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Remarks at Event on Human Rights in the D.P.R.K.

Remarks at Event on Human Rights in the D.P.R.K.

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City, DC
September 23, 2014

Thank you very much, Ambassador King, and I want to thank Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski for bringing us together today with Danny Russel. And I’m particularly grateful to our fellow ministers and diplomatic corps for being here today, and particularly grateful to my colleagues, the Foreign Minister of Japan, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, for being here to share in this, and Prince Zeid also, whose leadership is so important on it.

We are here today to really confront some of the most urgent issues of conscience, and policymaking is often marked by complicated decisions, by close calls. But some things remain crystal clear: Barbarity, inhumanity – I think you can call it evil – we all recognize still exist. And in the challenges that we’re facing in the Middle East right now, that has been underscored in the last days. We simply cannot be blind to these egregious affronts to human nature and we cannot accept it, and silence would be the greatest abuse of all.

What goes on inside North Korea – systematic repression, collective punishment, arbitrary execution, penal colonies, prison camps – these abuses are actually unfathomable to nearly the entire world, and they should have no place in the 21st century. North Korea’s leadership may act as if it is impervious to our concern, as if nothing that we say can penetrate its self-imposed isolation. And yet on some level, North Korea’s leaders do understand that their behavior brings shame upon their country in the eyes of the world. Why else would Pyongyang go to such extraordinary lengths to keep their prison camps secret? Why else would they refuse to allow access to the Red Cross, the UN, and the international NGOs, or dismiss out of hand horrific accounts provided by defectors as mere propaganda?

Well, in many ways now, the veil has been truly lifted. No longer can North Korea’s secrecy be seen as an excuse for silence or ignorance or inaction, because in 400 pages of excruciating detail and testimony from over 80 witnesses, the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report on the DPRK has laid bare what it rightly calls systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights. Thousands upon thousands of North Korea’s citizens are being robbed of their dignity and stripped of their humanity in penal colonies, if they are lucky enough to survive at all. Torture and forced abortions are routine. And the sentencing of Americans to labor camps without a trial – a fair trial – is as unjust as it is reprehensible.

So today, many nations come together with one voice. To the tens of thousands who are suffering in Yodok, Hwasong, Kaechon, and in prison camps across North Korea, we say, “You may be hidden, but we can see you. We know you’re there. Your captors can silence your voice and assault your dignity, but they cannot deny your basic humanity.” And we have someone with us today who you will meet shortly whose life story proves that to be true.

We should all ask ourselves if we who are free, we who have the extraordinary privilege of coming together in a way like this today, if we don’t stand with men and women suffering in anonymity in places like North Korea, then what do we stand for? And if we don’t give voice to the voiceless, then why even bother to speak about these issues?

So we say to the North Korean Government, all of us here today: You should close those camps. You should shut this evil system down. As the Commission of Inquiry report concludes, “The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” And the commission makes a set of clear recommendations to the DPRK Government. Some are as simple as acknowledging its abuses and holding those responsible to account. Others involve reforming the basic institutions of society.

The United States looks forward to working with the European Union, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and other nations on a strong UN resolution that carries these recommendations forward. And I want to thank High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid and former Justice of the High Court of Australia Mr. Michael Kirby, who chaired the commission. Let me also recognize the extraordinary work of the Australian Government. My friend, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who is here, for helping to ensure the UN report gets the attention that it deserves.

And finally, I want to thank my counterpart from the Republic of Korea, Minister Yun Byung-se, for his country’s commitment to host a High Commission Field Office that will serve as our eyes and ears to North Korea’s injustice. And of course, I thank the Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida for lending his strong, important voice to this cause.

But most of all, I want to thank Shin Dong-hyuk for being here with us today. Shin was born in a North Korean prison camp. At a young age, Shin was forced to watch executions, to eat frogs and rodents to survive, and to endure having part of a finger cut off as a punishment. He spent the first 23 years of his life living this way. And by recounting his experiences of brutality and humanity, he makes witnesses of us all.

But Shin is far more than a survivor of unconscionable cruelty. In his escape from such remarkable evil, from a nightmare that few of us could even imagine, he is also a source of inspiration and hope. There is no easy solution to this challenge, but none of us have a right to lose hope because the people in those camps don’t. We must stay persistent in standing up for our most fundamental values whenever and wherever they are threatened. That is the only way we can achieve the transformation that is imperative.

Shin, thank you for bearing witness to that truth and for being here with us today, and we look forward to hearing your comments. Thank you. (Applause.)


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