North Korea’s four main political prison camps are known only as No. 14, No. 15, No. 16 and No. 25. All are modern-day gulags. According to a new report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, the population of the camps, now about 80,000 to 120,000 people, may have declined somewhat because of releases from a fifth camp, but also because the remaining prisoners are being exterminated. The commission says “deaths on a massive scale occur in the ordinary course of events” and “the camps have the objective of gradually eliminating the camp population by working many prisoners to death.” The deaths are from “starvation, neglect, arduous forced labor, disease and executions.”

The exterminations, and many other human rights atrocities, have been documented in chilling depth by the U.N. commission, which worked from outside the country and was not allowed to visit. The chairman, Michael Kirby, a retired Australian jurist, has laid before the world a text that compares in significance to “The Gulag Archipelago,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s seminal work on the Soviet labor camps, on which the decades-old North Korean system was based. The commission found that the Pyongyang regime is carrying out “crimes against humanity,” specifically: “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Kirby’s report says North Korea’s camps and methods of political repression rival the worst of the 20th century’s totalitarian crimes: Hitler’s concentration camps and Stalin’s prison system. This is happening not in the 1940s or 1950s but in our own time. Kirby’s report says the world has a “responsibility to protect” the victims, but the response has been inadequate. We agree: North Korea’s leaders must be held accountable.

Much of the attention to North Korea has focused on its reckless and dangerous nuclear and missile programs. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Beijing on Feb. 14, emphasized the goal of a “denuclearized” North Korea and again urged China’s leaders to lean on the North. We don’t underestimate the difficulty of influencing the regime of Kim Jong Un, but Kerry ought to realize there are limits to China’s cooperation. The Chinese maintain political prisons of their own and, even if they help on the nuclear account, won’t do a thing about alleviating the human rights debacle in North Korea. By invoking China, Kerry seems to be grasping at a crutch, and a dubious one at that.

North Korea’s repressions and killings have been ignored by too many for too long. The Kirby report says “the gravity, scale and nature” of these human rights violations have no parallel in the world today. Perhaps the time has come to make this Topic No. 1 when we think about North Korea. We must take seriously our responsibility to protect as long as there is still something resembling Buchenwald or Perm-36 on the face of the planet.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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