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These North Korean Defectors Are Leading Calls for Kim Jong-un to Face the ICC

Two years after a UN inquiry found North Korea to be guilty of "crimes against humanity," those who testified are still pushing to see the reclusive Asian country's leader face prosecution.

by Sally Hayden
Mar 15 2016, 3:40pm

Photo via Rodong Sinmun/EPA

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

Two years after a landmark United Nations inquiry found North Korea to be guilty of "crimes against humanity," many of the North Korean defectors who gave testimonies are still pushing for what seems like an impossible goal — to see the reclusive Asian country's leader Kim Jong-un face prosecution in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"As soon as Kim Jong-un is referred to the ICC, every North Korean can know that their leader lied to their people and that's the moment the people will become aware of their own situation," Ahn Myeong Cheol told VICE News.

The UN report, released in February 2014, called for urgent action by the international community to address the human rights situation in the country, including trying Kim and other officials at the ICC.

After gathering around 300 testimonies, the UN inquiry panel accused North Korea of subjecting citizens to "unspeakable atrocities" including forced abortions, rapes, starvation, and "systematic extermination." It judged that "the gravity, scale and nature of [the] violations [in North Korea] reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world" and recommended an ICC prosecution.

But getting North Korean officials in front of the ICC requires a referral by the UN Security Council — which is highly unlikely to come about, given the veto power granted to the isolated state's traditional allies China and Russia, as permanent members of the council. Two years following the UN recommendation, such a scenario remains an distant possibility.

On the anniversary of the report's publication VICE News spoke to three of the inquiry's witnesses about what they had gone through, and why they still had faith in the idea that the international justice system could bring change in their home nation.

Ahn was born in 1969 in the Hamgyong Province; from the age of 18 he became the only person from the province selected to work as a prison guard, spending eight years working in four of the country's brutal gulags.

For a long time he believed political prisoners were unworthy of sympathy, he says readily, after being trained to think of them as less than human. He says he saw numerous prisoners beat to death, and one woman who had been imprisoned with her family at the age of five was raped by one his superiors. She was punished for "sexual misconduct," and later, while working in a coal mine, was run over by a truck and lost both her legs.

After Ahn's father criticized the government, his family were sent to prison camps, and he decided to flee. He made it to China, then South Korea where he is now the executive director of NK Watch, an organization which advocates for human rights in his birth country.

"Most of the North Korean people are victims of the violations of human rights so I think most of them would welcome the punishment of their leader," he told VICE News, but he believes outside help is necessary for regime change.

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All three of the defectors VICE News spoke to left North Korea before the latest Kim formally took power in April 2012, five months after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Since then, the country's supreme leader — the third in line of a dynasty — is believed to have conducted several purges of top generals. The number of defections has also dropped sharply — believed to be a result of tighter border controls along with less sympathetic treatment by governments in South Korea.

"It is impossible for North Korea to do a revolution by themselves," Ahn said. "I don't think it's possible because Kim Jong-un terrifies people and there is more surveillance than ever, so people in North Korea cannot decide to revolt easily because they feel afraid of the punishment."

Ahn conceded that Kim would probably never face the ICC, given the vetoes exercised by China and Russia, though he said he retains a glimmer of hope that those traditionally allied countries will eventually change their stance.

Even if it never happened, continued pressure could still help, he said: frightening North Korean military officers who "are afraid of being punished by the international community."

Ahn Myeong Cheol and Ji Seong-ho speaking in Geneva at a UN Watch event. (Photo via UN Watch)

When asked whether he feels that publicly speaking out is making any difference, Ahn said: "Even if the change is small, we hope we can bring that kind of change to North Korea."

If Kim is removed, Ahn said he isn't worried someone else would just step in to take his place. "I think that wouldn't happen because the people won't believe the leader anymore because they could realise that Kim Jong Un's grandfather and father and himself lied to their people so I think there is no possibility of another dictator in North Korea."

We Spoke to a North Korean Defector Who Escaped Terrible Working Conditions Overseas

Ji Seong-ho, was born in North Korea in 1982. When he was 13, he lost his left hand and foot when he was run over by a train while he and his mother and sister were searching for coal they could exchange for food. Ji left North Korea in 2006 crossing over the Tumen River with his brother's help — without which he would never have made it.

"It's kind of impossible for a person with disabilities to defect to China," he told VICE News.

He said the situation for those with disabilities in the country is grim. There are no wheelchairs or prosthetics, and when Ji's leg and arm were amputated, the lack of medical resources meant he was given no anaesthetic, during a four and a half hour surgery. Later, after being caught crossing the border to China to search again for food, he was beaten up, imprisoned, and given no crutches.

"There is no concept of human rights in North Korea, especially for the disabled," he said. "I was forced to hide myself in North Korea in order to not disgrace the supreme leader and the nation by showing my appearance. I suffered from violence and got insulted just because I went to China and showed my appearance even though I did that in order to escape from hunger."

Ji says he is also advocating a referral to the ICC for Kim.

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"Kim Jong Un [is] so powerful and he doesn't want to abandon his power easily, so that's the reason why people outside North Korea need to keep putting pressure and sanctions on North Korea."

Eventually, he would like to see reunification between North and South Korea, and a country run "like South Korea, a democratic country. The unified Korean peninsula would be a democratic country."

Another example of how the vulnerable are most likely to be abused is detailed by Na Young Mi, a North Korean woman born in 1977, who was forced to have an abortion by a DPRK security agent.

Though women have made up more than two-thirds of defectors since the end of the Korean War, Na said it can be more difficult for them because of the dominance of men in a society that prioritizes a "military-first" policy. "In North Korean society the man is much stronger than the woman," she told VICE News. "Women are the most vulnerable people in North Korea so it is difficult for them to defect to China or South Korea."

She too hopes for Kim's prosecution and Korea's reunification. "If the international community pays attention to the North Korean human rights issue then it's possible to change North Korea."

Meanwhile, the ICC itself has faced numerous criticisms, including the accusation that it has focused too much on developing countries in Africa while western countries committing violations to go unpunished.

In Photos: North Korean Farmers Face Parched Fields as Drought Stokes Fears of Famine

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd