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Briefing to the Security Council on the situation of in situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

New York, 10 December 2015

Madam President,

I welcome this invitation from the Security Council to provide a briefing on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where gross violations continue, the institutional nature and severity of which pose a threat to international peace and security. 

The abduction of foreign nationals, the enforced disappearances, the trafficking and the continued movement of refugees and asylum-seekers makes this point clearly.  These, in addition to a litany of other gross human rights violations – have still not been halted or reversed by the government of the DPRK. Victims are still unable to find judicial redress and there is still no accountability grounded in the work of an independent judiciary.

It is appropriate that today’s discussion falls on Human Rights Day which this year focuses on “our rights, our freedoms, always.”

Millions of people in the DPRK continue to be denied their basic rights and freedoms.  They are not allowed to move freely within and outside their country, or to speak out about injustices. They are not allowed to follow their faith.  They are denied access to information not sanctioned by the regime, and the right to form organizations that can, in any way, be seen to be critical of the Government.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council described in graphic detail the appalling nature of the DPRK’s political prison-camp system, where people including children  have been deliberately starved, made to carry out forced labour, subjected to extrajudicial killings and summary executions, tortured and raped. The Commission of Inquiry stated that hundreds of thousands of people have died in these camps over several decades and that they are still believed to contain between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners.

Over the past year, my Office began implementing the recommendations drawn from the report of the Commission of Inquiry, which concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature of [the human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and stated unequivocally that a wide range of crimes against humanity had been committed.  Their recommendations included the establishment of an OHCHR office, which I inaugurated in Seoul in June, and which is now fully operational, in accordance with its mandate.  The office has begun collecting testimonies from individuals who have left the DPRK, documenting developments in the human rights situation and deepening the evidentiary basis for the accountability that surely, is owed to the victims, and deserved by the alleged perpetrators.  During my visit I met with a number of defectors, men and women, and their personal experiences were indeed extraordinarily harrowing.

I must also mention, Madame President, my concern over the threats issued by the DPRK authorities and media against the OHCHR Office in Seoul when first established.  I reiterate that it is wholly unacceptable that a member state issues threats like that against a United Nations office and its staff.  And I hope it will not re-occur.

Three types of allegations have emerged from OHCHR’s recent monitoring and documentation efforts. 

First, victims and witnesses have spoken of the severe treatment of detainees in political prison camps and in other detention locations, especially at the early stages of criminal proceedings.  Detainees have no access to independent lawyers and, we have been told, endure inhuman detention conditions, as well as torture during interrogation – adding weight to the findings of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry.

Second, food insecurity is an ongoing concern. While food availability may have improved relative to past periods of massive starvation, the systemic failure of the public distribution system has not been addressed. Given the social inequalities within DPRK, the vulnerability of those lacking adequate cash income remains worrisome.

Third, as in many other countries, women in the DPRK are subject to gender-based violence and discrimination. Their suffering appears to be exacerbated by a lack of awareness that such violence is unacceptable and by the absence of appropriate support mechanisms. Recent restrictions on movement across the border with China, often used by women engaging in private trade, are also said to have had a strong negative impact on women, restricting their ability to provide for their families, increasing vulnerability to trafficking for those seeking to leave, and augmenting the risk of detention and ill-treatment for those who try to cross the border or are repatriated.

The family reunions which took place in October were a welcome development, and such reunions should be regularized. Today, on the occasion of Human Rights Day, my Office in Seoul is organizing a workshop on the human rights implications of the separation of Korean families, which affects more than 130,000 individuals. Most have reached an advanced age and are longing to be reunited with their loved ones. The very few who were selected for previous reunions have to live with the psychological impact of a one-off meeting, with no possibility of maintaining contacts. I hope that the commitment and collaboration shown by both sides through the last reunions will continue.

The matter of international abductions remains a cause of very grave concern.  While the establishment of a Special Investigation Committee in the DPRK on this issue, following bilateral talks between Japan and DPRK in May 2014, was a positive development, no information has been provided since then on the results emanating from its work.  Equally, the fate of hundreds of victims of abduction from the Republic of Korea must be established.  On 21 September, OHCHR organized consultations on the situation of human rights in DPRK, including on the issue of international abductions, enforced disappearances and related matters. This was followed up by a visit to Japan by my Seoul team.

Once again, this year, the General Assembly has called on the Security Council to take action by referring the situation in DPRK to the International Criminal Court, which I believe to be essential, given the scale and extreme gravity of the allegations.  Any call for accountability must however go hand in hand with an open dialogue with the government of DPRK, encouraging them toward reform and urging them to accept assistance. My office has continued to engage with the authorities on possible technical cooperation with the goal of assisting them to address the prevailing human rights challenges and, ultimately, to trigger positive change in the lives of all people in the DPRK.

There are signs that the Government is making some tentative efforts to engage in the international area.  In this context, I very much welcome the invitation extended to me by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK to visit the country.  My office is now engaged with the authorities to explore modalities for a possible future visit.

The continuing violations and systemic failings simply heighten international anxieties over the possibility of a precipitous turn, an event of great centrifugal consequence, which could rapidly engulf the region.  As we have stated time and again, if the international community is serious over reducing tensions in the region, more must be done collectively to ensure respect for human rights in the DPRK. 

Addressing the chronic human rights situations in DPRK is urgent and long overdue. 

I thank you, Madame President.