodical in recent months. Despite all of the attention being directed at the hermit nation, however, the press has been largely silent on one of Kim’s greatest crimes to date: his crimes against humanity.

Behind the tourist and diplomatic facade of Pyongyang, the North Korean government is perpetrating one of the gravest series of humanitarian crimes on the planet. The vast majority of North Koreans live in abject poverty. Since the famine of 1990, millions of North Koreans have starved to death and countless others have been victims of malnutrition. Today, the oppressive Kim regime continues to aggravate the crisis with isolationist policies that block external aid from entering the country. The little aid that does find its way into the country is generally seized by the government and distributed to the military and the already-wealthy elite.

The use of political prison camps is another key example of the regime’s secret atrocities. As part of its censorship policy, the North Korean government uses a large network of prison camps to house political prisoners — those who have had associations with dissidents, escapees or other “undesirables.” Should a person commit certain crimes, learn privileged information or attempt to escape from North Korea, he and up to three generations of his family will be arrested and imprisoned. Most sentences in prison camps are for life. Any children born in the camps are automatically sentenced to a lifetime of labor and starvation. Conditions within these camps are reported to be appalling, comparable to the concentration camps of the Second World War and the gulags of Stalin’s USSR. Prisoners are often subjected to hard labor, beatings, rape and public executions. The government uses the estimated 200,000 political prisoners — children included — as a source of cheap labor.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called the North Korean state of affairs “one of the worst — but least understood and reported — human rights situations in the world.” On March 22, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution that established a commission of inquiry for human rights abuses. The resolution, introduced by Japan and the European Union and backed by the United States, condemns the “grave, widespread and systematic” abuse of human rights in North Korea and calls for a year-long investigation “to produce a more complete picture, quantify and qualify the violations in terms of international law, attribute responsibility to particular actors or perpetrators of these violations and suggest effective courses of international action.”

Though the real political impact of this inquiry remains uncertain, there are high hopes that it will pressure North Korean leadership into some sort of change. At the very least, it is what the Human Rights Watch has called “a landmark step.” However, we cannot forget that it is still only the first step in a long forthcoming process. The inquiry will have the power to finally identify and quantify the abuses going on in North Korea, but that information will not serve much purpose unless there is action taken against these human rights abuses.

While the world has been focused on Kim’s nuclear tests and political posturing, the human rights crisis has taken the back seat. Instead of listening to Kim’s inflammatory rhetoric, we must turn our ears to the North Korean population’s cries for help and respond to the call.

Shaquille James and Allison Kim are freshmen in the College and School of Foreign Service, respectively. They are members of Truth and Human Rights in North Korea.

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