Last week, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued a report detailing crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean regime against its own people. The report compiled and confirmed mounting evidence of atrocities and oppression and called on the international community to “accept its responsibility to protect” North Korean citizens. We consider the report’s moral implications and explore how other nations might react.


  • Roberta Cohen Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution; Co-Chair, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; member, Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Jared Genser Managing Director, Perseus Strategies, LLC; founder, Freedom Now


  • 13:26:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOften bizarre and nearly, well, unbelievable stories that have come to light about life in North Korea have long painted a picture of a repressive, isolated and often brutal regime creating an image of a nation where freedom is anything but a given and order is imperative. The accounts have long been considered difficult to verify and to corroborate but last week a UN commission of inquiry issued a report that compiled and confirmed crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government against its own people, calling on the International Community to, quoting here, "accept its responsibility to protect North Korean citizens."

  • 13:27:02

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to consider the moral implications of the commission's findings and how other nations might react is Roberta Cohen. She is a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at Brookings Institution here in Washington. She is also co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and a member of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Robert Cohen, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:27:24

    MS. ROBERTA COHENMy pleasure.

  • 13:27:25

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Jared Genser. He is managing director of Perseus Strategies, LLC. He's also founder of Freedom Now and co-author of "The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights" coming out in April. Jared Genser, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:27:41

    MR. JARED GENSERThanks for having me.

  • 13:27:42

    NNAMDIIt's a conversation we'd like you to join. You can do so by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think the UN or, for that matter, individual countries can or should do about humanitarian conditions in North Korea? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to Jared, many have long suspected the North Korean government of crimes against people. Stories have trickled out in growing numbers from former prisoners who have escaped the country.

  • 13:28:11

    NNAMDIBefore I get to the UN report last week, however, North Korea has always had this notion of being, well, a hermit kingdom if we go back to the 20th century. You say that whole notion is outdated.

  • 13:28:25

    GENSERWell, it is outdated because in the wake of the 1990s famine, '97, '98 where a million people plus are estimated to have died, many North Koreans started to stream out of the country primarily through China. And today we have about 25,000 North Korean defectors, as they're referred to, refugees who have escaped from North Korea. A hundred plus escape from the North Korean gulag system, the rest from North Korea. All of them have been interviewed by human rights groups. And compiling their reports and using Google Map and technology we're able to know a whole lot more than we have ever known.

  • 13:29:00

    GENSERAnd so I think today one can say that you have a pretty good picture of what life is like in North Korea, at least among those who have chosen to leave. And life is very grim.

  • 13:29:09

    NNAMDIWhat does the report the UN released last week tell us about life in North Korea and how significant are its findings?

  • 13:29:15

    GENSERWell, it's findings are both extraordinary and unremarkable by equal terms. They're extraordinary in the sense that it describes a governmental system that is designed to repress its own population. And you're talking about chronic malnutrition that's intentionally imposed on the population as a means of control, 34 percent of children chronically malnourished. You also have a vast gulag system called the kwanliso which has 80 to 120,000 people in it.

  • 13:29:41

    GENSERIf you're viewed to be a dissenter by the North Korean government, they don't just send you to the gulag, but your parents and your children, three generations. Starvation level rations, torture, other horrific stuff going on there. So, you know, I think that, you know, the life for the 24 million strong population is very, very challenging indeed.

  • 13:30:01

    NNAMDIRoberta Cohen, the report stops short of calling the situation in North Korea genocide. How does the UN differentiate between crimes against humanity and genocide? And how significant is that distinction in terms of what can be done?

  • 13:30:17

    COHENThe genocide definition comes out of the genocide convention of 1948. And that was really in response to the holocaust in the Second World War and the intentional murder of Jewish people. The Commission of Inquiry said that genocide does not apply in this case. And that is because genocide is the intentional destruction of a national or ethnic or racial or religious group.

  • 13:30:50

    COHENAnd in this case, political crimes are really what we're talking about. You have, according to the report, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been exterminated in camps over the last five decades. These are basically political crimes. There is some small discussion about whether the killing of Christians, which has been done, could be tantamount to genocide, but the report actually feels that they cannot make that determination at this point with the evidence that's there.

  • 13:31:26

    COHENBut crimes against humanity which are found are crimes that shocked the conscience of humanity. These are very serious grave crimes and they encompass widespread or systematic attacks on a population where it's known. These are not random or excesses. So murder, extermination, torture and forced abortions and sexual violence and a whole slew of the most atrocious crimes are crimes against humanity. And they're considered among the most serious crimes that can be perpetrated. And they are defined more fully in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 2002.

  • 13:32:04

    NNAMDIHow about the legal basis for this report, Jared Genser? So what legal frameworks within the UN allow for this kind of report and what precedence are there for it?

  • 13:32:15

    GENSERSure. Well, so the UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korea MassAtrocity crimes was created by the UN Human Rights Council, which is a body based in Geneva, 47 member states of the council itself. And the council voted actually unanimously to create this Commission of Inquiry. We've seen other commissions of inquiry into the MassAtrocity crimes. There's currently one underway in relation to Syria.

  • 13:32:38

    GENSERWe've also seen historically commissions of inquiry created by the UN that looked into the situation in Darfur, that looked into the situation many years later in Cambodia and Khmer Rouge. And so these commissions are comprised of independent experts who are pointed. This one was chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, and with staffing from the office of the high commissioner for human rights. And they were given a specific mandate to look at actually eight sets of crimes of the kind that Robert was discussing and to assess whether or not crimes against humanity were taking place.

  • 13:33:16

    GENSERAnd in that sense what is unremarkable about the conclusions here is that we've seen reports from NGOs over the last dozen years, particularly Robert's NGO which I'm proud to be affiliated with as well, that have documented the stories of defectors from the country and described the range of atrocities going on.

  • 13:33:35

    GENSERBut what makes this so important is that this is the first time that the UN has spoken with a single voice and said and concluded that not only are crimes against humanity taking place, but that the International Community has a responsibility to protect the civilians of North Korea and to take concrete action to try to ameliorate their suffering and ultimately to bring the perpetrators to justice.

  • 13:33:56

    NNAMDIJared Genser is managing director of Perseus Strategies. He's also founder of Freedom Now and co-author of the book "The United Nations Security Council and the Age of Human Rights" that's coming out in April. He joins us in studio to discuss North Korea and human rights violations by the government there with Roberta Cohen, non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. She's also co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and member of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  • 13:34:26

    NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. When do you think we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to intervene in countries where crimes against humanity are taking place, 800-433-8850? You can send email to Roberta Cohen, as a nation and an international community, or part of one, we have looked back at World War II and wondered why did we not intervene earlier? After learning hard lessons from this history, what moral obligation does the U.S. or and the International Community at large have to do something about the situation we now see in North Korea?

  • 13:35:06

    COHENLet me mention a decision of 2005 that was taken by 193 heads of state in the world. And it basically is called the responsibility to protect. And this says that if a government does not protect its own population from crimes against humanity, from genocide, from war crimes, from ethnic cleansing, then attention shifts to the International Community. The responsibility begins to shift. And this is basically saying that the world is not ready to tolerate without any kind of actions, these kinds of crimes without doing something.

  • 13:35:54

    COHENAnd when it shifts to the International Community that means that other states will begin to take steps. They could be political, they could be economic. As a last option they could be military, that try to deal with the situation when their own government won't protect these people.

  • 13:36:11

    NNAMDIWould you say, Jared Genser, that that is what is qualitatively different about this report from the UN than the reports we have been seeing from nonprofits and the individual accounts we have been hearing in the past?

  • 13:36:22

    GENSERYeah, I mean, we have seen the sort of digestion by the UN system to the point of giving it collective heartburn at the conclusions of all this evidence that has been gathered. The summary of the report is about 35 pages but the full report itself is 350 plus pages and was based on ten days of public hearings and 80 witnesses. Robert and I were both witnesses before the commission, 250 confidential interviews with victims, right.

  • 13:36:49

    GENSERAnd Justice Kirby and his commission did an extraordinary job using the evidence gathering phase to shine a bright light on what is going on in North Korea. And this is substantively different than what we've ever seen in the past. The commission will present its findings formally to the UN Human Rights Council next month on March 17th. And we expect that the council will endorse its findings.

  • 13:37:12

    GENSERAnd then the big question is, what next, right? How is the world going to react to these conclusions, and are we going to be able to actually take some meaningful action to affect the situation on the ground for the life of the average North Korean? And that is going to be a major challenge ahead.

  • 13:37:26

    NNAMDILast week we also saw some aid flow to the North from neighboring South Korea following family reunions between the countries that took place after being called off by the North on several occasions. The complex relationships on and beyond the Korean Peninsula have deep roots. Can you put these findings in a bit of historic context for us?

  • 13:37:45

    GENSERSure, sure. Well look, I mean, in the -- you know, the Korean War ended of course in 1953 but practically speaking, the two Koreas and the United States and the UN are still actually actively at war today. And if one has a chance to go visit the DMZ, as I've done, you know, you can literally see two nations facing off against each other with soldiers on both sides of the divide. And you think to yourself, wait a second, didn't the Korean War end 60 years ago?

  • 13:38:13

    GENSERAnd, in fact, of course the armistice came into place then but we don't have a permanent peace agreement in place. And, you know, ultimately Kim Il-sung, the founder of modern North Korea, you know, was put in charge of the country by the Russians and the Chinese. And his son Kim Jong-il and now his son Kim Jong-un, right, have built this collative personality within the country and this repressive system to maintain their grip on power.

  • 13:38:46

    GENSERAnd, I mean, the family reunions, I think, bring to life the poignant, you know, horrors of the 20th and 21st century for the Korean people because this is of course one nation and one people that have now been divided. The language has diverged substantially now with the 60-year time difference and the separation.

  • 13:39:05

    GENSERThe appearance of a North versus the South Korean has changed. So the average North Korean is about a foot shorter than the average South Korean and it's because of malnutrition that has taken its toll over so many people. So, I mean, we see today the remnants of 1953 and, you know, the divergent lives of North Koreans versus South Koreans. And it's tragic.

  • 13:39:33

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. When do you think -- or what do you think history can teach us about how to respond to situations like the one we are seeing in North Korea, 800-433-8850? I will start with Colby in Springfield, Va. Colby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:51

    COLBYMy point is charity begins at home. I have been in this country for 20 years and I have observed -- first, I observed the Iraq War that took our youth at a disadvantage. We have, our youth, some of them are hurt and some of them, they can't even walk. And putting U.S. on the map of everyday intervening in other countries' -- whatever goes on over there. I don't think it's the right way to do it.

  • 13:40:25

    KOBEI'm glad President Obama did not get involved in Syria. That's a good thing. We shouldn't get involved in other people's affairs unless it's affecting us. We have no interests in Syria, neither do we have interest in Korea. We have interest in South Korea.

  • 13:40:41

    NNAMDIWell, outside of…

  • 13:40:42

    KOBENorth Korea, we don't have interest over there.

  • 13:40:44

    NNAMDIOutside of strategic interests, Kobe, do you recognize humanitarian interests at all? Do you think that if we learn from a source as official as the United Nations that there human rights violations taking place in a place like Korea, that there are crimes against humanity taking place there, do you feel that we have an obligation to do anything at all?

  • 13:41:10

    KOBEI do feel that we have obligation to do that, but we shouldn't do it alone. We should not go in alone. Okay?

  • 13:41:15

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, allow me to have…

  • 13:41:16

    KOBEI'm African. Look at what happened in…

  • 13:41:21

    NNAMDIIn Rwanda, yes.

  • 13:41:22

    GENSER…Sierra Leone. Look at what happened in…

  • 13:41:25

    NNAMDISierra Leone, Rwanda, the list could go on…

  • 13:41:29

    KOBESierra Leone and what do you call it, Congo? We didn't get involved in that. It is because of Africa? So why get involved in Korea?

  • 13:41:35

    NNAMDIRoberta Cohen, care to respond?

  • 13:41:37

    COHENYes. I think your point is well taken that this should be a joint international effort. This report does not appeal alone to the United States. It appeals to the entire international community. It points out that there are the most terrible atrocities occurring in a country that is really trying very hard to conceal those atrocities. No access was allowed into the country. And this report is a breakthrough in that it provides the evidence and information. And it calls for all governments to come together and to do something.

  • 13:42:21

    COHENIt gives a whole range of recommendations about North Korea going before the international criminal court, North Korea being discussed by the Security Council, targeted sanctions of the U.N. against North Korea, and political action. It calls on states to reconsider their relations with North Korea. I don't mean having relations, but just to factor human rights into the equation. And it's very interesting because the African state of Botswana has announced that it has terminated its diplomatic relations with North Korea over this report and its findings, because it finds it so horrific and gives a good statement of why it's done that.

  • 13:43:04

    COHENSo it would be very important if many governments would come together and begin to try to factor in these findings and what they do. And that's the same for international U.N. agencies. It should be a worldwide effort.

  • 13:43:17

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. What do you think history can teach us about how to respond to situations like the ones we are seeing and hearing about from the U.N. in North Korea? 800-433-8850. Kobe, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us or drop us an email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jaren Genser. He is managing director of Perseus Strategies. He's also founder of Freedom Now and co-author of "The United Nations Security Council and The Age of Human Rights," which comes out in April. We're discussing North Korea. Joining Jared Genser in studio with us is Roberta Cohen. She is a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. She's also co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and a member of the Committee on Conscious, at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  • 13:45:57

    NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Jared Genser, the route this report takes could go a few different ways, but all roads apparently, ultimately lead through China. How does China's relationship with North Korea influence the path forward in addressing the findings of this report?

  • 13:46:17

    GENSERWell, that is the question. That is the key question here. China has a long-standing relationship supporting the North Korean regime going back 60 years, going back to the Korean War, where they obviously fought on the side of the North. And they have a critical role to play here. I don't think any government can claim that it controls what North Korea does. But more than any other government, China can do that. And there's an 880-mile porous border between China and North Korea, out of which tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands have flowed.

  • 13:46:52

    GENSERChina's very worried about the outflow of refugees. They're also worried about what might happen if the regime were to collapse and what that might mean in terms of the collapse of the food distribution system and the outflows of people that they might get in that circumstance. They're obviously also worried about North Korea's nuclear program and the arms race that that could create in Northeast Asia, with South Korea and Japan looking at the nuclear missile tests and being worried there, as well.

  • 13:47:20

    GENSERBut it's a bit of a game of chicken between China and North Korea because on the one hand, China's trying to control North Korea to a certain extent. But North Korea realizes that they can push China a fair amount because if China gets frustrated and decides to withdraw aid, the collapse isn't something that's in China's interest either. But I would say I think it's important to note that our position here in the United States is going to matter more than probably any other country's position.

  • 13:47:50

    GENSERAnd I say that because historically we have downplayed North Korean human rights issues, Democratic and Republican administrations. And it's particularly in the last dozen years, with the North Korean nuclear program we have been afraid to raise human rights for fear of driving North Korea on the negotiations on the nuclear question. And my big question is whether we in the West, the United States, the U.K. and France are going to be prepared to give the human rights concerns coequal billing with the nuclear question. And that will determine ultimately whether the Security Council, for example, will start to engage on these issues.

  • 13:48:22

    NNAMDIRoberta, North Korea did not cooperate with the U.N. on this study, though Kim Jong Un was sent an advanced copy and has rejected the findings. Given the lack of likelihood of change within the country, what are the chances we'll see the regime there held accountable at all?

  • 13:48:41

    COHENIt's very unclear to what extent North Korea will begin to take heed of some of these U.N. findings. I say that because governments are increasingly beginning to look at North Korea's human rights problems. And these are some of the governments that North Korea wants political and economic help from, maybe at different times. So for the first time last year, say the Group of 8, the industrial nations put in their communique after meeting reference to North Korea's human rights situation.

  • 13:49:19

    COHENThe president of Mongolia visited North Korea. They have economic relations. And the Mongolian president announced publicly while he was there that tyrannies don't last forever. And linked tyranny to economic development issues. And clearly North Korea wanted economic support from them. Now, this kind of reconsideration is going on because it's very hard to ignore this report. It may give some pause to North Korea. Some have even talked about a deterrent factor.

  • 13:49:50

    COHENWill border guards, for example, who shoot to kill when North Koreans try to escape, will they think twice before doing that if they begin to know that there might be trials at some point where they would be held accountable? Will those who supervise or give the green light to forced abortions against women who are forced back and are pregnant from China, will they continue to do this? There are even reports that there have been some detention centers that don't. So it's not entirely clear that North Korea is completely impervious to making some changes.

  • 13:50:28

    COHENWill China even begin to privately tell North Korea to stop some of its successes? Because maybe it's an embarrassment to China to be the supporter of this regime. So I think we should keep trucking, as they say, keep trying. And that you may begin to have some impact on the ground.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIHere is Arma, in Silver Spring, Md. Arma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:57

    ARMAYes, Kojo. Thank you very much for your program. I just wanted to say that how the situation that we have ourselves involved in -- I'm talking about this great nation, the United States in every little crisis and I don't think it's right. When I was coming out in the east…

  • 13:51:18

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt because you're the second caller who may have gotten the wrong impression, that what the United Nations is calling for is not for any individual country to intervene. What the United Nations is calling for is for the international community as a whole to take some corrective action. If, in my remarks, I have given the impression that we are wondering whether it is appropriate for the U.S. individually to intervene, as far as I know, no one at this table is making that suggestion.

  • 13:51:47

    ARMAOkay. Thank you for your correction. But I just want to make something clear, you know.

  • 13:51:51


  • 13:51:52

    ARMABecause when I was coming out in the '80s, I used to hear of a West Germany, East Germany and today Germany is sparkling, shining, productive, very beautiful. Everybody wants to go there. There is no more East and West Germany. Now, I can hear about North Korea and South Korea. I know it was divided long since, maybe during the time of the German division, but these people are just one group of people. There are no need to divide them. Who divided them?

  • 13:52:25

    ARMASo I think the whole world, the people who control this world, I'm talking about the greatest power of the world, that we could rule the entire world (unintelligible) those giants, I blame them for all these things. And I think they should -- this is the time now for them to do the right thing instead of just demonizing one side. When I turn the radio I always -- the North Korea and the oppressor, you always tell people…

  • 13:52:55

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt, Arma, because when we talk about a United Nations report, in a way, in one respect we are talking about the world. We're talking about a body of the nations of the world having a Commission of Inquiry that comes out with this report, which suggests -- it seems to me, Jared Genser -- that some of the solutions that Roberta Cohen was talking about from the International Criminal Court to others, what the U.N. has apparently done here is give the international community a wider range of options then it had before, in order to try to end the human rights abuses in North Korea.

  • 13:53:32

    GENSERYeah, that's precisely right. And I mean what's interesting is that the Commission of Inquiry didn't merely talk about justice and accountability through the court and the Security Council, but also talked the need for greater people-to-people exchange for private foundations to run humanitarian operations into the country, for more dialog to take place between North Korea and the rest of the world. Radio broadcasts into North Korea by broadcasters is one way to try to break the information blockade and clearly that is important.

  • 13:54:03

    GENSERWhen you look at the 25,000 defectors who have been asked, you know, why did you decide to leave the country, something like 65, 70 percent of them were motivated because they heard either South Korean or American radio broadcasts into the country, talking about what life is actually really like. North Korea can't be really analogized to East Germany. And I'll give you just one illustration of it, which is in North Korea it is a crime to have your radio tuned -- and you'll appreciate this as a broadcaster -- to anything other than the one official state sanctioned channel.

  • 13:54:34

    GENSERAnd they only have radios that are provided to the public with one channel. That's it. And if you're caught with your radio, having broken into the back of the radio to fix it so that you can listen to the foreign radio broadcasts and otherwise, you will go to prison. You will go to the gulag system. And it gives you a sense of the control of information in the country. But, yes, there are a whole range of options that are available. And no one is talking about an armed-intervention. I do want to make that very, very clear.

  • 13:55:01

    GENSERAnd everybody is talking about what kind of collective action could be taken to not only have justice and accountability, but also to try to ameliorate the suffering of the population, which is suffering immensely.

  • 13:55:11

    NNAMDIThere is a caller who couldn't stay on the line, who says that there are a lot of countries in which human rights abuses are taking place. What makes North Korea so important? Roberta, we think of humanitarian countries at the moment in places like Syria, the Central African Republic, what makes North Korea's situation unique in the world?

  • 13:55:33

    COHENNorth Korea is not having a civil war or an internal turmoil. In fact, it's -- as Jared has pointed out, the order and stability there is almost totalitarian. But it has what the U.N. is now recognizing its own kind of human rights crisis. It's not a war, but it is tremendous crimes being committed in peace time. And they've been going on for decades. This is not something new of the last four or five years. This is something that the report actually faults the international community for not recognizing earlier. And part of the problem was the lack of access to the country to verify information.

  • 13:56:19

    COHENBut as pointed out, more and more people have fled and begun to tell the stories and they corroborate one another. So you have a situation, also, where there's no civil society and there's no access and there's no protection for these people. So journalists are not running into camp. They're not allowed to camps or see what is going on in the country. Those who do have access are not really allowed to talk to the people in any way that would be considered open or free. So there's responsibility here, when the people themselves have nothing but having to confront a government that wants to commit crimes against them to help them.

  • 13:57:04

    NNAMDIAnd we're running out of time very quickly, but Rod, in McClain, Va. emails, "Who watches over the crimes the U.S. commits? Who investigates the use of chemical weapons by the U.S. in its wars?" I guess in response to that, Jared Genser, you can say some of the same people who have signed onto this Commission of Inquiry, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others.

  • 13:57:23

    GENSERWell, and I would point out for example, a body I know well at the U.N. that I work with, called the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, issued a 60-page report on Guantanamo Bay and the range of violations of U.S. and international law there, as well. So it is actually the exact same people that look into what's going on in North Korea, and will, frankly, I think highlight the United States more than any other country, because of the role that we play in the world.

  • 13:57:48

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that that's all the time we have. Jared Genser is managing director of Perseus Strategies. He's also founder of Freedom Now and co-author of "The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights," coming out in April. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:59


  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDIRoberta Cohen is a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute here in Washington. She's also co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and a member of the Committee on Conscious at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:13

    COHENThank you.

  • 13:58:13

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephanie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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