26 November 2010
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s republic of Korea, I was on my first official visit to the Republic of Korea from 22 to 26 November 2010. The purpose of my visit was to assess the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it impacts on the republic of Korea (RoK). In October this year, my request to access the DPRK did not receive a favourable decision from the Government of the DPRK. This paved my decision to travel first to neighbouring countries, such as the RoK and Japan. I am accompanied by an official of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
I held meetings with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Minister for Unification Policy, members of the Inter-Parliamentarians’ Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights and the Director General of the Human Rights bureau of the Ministry of Justice. I also met with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, national and international non-governmental organizations, diplomats and other relevant individuals.
I was elaborately briefed on a number of issues, such as the issue of abduction, separated families, violations of human rights in the DPRK, trafficking of persons and the abuses that the asylum-seekers go through en route to the RoK, the situation of refugees and the current state of multi party, which have implications on the situation in the DPRK.
As the Special Rapporteur, I recognise the gravity of the recent military actions which have escalated tensions between ROK and DPRK. While these developments will require careful analysis, I join with others in expressing my sympathy to the victims and calling for restraint. This underscores the importance and need for resumption of multilateral meetings, involving the DPRK. The DPRK should not find itself in isolation at a juncture when it needs the support and cooperation of the international community the most, both to address the human rights situation and the humanitarian needs. I would also like to express my sympathy to the victims of artillery fire from the DPRK.
With regards to the cooperation with the United Nations, as mentioned in my first report and the statement at the general Assembly in October 2010, it is important to bear in mind some of the positive elements, such as the fact that the country is party to a number of human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, these positive steps are not an end in itself and require further action in implementation of rights guaranteed under these instruments. In 2009, the country underwent the Universal Periodic Review process and appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Like the name suggests, this is a universal process, which every country in the world undergoes systematically. The Government of the DPRK would need to make it clear which recommendations they would accept, to avoid questioning of DPRK’s commitment and undermining the purpose of the UPR process. Irrespective of the stance of the DPRK, I will continue to look into some of the key recommendations and conclusions of the UPR.
I note some of the positive aspects at the national level in Republic of Korea in relation to its policies with the DPRK. With regards to the humanitarian aid, I am encouraged to see RoK’s provision of humanitarian aid to the people of the DPRK during humanitarian situation, both in the last few years and more recently during the floods in August 2010. The RoK’s offer of some 5,000 tons of rice and 250,000 bags of cement for victims of August 2010 floods in the DPRK is one example of RoK’s support during the humanitarian crisis in the DPRK, which I understand is now on hold due to the firing of artillery at Yeonpyeong. I wish to seize this opportunity to emphasis, both to the RoK and the international community that it is important to continue to provide such humanitarian assistance. However, I recognize that it is also important to ensure such aid distribution reaches the neediest population, in line with the long standing UN policy of ‘ no access no aid’, which needs to be respected by all states receiving aid.
The resumption of the family reunion of separated families in October 2010, through an inter-Korean temporary family reunion is a welcomed. However, it is regrettable that the talks between the Red Cross organizations of the two sides for further reunions have been on hold in the wake of the recent artillery firing. The number of persons affected by separation of families is so large that there is a need for a more frequent and regular family reunion. I stress this, also keeping in mind that the majority of such separated members are now very old and some are already dead.
I heard with great interest the desire on the part of the Government of the RoK and its people to address the situation of abductees and look at the issue of human rights in the DPRK. I have also learnt of initiatives being undertaken by some Parliamentarians to introduce new legislation aimed at enhancing the human rights situation of the people of the DPRK. I understand that, among other things, the draft provisions include a proposal for a more systematic recording of the human rights situation in the DPRK.
On the issue of the DPRK asylum seekers, there has been a steady increase in the number of persons seeking refuge in the RoK. Up until the late 1990s, fewer than 1,000 defectors from the DPRK had made their way to the RoK. Today, however, there are 20,000 of them sheltered in the RoK, with a record 2,927 arriving in 2009 alone. Of these arrivals, around 77% are women. I had the opportunity to visit the Hanawon center, a government supported facility housing such asylum seekers outside Seoul, and to interview some of the new arrivals there. This allowed me to gather first-hand information on the harrowing experiences they have gone through, both while in the DPRK and en route to the RoK, often falling victim to people traffickers and sexual abuse. I understand that some have spent years in third countries before finally arriving in the RoK. While interacting with them, I could see that the scars, such as post-traumatic stress disorders, run deep. While they are happy to be here in the RoK, they worry for the safety of their beloved ones back at home. They fear that the families of those who flee the country are being identified in the DPRK, and face the prospect of harsh prison sentences.
On a positive note, Hanawon now provides the services, counseling, vocational training and the education that is needed for a new arrival to adjust to the society in the RoK. I am impressed with the management and facilities that are offered to the new arrivals. I recognize that adjusting into a new society takes time and is never easy, but I am optimistic that they will succeed. The follow-up support provided to new arrivals, after they move out of Hanawon is extremely important in ensuring proper integration into society and I welcome this support mechanism.
I also visited the Hangyoreh Middle High School, for adolescents from the DPRK, which opened in 2006. Like Hanawon, Hangyoreh is an excellent facility to cater to the schooling needs of adolescents from the DPRK. It was disheartening to learn that a number of these students are orphans. Some of them had little or no education in the DPRK and hence take time to settle in at the school and start learning. In addition, numerous students still suffer from psychological problems, which invariably affect their studies. There is however hope, as teachers are trained in dealing with such challenges, and their commitment reassures me that these children have a bright future.
- I recognize the paramount importance of quickly resuming dialogue between the RoK and the DPRK to create a conducive atmosphere, which could then lead to resolving a number of issues, such as the reunion of separated families and abducted persons.
- I stress the need for continued humanitarian support provided by the international community to the people of the DPRK. Provisions of humanitarian aid, including food, medical and other urgent humanitarian needs, subject to ‘no access, no aid’, should not be contingent upon any political conditions.
- I wish to emphasis the need for the DPRK to respect the overall protection and promotion of the human rights in the country as provided under the international human rights instruments.
- While commending the RoK for integration of asylum-seekers of the DPRK, I call on all other countries where people of the DPRK are seeking refuge or transiting, to protect, treat such people humanely and respect the principle of non-refoulment, as provided under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
- I would like to call on the Government to recognize the need to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights so as to mainstream human rights throughout DPRK’s programming.
These are some of my preliminary observations, which I will elaborate in my report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in March 2011. In January 2011, I intend to travel to Japan on a similar assessment mission. The findings of that mission will also be incorporated into the Report to the HRC in 2011.
Finally, I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to the Government of the Republic of Korea for their warm reception. Many individuals and entities were keen to meet me. I personally experienced the full range of diverse views on human rights in the DPRK.