The Human Rights Situation in North Korea
Remarks By

José Ramos-Horta (*)
Seoul, 11th November 2015


Ambassador Lee Jung-Hun,
Distinguished Speakers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be again in Seoul since my participation in the various events marking the 70th Anniversary of the founding of ROK’s and of the end of World War II, hosted by KBSTV on 24th August.

The people of ROK can be proud of the extraordinary progress they made since independence and the devastation caused by the Korea war.

There cannot be greater contrast between two countries and two realities: one, the people living South of the Demilitarized Zone enjoying complete freedom and prosperity, and the other North of the DMZ living in fear, oppression and extreme poverty.

While most of Asia have prospered and democratized North Korea has been frozen in time.

The communist regime of the North with its bellicose totalitarian ideology and nuclear arsenal continues to be a source of tension and unpredictability.

Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the totalitarian philosophies and ideologies, and with the few remaining communist regimes undergoing incremental political reforms and economic liberalization, the North Korean regime stands out as the last outpost of a gulag where millions of human beings are deprived of basic human rights, hostages of a communist dynasty.

The recent heartbreaking scenes of some long-separated Korean siblings meeting for the first time since their separation some 60 to 70 years ago only brought to mind the tragic reality of this Cold War legacy.

It is not my purpose to elaborate on the ongoing widespread, gross and systematic human rights abuses in North Korea. Numerous eyewitnesses and defectors from the North have amply documented this over decades.

Our friend the eminent Justice Michael Kirby and the International Commission of Inquiry he presided over investigated and produced a far reaching, damning, authoritative and conclusive report on the human rights situation in North Korea.

The world is generally aware of the prevailing situation in North Korea; however, the regime has been extremely effective in impeding and suppressing a regular flow of information in and out of the gulag. Hence, the sad and tragic reality in North Korea is not a daily concern for the rest of the world.

And even if there were more regular flow of information about the shocking reality of life in North Korea, in the prisons and labor camps, there is still very little anyone can do to influence the behavior of the totalitarian regime in the North.

The supremely well choreographed scenes of mass hysteria by Korean masses displaying their love to the “dear leader” illustrate in my view both a people intoxicated by propaganda reminiscent of the phenomenon of Nazism and Hitler in Germany and Austria and a certain degree of genuine adulation.

We are not dealing with a regime that is about to collapse from within; nor there is a people that is ready to march in the streets.

There is no possible comparison between the situations in North Korea with any other in history. From an ideological perspective the North Korean regime reminds me of the situations in Albania and Romania during the years of the dictators Enver Hoxha and Nicolai Ceausescu, the two worst and most retrogrades communist regimes of that time.

But neither had military capabilities of much significance.

Leaders and academics of ROK know only too well the limits of outside influence, of how much and what can the international community do to influence the behavior of the regime in North Korea, a regime that shamelessly thrives in State gangsterism, black mail and brinkmanship.

Following Justice Kirby’s Report there was some media coverage; expressions of condemnation came primarily from Western countries and Media.

From Asia to Africa to Latin America there was a deafening silence. For the people of North Korea we must raise our voices; even if this is all we can do; being silent and resigning to this seemingly mighty regime is not an option, at least for our conscience. Taking this matter to the International Criminal Court is an obvious option.

Three generations of communist leaders, from grandfather to son and now to grandson, have established a de facto Communist monarchy in North Korea, of the mold of the Middle Ages absolutist monarchies who ruled over their subjects in complete disregard for basic human rights and dignity. And this communist monarchy has assembled a mighty army and intelligence network that spy on and intimidate every North Korean family.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel because this a tunnel without an obvious end.

While there is every reason for us not to be hopeful for a peaceful transformation of North Korea and a happy reunification of the two separated peoples, but let us remember that colonial Empires generally lasted centuries; the briefest colonial occupation of any country must have been the Japanese occupation of Korea.

European colonization of Africa and Asia lasted much longer, from 100 to 500 years.

There is no valid comparison between the situation prevailing in North Korea and the situations experienced by the hundreds of millions of peoples in Africa and Asia conquered and colonized by the European powers from the Middle Ages till the XX Century.

But at times it might be helpful to remind ourselves that Empires and regimes built on falsehoods and oppression do come to an end; this has been Humanity’s history, from the ancient times to the XX Century.

In the face of overwhelming force, fear or prudence prevail and people appear to resign to their fate; the wait can be long, too long. But the people always rise up when times has arrived. And time will arrive in North Korea when the people will rise up for freedom and dignity.



(*) Jose Ramos-Horta, former President, Prime Minister, Senior Minister, Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste. Chair, the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations; Co-Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism.