ICC Declines Full Investigation into Suspected N. Korean War Crimes

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By Hojin Choi

Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia


SEOUL, South Korea – The International Criminal Court (ICC) declined to initiate a full investigation into two North Korean attacks against South Korea in 2010. The ICC typically deals with cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Although North Korea is not a member of the ICC, attacks on a member country, such as South Korea can give rise to jurisdiction over the possible war crimes.

The first attack was the sinking of the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, in the West Sea of Korea on March 23, 2010. North Korea officially denied any involvement with the incident, but South Korea and international inquiries revealed that a North Korean torpedo struck the corvette. 46 sailors died at the scene.

A monument for the 46 deceased navy sailors of the corvette, Cheonan (Reuters)

The second attack occurred approximately 8 months later at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea. North Korea launched artillery attacks on the island causing the death of two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.

The ICC initiated a preliminary probe of the two incidents, but prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded that there was not enough evidence to initiate a full-blown investigation. The first attack on the Cheonan corvette was “directed at a lawful military target and would not otherwise meet the definition of the war crime of perfidy as defined in the Rome Statute,” the prosecutor said. Of the artillery attack, he said that while it did kill civilians there was not enough information establishing a “reasonable basis to believe that the attack was intentionally directed against civilian objects or that the civilian impact was expected to be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.” According to the Prosecutor’s office, North Korea has not cooperated with the ICC to provide relevant information and evidence.

However, it is still questionable whether the attack did not target civilians. During the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, 230 shells were fired by North Korea and about 30 of them hit on residential areas. About 50 landed on the sea. The wide range of attack did not seem to be focused on only military bases and facilities.

Even though the ICC will not initiate a full investigation, it will resume the examination if there is new information or evidence presented. The decision “in no way should be construed as condoning in any way” North Korea’s violent attacks, the prosecutor said.

Besides the two attacks, the United Nations and ICC have recently considered the possibility of prosecuting North Korea for crimes against humanity. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights reported that North Korea should be referred to the ICC for the alleged crimes. The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution demanding the Security Council take action against North Korea. Moreover, U.N. Human Rights Investigators reported that the ICC would find merit in prosecuting the humanity crimes in North Korea. One U.N. report, which accused North Korea, compared the crimes with Nazism.

South and North Korea signed an armistice agreement in 1953, but have no effective peace treaty. The two countries technically remain at war.


For more information, please see:

International Criminal Court – The Prosecutor’s Report – June 2014

Channel NewsAsia – ICC declines to open N Korea war crimes probe – 23 June 2014

Jurist – ICC prosecutor finds no grounds to investigate North Korea war crime allegations – 25 June 2014

Voice of America – ICC: No N. Korea War Crimes Probe – 24 June 2014

Reuters – International court says will not investigate 2010 attacks on South Korea – 23 June 2014

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