Yesterday’s United Nations Report on the human rights abuses in North Korea unveiled a level of depravity and cruelty unparalleled in modern society. The 36-page initial report and 372-page report of detailed findings also revealed the systematic murder and persecution of society’s most vulnerable – the unborn and the handicapped.
It is no secret that eugenics has been a core goal for many of history’s most brutal dictatorships, and North Korea is no exception. So deep is the desire to eradicate any impurity from the population that no one with a handicap or disability is even permitted to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, even if that disability was acquired through injury or illness. Families with infants born handicapped or disabled are physically removed from the city and relocated to rural areas, where they are far less likely to come into contact with others or to be seen by visitors. Unfortunately, such removal also sentences families to a life of abject poverty with limited to no resources, simply for having an “impure” child.
One alternative sometimes offered to the family is to allow the government to take the child and to deposit him or her into a government-run institution for the disabled. One former high-level official interviewed by the U.N. Commission testified that government officials would routinely visit families who had a disabled child and urge them to turn the child over to the state. This meant agreeing to never see, or to seek out, the child again, and allowing him or her to be deposited into an unnamed government facility at a remote location. The state would then delete the child’s birth records and name from all family files, as if the child had never existed. So much secrecy surrounds the fate of these children that not even the U.N. Commission could discover how many of these facilities truly exist, though they estimate at least eleven. Essentially nothing more is known about what happens to these children after removal, though it offers a chilling explanation as to why North Korea’s last census report stated that only 3.4% of the population had a disability, despite the World Health Organization’s estimate that approximately 10% of the world population lives with one.
Other reports examined by the committee and additional testimonies revealed that infants with disabilities are routinely abandoned or killed on account of their handicap, while those who survive are often subjected to forced sterilization. And in a move reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the counsel notes “disturbing allegations of an island in South Hamgyong Province where gruesome medical testing of biological and chemical weapons has been conducted on persons with disabilities.” The council was unable to procure any firsthand accounts of this facility, but a former high-ranking Ministry of Public Security official reported being told, on two separate occasions, that certain arrested individuals were being transferred for use as medical experiments. As the report notes, further inquiry is of absolute necessity, yet, due to the North Korean structure of government and complete control, it is possible that the depth of this horror will never be known.
In what should come as little surprise, the counsel also found “a widespread prevalence of forced abortion and infanticide,” mostly against women suspected of carrying a child fathered by someone of a different nationality. While the U.N. report noted that – on the whole – North Korea’s systemic abuse is founded more on ideological and religious grounds than those of race and nationality, they also found that a strong desire to maintain the purity of the North Korean race is a secondary motive for many human rights abuses.
The vast majority of forced abortions and infanticide occurs against women who were repatriated from China on the assumption that the woman is, or could be, carrying a child partly of Chinese descent. No inquiry is made as to the identity of the father, nor is any opportunity given to prove otherwise; pregnant women who may have conceived by a Chinese man are subjected to forced abortion as a matter of course, without exception. Where the pregnancy has progressed too far to allow for an abortion, or where the abortion attempt fails, the newborn infants are systematically murdered while the mothers are forced to watch, or in many cases, they kill their own children.
Abortions themselves are carried out in a way designed to punish the mother for the conception, often by beating the women in the pelvic and abdominal region until a miscarriage results, or by forcing chemicals by hand into the vagina of the women to cause fetal death. Crude surgical abortions are also performed with sharp tongs, and often without anesthetic. As intended, the serious injury or death of the mother often results. The practice is so barbaric that Chinese guards who are holding a pregnant North Korean expatriate will sometimes allow the woman to procure an abortion at a Chinese hospital before being extradited.
Of women who are not given a forced abortion due to the late stage of pregnancy, most give birth to a stillborn child. Those who do not are forced to either suffocate their own children or watch as their infants are killed before them. Sometimes, this will be done relatively quickly, by placing the infant in a bucket of water or by holding a wet cloth over their face, but often, the guards will simply lay the newborn face down on the cell floor so that it suffocates slowly and painfully, while the mother lies nearby, unable to rescue her own infant, who is often crying from the pain of slow suffocation.
One witness recalls:
“… there was this pregnant woman who was about 9 months pregnant. She worked all day. The babies who were born were usually dead, but in this case the baby was born alive. The baby was crying as it was born; we were so curious, this was the first time we saw a baby being born. So we were watching this baby and we were so happy. But suddenly we heard the footsteps. The security agent came in and this agent of the Bowibu said that… usually when a baby is born we would wash it in a bowl of water, but this agent told us to put the baby in the water upside down. So the mother was begging. ‘I was told that I would not be able to have the baby, but I actually got lucky and got pregnant so let me keep the baby, please forgive me’, but this agent kept beating this woman, the mother who just gave birth. And the baby, since it was just born, it was just crying. And the mother, with her shaking hands she picked up the baby and she put the baby face down in the water. The baby stopped crying and we saw this water bubble coming out of the mouth of the baby. And there was an old lady who helped with the labour, she picked up the baby from the bowl of water and left the room quietly. So those kind of things repeatedly happened.”
– Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 126.
Multiple witnesses testified to seeing these atrocities committed while guards decreed that the babies did not deserve to live because they were “not human,” while other witnesses explained that even conceiving a child of mixed racial descent causes the woman herself to be viewed as “less than human.”
Michael Kirby, chair of the U.N. investigative counsel, has sent a letter to Kim Jong-un stating that he and many others may be subjected to trial in the International Criminal Court, but as North Korea’s strong ally, China, occupies a permanent seat on the ICC and has already expressed that it supports neither the investigation nor the findings, there is little hope that justice will even be attempted. This leaves the North Korean people in a world of suffering, the depth of which remains unknown.