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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, mission to Seoul

Press statement
Korea Press Center, Seoul, 10 July 2018

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), I have now completed my fourth mission to Seoul. At the outset, I would like to express my most sincere appreciation to the Government of the Republic of Korea for accepting the visit of a United Nations human rights expert at this truly historic moment for the people of the Korean peninsula.

During this visit, I have had the privilege of meeting again with senior Government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Unification. I also held meetings with the Korean Red Cross, the Korean Institute for National Unification and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. I received first-hand accounts from people who left North Korea, including young students at the Hangyore High School, and had meetings with civil society actors offering a broad range of views and perspectives. I also met with members of the diplomatic community and the OHCHR Office in Seoul. I am grateful to all those who took the time to share insights and information with me during this mission.

I have come to the Republic of Korea at a very significant moment, with the rapprochement between the two Koreas taking place after 70 years of confrontation and division. I wholeheartedly commend both governments of the Republic of Korea and the DPRK for their resolve - that there will be no more war, and that there will be a new era of peace – and for the tremendous efforts that are being taken to implement those decisions.

Being here now, I have witnessed the serious aspiration for peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Those of us, especially from the outside world, must remember that this rapprochement has significant emotional and political meaning for the Korean people. As recently as just several months ago, the world was fearing a prospect of a nuclear war. While still in its infancy, the world is now witnessing a peace process that may bring real results.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, the main objective of my visit this time is to reinvigorate the human rights agenda in the ongoing dialogue with the North, and to propose how best to frame human rights for it to be part of this process.

During my meetings, the Government authorities have stated that they remain committed to the North Korean human rights agenda, but that it is a matter of placing the priority on the newly found prospects for peace that the Korean people have so desperately wished for, for so long.

Notably, the Panmunjom Declaration speaks about prosperity and I see clear implications for the enjoyment of economic and social rights for the people of North Korea. OCHA, the UN’s Humanitarian Agency has said that the DPRK is facing a “protracted humanitarian crisis that is largely overlooked by the rest of the world”. The UN has reported that chronic food insecurity, early childhood malnutrition and nutrition insecurity are widespread in DPRK, and over 10 million people, or 40% of the population, are said to require humanitarian assistance. The total food production in the country has seen a decrease by 7.42% in 2018 compared to last year. While there are many complex, intertwined factors that have contributed to this situation, including the breakdown of the public distribution system, I believe that addressing the economic and social rights for the people of the DPRK is a priority that all actors can agree on – the Government of the DPRK, as well as the international community.

At the same time, there have been some positive steps taken with regard to human rights in the last few months - the release of the US nationals, the ongoing discussions on the return of the remains of the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War, as well as the agreement to hold a reunion event for the separated families in August. The issue of the Japanese abductees was also placed on the agenda.

However, neither the Panmunjom Declaration, nor the DPRK-US Statement includes an explicit use of the human rights terminology. In fact, a specific reference to the human rights situation of the people living in North Korea cannot be found in any of these documents, or a commitment and a strategy to address it. And here lies the most important challenge for the international community, and in particular, the United Nations human rights system.

Up to now, since the establishment of my mandate as the Special Rapporteur, the DPRK has been closed to any form of cooperation or engagement, by holding the misconception that the interest on the human rights situation is one driven by a political agenda. In this regard, I want to reaffirm and reemphasize that the United Nations is firmly against any politicization of human rights. Human rights principles were established 70 years ago by the United Nations Charter as one of the founding pillars of the UN system – together with peace and security and development. To protect and promote human rights, is an obligation of any member of the United Nations, as the DPRK is. The UN has been given a clear role and mandate, under the UN Charter, to oversee the situation of human rights in any of the member states of the United Nations. It is in this context that the UN assists and cooperates with all member states in their efforts to protect and promote human rights, in accordance with the principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality and in line with the principle of sovereignty.

Since I took up the mandate, I have consistently maintained my position as a neutral, impartial actor, while always calling for dialogue with the authorities of DPRK. In this regard, I see my role as assisting the key stakeholders in shaping the human rights agenda in the current process of rapprochement so that it can be integrated into the dialogue with North Korea in a way that makes the talks sustainable and credible. My position as the UN expert has always been that bringing human rights to the table is not a hindrance but a way to ensure that peace talks are real and sustainable. It is not an antithesis to confidence building, but on the contrary, it could contribute to it if done in the right way.

It is my belief that there is a need at this time for the Government of North Korea to step up the human rights dialogue, and to extend a parallel opening alongside the current openings on peace and denuclearization. To date, the Government has refused to engage with me. However I am now calling for them to start a process of dialogue, to begin a conversation with me as a concrete sign of their commitment, which will only serve to reinforce the ongoing process. The call is to end the era of isolation, and to engage with the international human rights mechanisms as a credible member of the United Nations. The human rights situation in the DPRK will again be on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly in October. When I report to the General Assembly, I would like to be able to tell the member states of the United Nations that the Government of DPRK has begun a process of dialogue on how together we could work to improve the situation of human rights in their country. To this end, I am convinced that the human rights agenda must be adequately placed in the negotiations.

In this connection, I call upon the Government of the Republic of Korea to hold further consultations with all stakeholders, and encourage their participation, including civil society organisations working on the accountability agenda, so that the process of rapprochement can benefit from a diverse range of views and perspectives. In this regard, I have heard voices of disappointment among certain civil society groups that the human rights agenda may be put aside by the Government, and that the space for their voice is narrowing. The uncertainties regarding the establishment of the Human Rights Foundation, which would have provided funding to organisations working on human rights in the DPRK, also seems to have paved way for greater concerns on their part. As a matter of principle, this historical moment of inter-Korean efforts for peace should include not only the leaders, but also the people as a whole.

Situation of human rights in the DPRK 

Let me now share my preliminary assessment of the human rights situation in the DPRK. Regrettably, there have been no substantial changes in the serious human rights situation on the ground.

My interviews with persons who recently left the DPRK indicate that the lives of ordinary citizens continue to be dire. Difficulties in the living conditions and the chronic food insecurity continue to be cited as the reason that people leave, particularly those from the countryside, which make up the majority of the population. 

Many of the stories told to me during this mission were the same: the public distribution system of the past, or the material assistance that were sometimes provided by employers to the employees, for example, in factories, no longer exists. Chronic food shortages could only be overcome by supplementary incomes in the informal economy. Those who could not engage in such business activities, for example due to illnesses, accident, old age, disability or pregnancy, could only make the ends meet with the assistance of family members. People continued to rely on traditional herbs or traders that sold medicine for most illnesses and accidents, as hospital visits were prohibitively expensive. “If you can’t pay, you will be turned away”, one of the women I spoke to said. She had lost her son to cancer, because she could not pay for the treatments.

As one young girl recounted: “We were taught that everything is equal and fair under the socialist system, but when I lived there (in the North), it didn’t feel that way.” Asked why, she said: “Life was so difficult for everyone. Everyone lived for their own good, for themselves, and couldn’t care about anyone else”.

Access to safe drinking water and sanitation remains also a challenge, especially in the provinces. None of the interviewees from the countryside had access to treated, readily available water at home, or to toilet inside their homes but to outdoor toilets or latrines that are not connected to a public sewage system.

While many of the young people said they had gone to school, many had dropped out due to poverty. I was also concerned to learn about the state policy applied for children to engage in agricultural work as part of the formal education. Children from age 13 are obliged to engage in agricultural labour, often hard and hazardous, for at least a month in spring and a month in autumn, for “rural assistance (Nyong Chon Jiwon)”. Those who live in the cities, or cannot work, are obliged to make financial contributions instead. A young woman with no parents, who had lived with her grandmother, recalled being punished whenever she was not able to meet the material quotas set by the school, for contributions to the school itself, or to injured soldiers. No assistance, nor special considerations are given to disadvantaged children, she said.

While the difficulties that the recent arrivals from the DPRK alluded to were mostly economic and social, they all displayed a fear of expressing any opinion that could be considered as political, or a criticism of the Government or the leader. Although none of them had a first-hand experience of detention, they all cited knowing someone or some family who were reportedly sent to political prison camps (kwanliso), and there is widespread fear of being sent to them.  

What I have just outlined is a preliminary assessment of the human rights situation following my visit and I will follow up on the developments which will be reported in full in my report to the General Assembly in October.  

Final remarks 

Let me conclude, by thanking once again the Government of the Republic of Korea for facilitating my visit. I hereby reaffirm my commitment, on behalf of the United Nations, to assist the Government of the DPRK to bring immediate improvements in the enjoyment of human rights for their people.

History has shown time and again that whenever there is a conflict, there is a need to address the root causes, and if human rights are put aside from the beginning in the peace talks, it will pose risks for the future. This is not the first time that human rights is seen as an inconvenience at a delicate moment. However, our experience as the UN has shown that there can be no genuine, peaceful and sustainable transition without it. I remain of the conviction that peace, security and development on the Korean peninsula will endure as long as the protection and promotion of human rights are translated into reality.

If we look around the corner of history, you will see that this is the way forward for a peaceful and prosperous Korean peninsula.