Forget the movie, focus on rights

A damning report recommends that North Korea’s leaders face charges for crimes against humanity.

Compared to the almost unimaginably brutal dictatorship in North Korea, all the attention being paid to a comedy about its supreme leader seems silly.

[On Friday, The United States imposed fresh sanctions on North Korea, targeting top state officials and defense-related organizations in an attempt to punish North Korea for a crippling cyberattack against Sony. The sanctions marked the first public act of retribution by the U.S., although other sanctions are in place against Pyongyang over its nuclear program.]

Chatter about The Interview and who really hacked Sony Pictures should not distract the world from a horrific reality: Tens of thousands of North Koreans have been, or are being, tortured, raped, starved and executed in a modern-day gulag.

The conditions in these political prison camps — and for many others in North Korea — are so shocking that the United Nations has taken extraordinary steps to condemn its leaders for “ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.” The U.N. has raised the possibility that Kim Jong Un and others could be hauled before the International Criminal Court to face prosecution for crimes against humanity.

The U.N. General Assembly is often derided, for good reason, as a toothless debating society. But on Dec. 18, it adopted a resolution that denounced human rights abuses inside North Korea and that sent to the Security Council a devastating 400-page report detailing them. The vote was 116-20 with 53 abstentions — an overwhelming majority for such a harsh and direct critique of a member nation.

The resolution urges the Security Council to consider targeting sanctions against the responsible North Korean officials and referring them to the international court at the Hague.

That isn’t likely to happen since China, a longtime benefactor of North Korea, has a veto on the 15-member Security Council. Still last week, China was unable to stop the first-ever briefing before the council on North Korea’s human rights record, which means the subject can be brought up for discussion repeatedly — more chances to shame and pressure North Korea. Only Russia joined China in trying to block the discussion, which tells you something.

The U.N. report, issued last February, is based on interviews with dozens of refugees and on satellite imagery and other forensic evidence from the notoriously secretive nation, which refused to cooperate with the investigating panel. In a letter to the U.N., North Korea called the exiles “human scum,” which should also tell you something.

Some of the human rights abuses are truly barbaric. One former inmate said that the bodies of prisoners are burned and used as fertilizer. Witnesses said that it’s not uncommon for women to be sexually assaulted in public by government officials who don’t fear prosecution. It’s no wonder that many human rights groups say that today, North Korea is the world’s worst human rights offender.

This horror show — not Hollywood make-believe — has been going on for a long time, too long. Because North Korea has nuclear weapons — and doesn’t hesitate to use them as bargaining chips — it is not simple to punish its leaders or get them to stop these abuses.

A vast majority of the international community, however, is finally and strongly condemning what is happening. That is progress.

(C) The Sacramento Bee