WASHINGTON, DC—Representative Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following remarks at an event marking Human Rights Day and calling for action on the “Laos Nine,” young refugees who fled and were ultimately returned to North Korea. In his remarks, Rep. Engel urged the United Nations General Assembly to refer the case to the International Criminal Court:
“Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate Chairman Ed Royce for his leadership in hosting this event today, and for his working with me as we have on so many other issues—working together because we share a common vision.
“I want to welcome and thank Suzanne Scholte and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, both who do such terrific work. I’ve worked with them. I’ve seen their work. And it’s just wonderful that they are involved. They are the Chair and Vice-Chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, obviously for their tireless work on behalf of human rights in North Korea.
“I have one up on the Chairman. I’ve actually been to North Korea twice. But only to Pyongyang. They didn’t let us go anyplace else. And I think it’s fair to say that the regime in Pyongyang is the most oppressive, as the Chairman said, and the scariest regime on Earth, where people literally cannot be human beings. Everything is so controlled by the government—what you can say, what you can do, what you can look like. It’s just a sad, sad state of affairs.
“But this is the worst of it. For years we’ve heard reports about the abuses endured by the people of North Korea: torture, starvation, forced labor, and execution all at the hands of the regime in Pyongyang. A United Nations commission of inquiry report this year confirmed those reports; they called the North Korean regime responsible for ‘systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations,’ including ‘crimes against humanity.’
“So I told you, I’ve been there myself. And I can recall the repressive chill in the air in that country, the unmistakable feeling that I was standing in a place that didn’t know freedom. And you know, when you contrast it with South Korea, same people. It’s like night and day. It’s just amazing.
“The Chairman and I share a deep commitment to addressing the injustices endured by the North Korean people. Earlier this year, our committee worked on a bill to improve enforcement of sanctions against North Korea. We passed that bill in the House.
“Today, I want to call, as the Chairman did, special attention to the fate of North Korean refugees who are forcibly repatriated while trying to escape this cruel regime.
“North Korean refugees take personal risk, great personal risk in fleeing Kim Jung-Un’s oppression. Last year, nine young North Koreans took that risk. They made it as far as Laos. The government there sent them to China. And ultimately they ended up right where they started: in the grasp of North Korea’s abusive rule.
“Under international law, states can’t do anything that would lead a person back to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened. Now, we don’t know what happened to these young people. Nine young people. We’re concerned for their safety. But because we know that refugees who are repatriated to North Korea often suffer grievous fates, we’re concerned and we’re worried about them.”
“So it’s time for North Korea’s leaders to be held accountable for their atrocities, which rank among the worst since World War II. And we’ve had lots of atrocities unfortunately. But theirs are the worst. This sort of brutality has no place in the 21st century. And I urge the United Nations General Assembly to vote in favor of referring this case to the International Criminal Court.
“And we should be clear: for the regime in Pyongyang to associate a legitimate human rights inquiry with another rogue nuclear test would be irresponsible and dangerous. The North Korean regime should stop their sabre rattling, honor their commitments regarding their nuclear program, and return to table for the Six-Party Talks.
“Thank you very, very much.”