Hudson Institute

The US Needs to Issue an Atrocity Determination for North Korea

Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos
Senior Fellow
The US Needs to Issue an Atrocity Determination for North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a meeting on September 3, 2017. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

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Ten years have passed since the United Nations released its seminal Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea. The report’s conclusion was damning: the North Korean people face ongoing crimes against humanity that three generations of the Kim regime have perpetrated. The report presented conclusive evidence that the North Korean people were survivors of severe atrocity crimes and made the case for why the world should respond. 

The report also represented a turning point in American and global discourse regarding North Korean human rights. No longer could policymakers ignore the credibility and severity of human rights challenges emanating from the Kim regime. The publication of the COI forced policymakers to reckon with human rights challenges even when policy and strategy discussions primarily centered on mitigating the security threat that the regime’s weapons pose to the world.

That the report spurred action is undoubtable. Unfortunately, however, the political will to tackle North Korean human rights issues has waned in recent years. The 10-year anniversary of the COI should serve as a critical reminder of the suffering of the North Korean people and spark renewed attention to the issue. The policymaking community has an opportunity to evaluate the report’s impact, reconsider whether the policy actions it spurred are effective, and chart a course forward.

To jump-start these efforts, the United States government should consider issuing an atrocity determination for North Korea that picks up where the COI left off. While the COI’s scope was limited to investigating whether the Kim regime committed crimes against humanity, a US atrocity determination should investigate whether the regime also committed genocide. Important evidence suggests North Korean Christians may face ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity, for example. After issuing an atrocity determination, the US should undertake additional means to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people while keeping other strategic goals in mind. Top priorities should include ending North Korean forced labor, offering safe haven to refugees, and improving information access inside North Korea, among other actions.

The Legal Basis of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide

The UN COI report was groundbreaking. It established that the Kim regime not only had committed crimes against humanity but continues to do so. In fact, the report expressly states:

Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the state. They are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.

A finding of crimes against humanity is significant. Under the Rome Statute, a crime against humanity is “any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack,” including but not limited to murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation or forcible transfer of population; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; persecution of any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law; and enforced disappearance of persons.

There is no hierarchy of atrocity crimes, but many North Korea watchers questioned why the commission stopped at investigating only crimes against humanity and did not include other atrocity crimes, like genocide. In part, this was due to the limited mandate that Resolution 22/13 granted to the commissioners, requiring them to investigate “systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights in North Korea . . . in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.” There was no mention of investigations of genocide in the resolution that created the commission.

Nevertheless, according to COI Chair Michael Kirby, commissioners wondered whether the COI should look into whether genocide was also ongoing. Kirby said that he believed the current definition of genocide under international law is too narrow to include the Kim regime’s crimes:

There were problems for genocide in the definition that’s been adopted by the Genocide Convention, which basically requires that the genocidal act should be addressed to the nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion of the people involved. Whereas in North Korea, overwhelmingly it is addressed to the politics, the political commitment, the commitment to the party and the leadership and the Supreme Leader, and, therefore, it’s not within the language of the current definition.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Genocide hinges on the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a people group on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. As Kirby noted, it does not include discrimination on the basis of politics. Some academics debate whether the UN should expand the definition of genocide for this reason.

Regardless of whether international lawmakers should expand the definition of genocide, the commission did not use the report as an opportunity to push definitional boundaries. Ultimately, the commission did not make a finding of genocide. However, since the COI, civil society and government actors have raised the alarm that genocide may be occurring in North Korea. They have also raised questions about the definition and about the severity of conditions in North Korea. Therefore, the issue merits a second look.

Grounds for an Atrocity Determination for Christians in North Korea

Even without modifying the current definition of genocide in international law, the COI report, defector testimony, and independent reports provide evidence that Christians in North Korea face ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity. There can be no doubt that Christians face many of the acts described as genocide in the UN definition—specifically, members of the group endure serious bodily or mental harm, killing, and targeting of their children.

According to Open Doors USA, North Korea is the most dangerous place for Christians in the world. Christians face severe forms of persecution, including being killed for their faith. There are an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea; the number is difficult to estimate precisely as Christians must practice their faith discreetly. Of that number, researchers estimate that 50,000 to 70,000 North Korean Christians have been imprisoned for their faith.

The North Korean government does not merely imprison Christians but also sends many to political reeducation camps. One report highlighted an instance in which the Kim regime sentenced a two-year-old and their family to life in the camps because their parents had a Bible and practiced Christianity. When Chinese authorities repatriate North Korean refugees who escaped to China, the Kim regime often asks them two questions: (1) whether they had contact with a South Korean and (2) whether they were in contact with Christian missionaries. If the answer is yes to either question, the state treats the refugees more harshly and often sends them to a political prison camp.

Conditions in the camps are brutal. As the COI established, camp populations are subject to starvation-like conditions, torture, rape and various other forms of sexual violence, and forced labor, among other severe abuses. Many have likened North Korea’s political prison camps to Soviet gulags and, in the modern context, Chinese political reeducation camps where Beijing interns Uyghur Muslims. Being sent to the North Korean camps is often a death sentence through one means or another.

In addition to sending its people to camps, the North Korean government often kills them for their faith. Killings take the form of public executions and purges or death in the camps due to starvation or arduous labor. There are numerous reports of the North Korean government killing Christians for practicing their faith. The country has historically purged Christians from the government and elite. As recently as 2022, the US State Department documented an incident in which officials executed a member of the Korean Workers’ Party in front of 3,000 people for possessing a Bible. Reports of North Koreans being publicly executed for their faith are common; other reports document separate instances when the regime publicly executed people en masse for having Bibles. The regime purposefully makes a spectacle of political crimes to incite fear and total acquiescence with the regime’s agenda.

North Korean society regards Christians as members of the lowest class, also known as the “hostile class,” in the regime’s songbun caste system. Members of the hostile class suffer discrimination more than any other group in North Korea. They face difficulties in acquiring and holding onto jobs (which the state predominantly provides), are more likely to be sent to political prison camps, and are viewed overwhelmingly as politically suspect.

The North Korean regime targets Christians for many reasons. It is suspicious of Christians due to the role they played in Soviet and post-Soviet bloc countries, where Christians and Catholics often spearheaded efforts to overthrow communist leaders through peaceful protests. The COI report also said that Pyongyang persecutes Christians because they do not worship the Kim regime—a virtual requirement of life in North Korea—and because it thinks the US and South Korea influence them.

A year after the COI released its report, Michael Kirby said one of the most overlooked findings from the report was the severity of persecution that Christians faced. Ten years on from the report’s release, the US should uncover the extent of the crimes North Korean Christians may face and craft policy solutions to alleviate their suffering.

Finally, Christians may not be the only group facing genocide in North Korea. A report from the British All Parliamentary People’s Group on North Korea asserted that half-Chinese Koreans and members of the so-called hostile class may also face genocide.

There is no hierarchy of atrocity crimes. Crimes against humanity are no better or worse than genocide. Therefore, a US atrocity determination of only crimes against humanity would be a satisfactory outcome. However, if both atrocity crimes are occurring, against Christians or others, the US should acknowledge both in an atrocity determination of its own.

Why Atrocity Determinations Matter

There are many reasons the US should pursue an atrocity determination for North Korea. First, the COI sparked several concrete responses intended to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans and hold the regime accountable. Second, there is ample evidence in the US context that issuing atrocity determinations generates political momentum and outcomes that better assist survivors of atrocity crimes. Third, US policy toward North Korea is stronger when it pursues progress on security and human rights issues in tandem. Doing so not only delivers better results for the North Korean people but also advances US interests as well.

Responses to the COI

The COI undoubtedly spurred policy responses around the globe. Policymakers began to recognize the need to respond to the regime’s abuses and to provide support to the North Korean people.

The US response—especially in the initial aftermath of the report’s release—was significant. Just two years afterward, the Obama administration was the first to issue sanctions against North Korea on human rights grounds. In June 2016, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Kim Jong-un and several Korean Workers’ Party cadres and entities for their involvement in carrying out human rights violations. This move sent a powerful message that the US would hold even the top leader accountable for human rights violations.

Congress also expanded US sanctions authorities through the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (NKSPEA) of 2016. The act was truly the first of its kind—tying any future sanctions relief not only to forward progress on denuclearization but also to improvements in human rights. The legislation rightly recognized the interconnectedness of security and human rights challenges in North Korea and authorized the executive branch to use the strongest targeted sanctions against the regime. In addition to NKSPEA, Congress passed landmark legislation through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA created a rebuttable presumption that all goods produced wholly or partially with North Korean labor were produced with forced labor and were therefore barred from entry into US markets. Legislators designed the rebuttable presumption to deny the regime the ability to profit from the exploitation of its citizens domestically and abroad, or at the very least to ensure that Americans were not inadvertently supporting the regime’s use of forced labor through the consumption of forced-labor-produced goods.

While the US has taken many other actions since the COI, these were among the most notable and resulted in the most significant policy outcomes.

There remain several areas of US policy toward North Korea that need improvement. One area relates to the resettlement of North Korean refugees. North Koreans receive automatic citizenship in South Korea but can still resettle in the US. Resettlement numbers are extremely low; a total of around 220 North Korean refugees have resettled in the US as of 2021. The low number is in part due to the slow process for resettlement in the US, especially in contrast to immediate resettlement in South Korea. The US should consider ways it could expedite resettlement for persecuted North Koreans.

The COI didn’t inspire action only in the US. It provided the political will necessary to create an infrastructure in South Korea that prioritizes responses to human rights violations in North Korea. In 2016, two years after the COI, South Korea introduced its own version of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which created a South Korean ambassador role for international cooperation on North Korean human rights as well as the legal basis for the UN to establish an office in Seoul to collect evidence and prepare transitional justice. Since that time, South Korea has appointed two ambassadors to prioritize North Korean human rights: former Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee and current Ambassador Shin-wha Lee. Additionally, it has made modest commitments to advance North Korean human rights issues trilaterally with Japan and the United States.

The UN remains invested in North Korean human rights issues. In the immediate aftermath of the COI, the UN Security Council discussed North Korean human rights for the first time. The establishment of the UN office in Seoul was another important move, especially for transitional justice preparation. In the intervening time, the UN also undertook efforts to combat the regime’s use of North Korean forced laborers abroad by issuing Resolution 2397, which called on all countries to discontinue their practice of hiring these laborers and return them to North Korea by December 2019. If all member states had enforced it, the resolution would have been very powerful. Unfortunately, the primary perpetrators of this practice, China and Russia, continue to employ North Korean forced laborers. At its height, as many as 40 countries around the globe employed North Korean forced laborers, although many of them discontinued the practice after the UN called for the practice to end.

While more certainly could have been done, there is no doubt that the COI and its findings inspired actions to support the North Korean people and hold the regime accountable.

Successes of Previous Atrocity Determinations

Atrocity determinations are an incredibly powerful tool at the US government’s disposal. The strength of an atrocity determination lies in its ability to spur follow-on action and to usher in sustained attention to severe situations in which some of the worst human rights violations either have occurred or continue to occur. Atrocity determinations are also powerful because they transcend administrations—whether Republican or Democrat presidents issue them, administrations affirm the determinations of previous administrations and in the past have taken actions to ensure accountability of perpetrators and support for survivors of atrocity crimes. The determinations’ bipartisan appeal spurs action not only by the executive branch but also by Congress. Finally, their power derives from the fact that a determination properly labels a situation and helps the US government and governments around the globe to identify the proper tools to respond to severe atrocities.

A brief survey of recent history points to the power of atrocity determinations.

ISIS atrocity determination. In 2016, then Secretary of State John Kerry issued an atrocity determination that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had committed genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. The determination came after Congress passed a budget measure requiring Secretary Kerry to say whether ISIS was committing atrocity crimes by March 17, 2016—the date of the official determination. And just prior to the determination, Congress unanimously passed its own resolution saying that it believed ISIS had committed genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The ISIS atrocity determination demonstrated that sometimes atrocity determinations do not happen without congressional action—even though it is at the discretion of the secretary of state to issue an atrocity determination at any time. The unanimous passage of the Senate resolution was especially powerful as it demonstrated a bipartisan commitment to the issue.

That bipartisanship carried forward into future action. Despite the issuance of the determination during the Obama administration, Congress passed legislation creating a fund to support survivors of ISIS genocide in 2018.[33] During the Trump administration, the US Agency for International Development distributed over $389 million to communities affected by and recovering from ISIS genocide under the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response initiative.[34]

Uyghur atrocity determination. The atrocity determination that Secretary Kerry issued regarding ISIS is hardly the only success story. In the final days of the Trump administration, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an atrocity determination for Uyghur Muslims; the determination clearly states that Uyghurs face ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.[35] In time, the Biden administration affirmed the determination.[36]

The atrocity determination for Uyghurs sparked congressional action, particularly in the form of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) that Congress passed in December 2021 and US Customs and Border Protection implemented in June 2022.[37] The UFLPA created a rebuttable presumption that all goods produced with Uyghur labor are produced with forced labor and are therefore banned from entry into the US.[38] Although the law has had its hiccups, it is going a long way toward curtailing Uyghur forced labor, and in particular it has prevented US businesses and consumers from inadvertently supporting Uyghur forced labor. In the way of the atrocity determination, the executive branch has issued additional sanctions in response to the atrocity crimes.[39]

Importantly, the atrocity determination for Uyghurs also sparked an international response, including atrocity determinations by other governments and follow-on sanctions. Canada agreed to admit approximately 10,000 Uyghur refugees,[40] and the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Japan are considering possible legislation regarding forced labor.

Rohingya atrocity determination. Finally, in March 2022, the Biden administration issued an atrocity determination for Rohingya Muslims in Burma stating that the Burmese military had carried out ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity that had targeted the Rohingya community.[41] Since the atrocity determination, Congress has passed the BURMA Act to strengthen US sanctions efforts against the Burmese military, and the executive branch has issued sanctions against key institutions bankrolling the Burmese military junta, including the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprises.[42]

While none of these atrocity determinations ended the atrocities, they did help spark follow-on actions that ensured the US and other governments responded to these severe crimes. They pushed policy in a direction that better supports the people whom the atrocities targeted. And they prompted measures for accountability and action against perpetrators.

Incorporating Human Rights into a Broader US Strategy toward North Korea

North Korea remains an intractable crisis for the US. Concrete forward progress on either denuclearization or human rights remains largely elusive. The US government has responded to both the security and human rights concerns on separate tracks—not pursuing the two goals in tandem. Foundational to this strategy is a misguided belief that raising human rights issues with Pyongyang will derail forward progress on denuclearization.[43] While the COI spurred congressional efforts to tie human rights to security outcomes, such as the NKSPEA sanctions, the executive branch has done very little to pursue the issues concurrently.

A strategy that pursues progress on human rights in North Korea only after making forward movement on security has impeded progress on both fronts. And it fails to recognize a key reality: security and human rights issues are deeply connected. This is true for three reasons. First, the regime relies on repression to maintain its grip on power. Second, the regime profits from exploiting the North Korean people. Third, the regime abuses its people to improve its weapons programs. The following section elaborates.

The regime relies on human rights violations and repression to maintain power. It’s axiomatic that the regime in Pyongyang uses its nuclear weapons to maintain its grip on power. But it is also the case that without an acquiescent population—kept acquiescent by threats of interning three generations of a family for alleged political crimes, public executions, brutal purges of elites, enforced food insecurity, and a host of other crimes the regime commits—the regime could not maintain its grip on power. One Center for Strategic and International Studies report that surveyed 50 North Korean refugees found that support for the regime’s weapons programs was relatively low; more than 70 percent said the nuclear weapons program was not a source of pride for their country.[44] It is in the interest of the US to empower the North Korean people to express their dissent. This is impossible so long as the regime continues its repression. Apart from an acquiescent population, North Korea might not be able to continue its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The regime profits from exploiting the North Korean people. Some might argue that those profits are indispensable—both for maintaining the comforts of Pyongyang’s elite and for expanding its weapons program. In a speech at Hudson Institute, South Korean Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights Shin-wha Lee said the regime profits more from forced labor than from any other illicit activity besides cyber-hacking.[45] Analysts once estimated profits from forced labor between $120 million and $250 million annually.[46] Although several countries have discontinued their practice of employing North Korean forced laborers, the US Department of State estimated in its 2023Trafficking in Persons Report that the regime makes hundreds of millions annually in confiscated wages from North Korean forced laborers abroad.[47] The major violators—China and Russia—still hire North Korean laborers today. Analysts estimate that China alone employed between 20,000 and 100,000 North Korean forced laborers as of 2022.[48]

In addition to profiting from forced labor, the regime also profits from the redistribution of wealth away from the North Korean people and toward the regime and its weapons programs. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that at least 40 percent of North Korea’s population remains undernourished; as such, the WFP provides food assistance to the people.[49] The most recent requests (somewhat diminished due to difficulties in accessing North Korea during the pandemic) totaled a little under $215 million in disbursements from January 2019 to December 2023.[50] These requests pale in comparison to State Department estimates of the regime’s expenditures on its defense programs, which topped $4 billion in 2019 alone.[51] To further illustrate the extent of the regime’s spending on weapons programs, analysts estimated its missile launches in 2022 cost more than $560 million.[52] The regime’s spending on luxury goods and luxury facilities is also astronomical—often topping hundreds of millions or even $1 billion annually—all of which lines the private coffers of Kim Jong-un and his party officials.[53] Although the regime could feed its people, it simply chooses not to, a finding consistent with the COI’s assertion that the regime engages in policies of enforced starvation.[54]

The regime may abuse its people to improve its weapons programs. Last, but certainly not least, horrifying reports have emerged over the years of the regime allegedly using vulnerable populations to test chemical and biological weapons.[55] Defector testimonies and some documentation have been provided to support these claims, although they are difficult to verify, as the COI noted. The use of human subjects to refine the regime’s weapons capabilities is one of the clearer linkages between Pyongyang’s brutality and the lengths it will go to refine its weapons capabilities.

Additionally, some reports suggest there is substantial evidence that the regime uses political prison camp labor to develop its weapons programs.[56] The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in particular, did a deep dive into the proximity of Camp No. 16 and the Punggyeri nuclear test site in North Korea, demonstrating possible linkages between the two facilities, where the regime may force prison camp populations to work as part of the development of the weapons program. Studies have verified similar instances of factories adjacent to or near camps in Xinjiang, China, as sites where forced labor takes place, for example.[57]

Given all of these reasons, and more, it is shortsighted to separate security and human rights concerns when crafting US policy toward North Korea. The regime doesn’t do so in its own policies, and if the goal is to diminish the regime’s strength, neglecting human rights violations leaves real leverage on the table.


It is well past time for the US to issue an atrocity determination for North Korea. And there is an abiding need for renewed attention to the plight of the suffering North Korean people. As the COI noted, human rights conditions in North Korea are without parallel in the modern world. Given the gravity of the situation, the US should consider the following policy steps to address these challenges:

1. Issue an atrocity determination saying whether the Kim regime has committed genocide or crimes against humanity.

The Department of State should establish a sound evidentiary basis prior to issuing the determination. Ideally, the US government should issue a report in tandem with the determination to justify the findings. Such an investigation should look at the evidentiary basis for both genocide and crimes against humanity, with a special eye toward whether North Korean Christians face these two atrocities. The secretary of state can issue an atrocity determination at his discretion (with or without a detailed report). Congressional action has sometimes been necessary—as was the case with the atrocity determination the Obama administration issued against ISIS. Both routes are appropriate to get a determination, but an act by the administration to issue a determination without congressional prodding would demonstrate a renewed commitment by the US executive branch to elevate efforts to remediate human rights abuses in North Korea.

2. Press North Korea to grant access to a humanitarian actor, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme, or a relevant UN agency.

The North Korean government has long denied humanitarian actors access to political prison camps.[58] This impedes their ability to carry out their mission, which includes serving the most vulnerablepopulations in a given country.[59] North Korea should permit humanitarian access to these camps as a potential precondition to future negotiations and as a token of good faith to demonstrate its sincerity in negotiating on other issues.

3. Request the release of children and the elderly from prison camps.

The US government should request the release of all children and elderly persons currently held in political prison camps.[60] Children are among the most vulnerable populations in North Korea, especially those in political prison camps or orphaned kotjebi (homeless) children. At a minimum, international agencies should request access to prison camps to provide humanitarian assistance to children and families. As North Korean human rights expert Roberta Cohen aptly points out, children pose no threat to the state and are in prison camps due to guilt by association.[61]

4. Pursue closure of political prison camps as an element of US strategy toward North Korea.

It serves US interests on the nuclear front to highlight political prison camps because the threat of being sent to a prison camp helped create the acquiescent population in North Korea that permits the continued development of missiles and nuclear weapons. The US should consider calling for the closure of one or more political prison camps as an incremental step toward the eventual closure of all camps. North Korea will not dismantle its nuclear program overnight, and the US should not expect it to eliminate the political prison camp system overnight either. Critically, any promise of closure needs to involve verification that officials did not merely transfer prisoners from one camp to another, as was the case with China’s reeducation through labor facilities.[62]

5. Issue targeted sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity or genocide in North Korea.

The US should use the full scope of its preexisting authorities under Global Magnitsky, the Specially Designated Nationals List, NKSPEA, and other authorities to cut off the regime from resources that continue to allow its leaders to line their private coffers. Specifically, the US government should identify individuals who oversee the camp infrastructure, carry out public executions, perpetrate persecution and atrocity crimes against Christians, and facilitate North Korean forced labor abroad.

6. Congress should prioritize legislative efforts to aid the North Korean people. 

The North Korean Human Rights Act, the landmark legislation that created the apparatus for prioritizing North Korean human rights issues in US policy, lapsed 18 months ago. Reauthorizing the legislation would provide a sound basis for continued US efforts to provide relief to the North Korean people. Critically, renewing the act would reauthorize the position of the US ambassador for North Korean human rights, a post currently held by Ambassador Julie Turner. Her efforts and the efforts of future ambassadors are critical for maintaining a spotlight on these important issues. 

7. The new 2024 UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for an update to the COI report should investigate whether genocide is happening in North Korea.

On April 4, 2024, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution requesting an update to the COI report documenting human rights violations that have occurred since the COI’s release in 2014.[63] The new report should go beyond the original scope of the report to determine whether other atrocity crimes, including genocide, are occurring in North Korea. Such a report has the potential to generate momentum around holding the Kim regime accountable for its crimes and providing relief for survivors.

8. Enhance diplomatic engagement to enforce UN provisions requiring member states to discontinue their use of North Korean forced laborers.

As part of a broader effort to combat trafficking and forced labor, the US should consider how it can hold countries accountable for hiring North Korean forced laborers, whether through sanctions, secondary sanctions, or otherwise. Although the US already has its rebuttable presumption in place, other countries do not. US diplomacy abroad should convince other countries to adopt similar measures curtailing the regime’s profits from North Korean forced labor–produced goods. Furthermore, since the UN’s December 2019 deadline for the return of North Korean laborers came and went, the US has made little diplomatic effort to ensure the return of North Korean laborers. Previously, the US undertook substantial diplomatic efforts to convince countries to return their workers so that the regime would not continue to profit from their exploitation abroad. Washington should resume those diplomatic efforts.

9. Extend Priority-2 (P-2) refugee status to North Koreans.

Given the severity of conditions inside North Korea, there can be no doubt that the North Korean people qualify as a group of “special concern.”[64] If Washington were to grant P-2 refugee status to North Koreans, the US could expedite their refugee status and enable applicants to bypass the need for referral from the UN Commissioner for Refugees, non-governmental organizations, or embassies. One of the many benefits of P-2 is that applicants can apply from within or outside of their country of origin. For most North Koreans, this would mean applying for P-2 from South Korea or countries in Southeast Asia. Not every North Korean wants to resettle in South Korea (although many do); they should know that they have an expedited, permanent option to come to the US.

10. Improve efforts to disseminate information into North Korea.

Empowering the North Korean people is a critical element of any strategy to address the country’s problems. From the North Korean Human Rights Act to the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act, the US has new resources for improving efforts to promote information access in North Korea. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act authorized an additional $40 million in funding for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to expand broadcasts and other efforts into North Korea.[65] Washington should still use older tools, like radio, intelligently and harness the power of smart, technologically sophisticated tools. More information empowers the North Korean people with the knowledge they need to decide whether to flee the regime or facilitate change from within.


Although Washington has paid less attention to North Korean human rights issues in recent years, the severity of the regime’s abuses has not declined. The 10-year anniversary of the COI is an opportunity for America to renew its dedication to the issue in a way that advances US security and values in the Indo-Pacific.

An atrocity determination has the chance to do just that. The US secretary of state should seriously consider the merits of an atrocity determination for North Korea and undertake a full examination of the updated facts and information. The case that North Korean Christians have faced and continue to face ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide is strong, but other groups within North Korea may be worthy of a designation. Armed with the facts, the world can craft policies to effectively address the plight of the North Korean people.

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