The UN Security Council's second ever meeting on human rights in North Korea went forward on Thursday despite Chinese efforts to cancel the session, as member states heard accounts of torture and starvation in the Hermit Kingdom.
After calling for a procedural vote meant to block the meeting, China was joined by Russia, Venezuela, and Angola in opposing the session, while Nigeria and Chad abstained. That left nine countries in favor, only a shade above the eight needed for a majority. Permanent members like China and Russia do not have veto power during procedural votes, unlike Security Council resolutions.
"The Security Council is not the place to address human rights, nor should it politicize the issue," said Beijing's deputy ambassador Wang Min, echoing comments previously made by Chinese diplomats. Wang added that the issue of human rights in North Korea "does not constitute a threat to international peace and security" – by which the council's purview is defined.
US Ambassador Samantha Power, who convened the session, spoke against China and the others who joined them in opposition on Thursday.
"I would like to ask whether those countries think that systematic torture, forced starvation, and crimes against humanity are stabilizing or good for international peace and security," said Power. "These arguments – some of which we've heard here today – will not go down well in history."
The Security Council met for the first time on human rights in North Korea last year following the release of a UN commission of inquiry that found widespread and gross human rights violations in the country, known officially as the Democractic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Several Council members, as well as the UN's human rights chief, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, said on Thursday that the situation in the DPRK ought to be brought before the International Criminal Court. North Korea, however, is not a member of the court, and the ICC would only have jurisdiction over crimes committed in its territory with a Security Council referral — a move that China and Russia would be expected to block.
The session came hours after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared to say that his government was in possession of a Hydrogen bomb. Kim's suggestion was brushed aside by American officials, but the statement served as a reminder that punitive measures, including UN and US sanctions, on North Korea have centered on its nuclear program, and not its dismal and alarming human rights record.
During Power's speech she asked two North Korean defectors present in the audience to stand as she told their stories in brief. Earlier in the day the two — Grace Jo and Jung Gwan Il — spoke at an event organized by Human Rights Watch. Jo, who lost her six brothers and sisters to starvation, said that her father was also arrested and tortured by North Korean authorities "because he illegally traveled to China to find food and returned to our country."
"He passed away while he was transferring to another city's prison," she said.
Jung, speaking through a translator, said that he was arrested in 1999 after colleagues implicated him for communicating with South Koreans as part of his job at a trading company.
"From the very day I was arrested I was beaten very severely," said Jung. "All of my bottom teeth were broken at the time."
After nearly a year of torture, Jung ultimately confessed to being a spy in order to avoid more abuse. He spent four years in jail, during which time he lost nearly half his body weight due to starvation tactics employed by authorities.
Jung and fellow prisoners were made to work 16 hour days, farming corn in the summer and cutting down trees in the winter. In order to prevent prisoners form eating the corn, authorities spread human feces on them, but the laborers still ate the seeds and kernels out of desperation. "Not a single person who did so survived," he said. Those who were injured while felling trees where thrown in a building to die, their bodies left until springtime, when Jung and others were made to shovel them out into a pit.
"The sight was indescribable because the corpses would decay and melt and freeze," he said.
Last year's commission of inquiry found that as many 120,000 North Koreans languished in such camps, where thousands have died.
Speaking at the security Council, Zeid said that the DPRK's leadership has shown some willingness in recent months to engage with the international community on human rights. Still, he said, the situation in the country should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
"The continuing violations and systematic failings simply heighten international anxieties over the possibility of a precipitous turn, an event of great centrifugal consequence, which could rapidly engulf the region," said Zeid. "If the international community is serious over reducing tensions in the region, more must be done collectively to ensure respect for human rights in the DPRK."
Watch VICE News' documentary Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang: