SEOUL -- Life in North Korea has never been easy, but 2020 was an especially somber year for the human rights of ordinary people in the isolated state.
Shoot to kill orders at the border, starvation caused by mass lockdowns, summary executions: these are just a few of the abuses highlighted this week by Tomas Ojea-Quintana, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.
According to Ojea-Quintana, the North Korean government's strict COVID-19 restriction measures have led to widespread food insecurity. He also added that a new detention facility for those violating COVID-19 quarantine measures had reportedly been built in North Hwanghae province -- located between Pyongyang and the border with the South -- with several cases being reported of severe punishment against those breaking anti-epidemic prevention measures.
Many of these crimes have been confirmed. According to reports by Daily NK, a media organization with sources inside North Korea, lockdown orders affecting entire towns and neighborhoods have resulted in many people being unable to leave their homes and get food. Many who do leave usually get arrested.
Both Daily NK and Radio Free Asia reported executions of those violating quarantine rules. Daily NK also confirmed last month that North Korean authorities had ordered the expansion of political prison camps in the country.
Ojea-Quintana said that throughout the five years in his position he has repeatedly received information confirming serious human rights violations.
Frustrated with the lack of progress on this issue, Ojea-Quintana said the time had come "for the Security Council to decide on the referral of the situation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court."
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) agrees with Ojea-Quintana on the need for the country's human rights violations to be referred to the ICC but points out "a significant hurdle,"
"UN Security Council referral to the ICC is needed, as the DPRK is not a party to the 2002 Rome Statute," Scarlatoiu explains. The issue then comes down to the five permanent member states of the UNSC: "in particular the People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation, could veto that measure," he says.
Despite the possibility of a veto, Scarlatoiu emphasizes that "pressing for UNSC referral to the ICC is important." Regarding the veto option, he adds that: "Every time a P5 member blocks such an initiative, it will push itself into a corner, as a UN member state that aids, abets, and protects a regime that commits crimes against humanity."
Although bringing the issue to the ICC could make a strong statement against North Korea's human rights violations, some say it might not be the right mechanism to do so.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, associate professor at King's College London and KF-VUB Korea Chair, said that because the ICC has no jurisdiction over North Korea, "any case would have to be based on North Korean leaders having allegedly committed a crime in an ICC member state."
Given the unlikeliness of the existence of proof of such crimes, he says referral to the ICC "is not the best way to address the human rights situation in North Korea." In fact, Pacheco-Pardo argues that "it could even be counterproductive, since the ICC has been criticized for only dealing with cases of non-Western leaders."
Instead, he argued that the Human Rights Council or the work of former members of the Human Rights Commission of Inquiry would be more effective mechanisms.
Similarly, Youngsoo Yu, assistant professor at the University of North Korean Studies stressed the importance of not relying solely on the ICC.
"Showing the determination of the international community by bringing the DPRK case to the ICC is very important but it may not work as we expect, at least in the short run," he said.
Other than the ICC, Pacheco Pardo said options are limited but added that the European Union will soon implement human rights sanctions against North Korea under its Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.
The new sanctions regime, launched last December, is expected to release a list of sanctioned officials from China, Russia, North Korea, and Africa later this month.
As to what the incoming Biden administration could do on this issue, Scarlatoiu emphasized the importance of appointing a U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights as well as the need to "protect and help resettle North Korean refugees."
Regarding U.S. cooperation with South Korea, Yu stressed the importance of sending consistent messages to the DPRK.
"The ROK and US should make clear their commitment to human rights norms and send the DPRK consistent messages with regards to its human rights violations," he said. "The U.S. and ROK must send a signal that human rights are a universal principle and value we pursue. The first thing for us to do is to make the DPRK recognize this, which we have failed to do so far."