“The voices of the North Korean people.” This is what Miss Sonja Biserko calls the report the United Nations released on March 17th, addressing the systematic and widespread violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “For the first time the people of North Korea spoke out to the world about their situation,” and Sonja Biserko, one of the three Commissioners, feels this is the main value of the report. The basis of this report is constituted by the hundreds of testimonies of people who fled their deplorable situation in North Korea. A report that will hopefully “bring back human rights issues on the top of the agenda when we talk about North Korea”.

Sonja Biserko has a busy schedule ahead of her when she sits down with us in the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague on May 20th 2014 to discuss the report. She and Michael Kirby, two of the three-headed Commission responsible for the report, have just travelled from Geneva where the report was officially presented, and the next day they are off to London to further promote their discoveries.

The findings of the report are appalling, blood chilling for those who read it.. Although many facts were already known, this report is unprecedented in the way it sheds light on the scale and nature of the grave human rights violations that have been committed in this country for decades. Crimes against humanity, such as murder, torture, enslavement, incarceration in political prison camps, forced abortions, and rape are widespread and ongoing in North Korea, because “the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”. The Commission calls upon the international community for immediate action and, what is more, a referral of the situation in the DPRK to the UN Security Council.

As the Commission was denied access in both North Korea and the border regions in China, its investigation depended heavily on testimonies of survivors and victims. These eye-witnesses told their stories either confidentially or at the public hearings that took place in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. “There was always such a pressure on us emotionally to hear all the stories,” Miss Biserko confides. As the founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, she feels her own experience in the Balkans gave her “some sort of insight in the situation.” Although aware of the differences between the situation in North Korea and the former Yugoslavia, she feels “some mechanisms are in fact similar.”

“From the very beginning the Commission was exposed to the public,” Biserko tells us with a hint of pride. “not only through the media, but also by the NGO communities.” The fact that the Commission worked in an open and transparent manner, as evidence by the public hearings, greatly contributed to the coverage by international media. The Commission has welcomed the attention from the media with open arms; Biserko promises that “all three of us will try to keep this report and this momentum alive, because it does not always happen that such an enormous effort has been rewarded with publicity.” However, as the more horrendous and therefore more sensational themes of the report, such as specific forms of torture and practices of forced abortion, have received the most attention by the media, other, “less sensational”, subjects have been generally overlooked. Biserko underlines that “what really matters, is to acknowledge that an entire nation has been suffering for so long.”

Certain groups victimised by State policies are hardly noticed by the media. They include orphans on both sides of the Chinese-Korean border, and international abductees, mainly from Japan and South Korea. Michael Kirby, the Committee’s chairman, expressed earlier at the T.M.C. Asser Institute how he and the other Commissioners were personally touched by the stories of abductions. They were carried out with no consideration of the consequences for the abductees or their families.

Another significant section of the report that until now has been underexposed, deals with the abominable position of North Korean women in China. These women are lured into China by the prospect of a better life, but frequently fall victim to human traffickers. Biserko expresses her concern about this vulnerable group: “They are sold as ‘wives’ to Chinese farmers or ethnic Korean men who hold them in sexual enslavement, and are often sold out when they get pregnant.” Since they are at risk of being forcibly repatriated to North Korea, these women have no one to turn to. Once repatriated, the sexual abuse continues. Biserko tells us that when they are “sent back by the Chinese government, they are forced to have an abortion, and “not in a medical way but really forceful”.

The systematic violence against women is part of the institutionalised discrimination based on traditional gender roles in North Korea. Although the regime attempts to maintain the inequality between men and women, it is reported that slowly but steadily the social balance is changing. Miss Biserko explains how “women really carried the burden during famine years”, which had a positive effect of empowering them in the male-dominated society. “They are no longer afraid, and it was fear with which the regime was able to keep the entire nation in submission. These women are the first to break away from this fear, which has been constantly imposed on them over decades and in different ways.” Biserko elaborates that this fear, embedded in the indoctrination and propaganda each DPRK citizen is subject to from an early age, has shaped the mindset of the North Korean people. She continues: “This country is totally disconnected from the rest of the world, totally isolated and incarcerated in its own borders, and everybody who tries to get across is punished or traumatized. In North Korea there are two realities. The first is the society, the entire nation itself which is fighting for its own survival, while the second is the reality of the regime, which is really struggling to survive and keep going on.”

While the State struggles to cling to its power, this newfound energy amongst women might indicate some sort of social change in North Korea. Yet, it seems more realistic that change will not come from inside the DPRK, but from abroad. As the report has mentioned persistently, the international community should undertake immediate action. China could play a pivotal role, for instance by ending the forced repatriation of women to North Korea. This is, however, rather unlikely since the Chinese government has rejected the findings of the Commission. Even more so, China is expected to veto the referral to the UN Security Council, making international interference in North Korea almost impossible. Yet, Biserko does not think the Chinese position on this issue should be interpreted so negatively. “They do engage in some human rights issues recently,” she explains. “So there is hope that they may take our recommendations into consideration.” Miss Biserko feels that China should be left some space and time to settle, instead of being judged on what they have said now.

Developments following the release of the report, not disclosed until now, corroborate Biserko’s opinion about China’s possible support. Although China has publicly disregarded the report, it did agree to an ‘Arria-formula meeting’. This type of meeting is an informal, confidential gathering of Security Council members and invitees, through which there can be a frank and private dialogue at the highest level about matters concerning the UN Security Council. This ‘Arria’ meeting took place on April 17th 2014, as Biserko and her fellow members of the Commission, Kirby and Darusman, met with Australia, France and the US. China, however, remained absent, despite it’s earlier statement.

Nonetheless, Miss Biserko makes it quite clear that these matters are beyond the Commission’s mandate. “It is not for us here to prosecute; our mandate was really to document.” If it ever comes to legal proceedings, she points out that “an entire nation cannot be put on trial for the crimes of the regime.” Therefore the Commission has recommended the prosecution by an international court of only the most responsible. “These kind of trials are very important in terms of introducing the rule of law.” Additionally, with the report as a starting point for the establishment of a record, she feels it is crucial “to allow these people to testify and to tell their life stories because they suffered extremely.” She emphasises how important these testimonies are to fully comprehend the context: “It really helps to understand how and why this country came into this position and to understand why certain things happen.”

In conclusion of our conversation, Miss Biserko expresses that both justice and truth are desired outcomes of the report. She admits that justice could be difficult to achieve, therefore “truth may have the priority.” Hastily she adds: “Justice is important too, I don’t deny it, but you asked me what the priority is.” However, she questions the effectiveness of the judicial system to publicly recognise the historic truth. For Biserko it is a lesson learned from her homeland. “We have a national court back home, but do you know who they try? Only perpetrators. There was not a single trial against police or army officers or anyone in the structure of the State. So the State is not responsible. Thus, justice is never complete, because it is never the way we expect it to.” For Miss Sonja Biserko, the acknowledgement of the truth remains her first concern. “People have to understand what happened. The truth is not only to have factual information, but also to have a true understanding for the generations in North Korea to come.”


Sonja Biserko with authors Joo Hee Heidebrink and Dorien Admiraal