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Briefing to the Security Council on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, New York, 9 December 2016

[check against delivery]

Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Security Council,

One year has passed since the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was last discussed by this body. Our concern expressed back then, and the continued threat it poses to international peace and stability with its impact on human rights has only deepened.

There has been no improvement in the truly appalling human rights violations in the country. The nature and scale of the violations occurring in the DPRK underscore the link between human rights, peace and security. Let us not forget that the Commission of Inquiry found that numerous crimes against humanity were committed and ongoing, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights continues its efforts to help ensuring accountability for violations, while seeking every opportunity to engage the Government. Although monitoring the human rights situation in the country remains a challenge, testimonies of people who have left the country, and information gathered through other sources, indicate that the patterns of human rights violations documented by the Commission of Inquiry are continuing. Major political events, such as the 7th Congress of the Korea Workers’ Party in May and the Supreme People’s Assembly in June this year, seemingly failed to create an opening for any new policies that protect human rights.

In the past 12 months, OHCHR has conducted more than 110 interviews with persons who had left the DPRK. A major issue that emerged during these interviews was the treatment of people in the custody of law enforcement agencies. All of those who had been detained stated that they were subject to, or witnessed, practices that clearly contravened international human rights standards. Violations reported include torture and ill-treatment, which is routinely used during detention, investigation and imprisonment. Cases were reported of solitary confinement for several days in a cell so small that the detainee was unable to sit down. Other violations included poor detention conditions, inadequate access to food, water and sanitation, lack of judicial review, lack of access to lawyers and family members, and other violations that impacted on the right to a fair trial. Suspects are rarely allowed to present evidence that contests the charge against them in a meaningful manner. These violations reflect the larger context in which the criminal justice system fails to protect the rights of individuals. The system is characterized by significant oversight by the Workers’ Party of Korea, while the role played by the judiciary and lawyers is limited.

The procedures surrounding the persecution of individuals deemed to have committed “political crimes”, is even more secretly guarded. While the Government continues to deny the existence of these prison camps, many citizens of the DPRK are aware of their existence. Observation from the outside, including through satellite images, has confirmed their continued operation. No independent international human rights monitors have been able to access to these camps.

Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remain almost entirely restricted. Despite a reported increase in ownership and use of mobile phones and internet services, all mass media remains under government control, and access to foreign media is prohibited. Harsh restrictions on freedom of movement continue to affect citizens, who are not allowed to travel abroad or even within the country without permission. The restrictions at the border area have reportedly been increasingly tightened making it even more difficult for individuals to leave the country. Those who seek to leave are at risk of trafficking, and refoulement in contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Women, in particular, are at risk of sexual abuse, detention and ill-treatment following refoulement. There is no known independent civil society movement whatsoever. DPRK nationals working outside the country live in substandard conditions and are subject to severe surveillance and oversight, while the Government appropriates most of the income they generate.

Turning to economic and social rights, the DPRK also faces significant challenges in fulfilling this important area of the rights of its citizens, despite the authorities’ stated commitment to improve the living conditions of the population. The country continues to be affected by chronic food shortages that have resulted in protracted under-nutrition, affecting in particular children, pregnant and nursing women and older persons. The public distribution system of food is not functioning, except for a few privileged classes. Most citizens depend on private, mostly illegal, commercial activities to fulfil basic needs. Frequent mobilization for public work, such as the 200-day campaign before the Workers Party Congress in May, reportedly impacted negatively on the ability of residents to engage in commercial activities. Residents of the North-eastern provinces who were affected by the typhoon and flood in late August are likely to remain particularly vulnerable to food insecurity this winter. Discrimination in access to employment, education and other services based on a person’s family background, or songbun, continues to be reported.

Mr. President,

The heightened security tensions have direct consequences on human rights. For example, the people-to-people contact between the two Koreas, also recommended by the Commission of Inquiry, ceased after the DPRK nuclear test in January 2016. Reunions of separated families have not taken place since October 2015. A report released by OHCHR two days ago highlights the plight of tens of thousands families who have been separated across the border during and since the Korean War, without possibility of reconnecting with relatives on the other side.

There has also been no progress in resolving the issue of international abductions of 516 individuals who were abducted from the Republic of Korea after the Armistice. Likewise, no satisfactory answers have been given to establish the fate of individuals abducted from Japan and other countries.

Mr. President,

Following the adoption in March this year of Human Rights Council resolution 31/81, the High Commissioner appointed two independent experts in support of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Ms. Sonja Biserko and Ms. Sara Hossain, to focus on issues of accountability, in particular where such violations amount to crimes against humanity. The two experts have just concluded a mission to the Republic of Korea and Japan, and have also sought to engage the DPRK to share the Government’s views and information. Their report will be included as an annex to the Special Rapporteur’s report to the Human Rights Council in March 2017. The new Special Rapporteur, Mr. Tomás Ojea Quintana, is exploring the possibility for dialogue with DPRK authorities while recognizing that accountability must be part of such engagement.

We remain committed to continuing engaging with the DPRK to improve the human rights situation inside the country. In a positive development, in 2016, the Government submitted reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Our Office has continued to offer technical assistance to the DPRK to help the Government implement its human rights obligations.

Mr. President,

Failure to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations accountable, some of which amount to crimes against humanity, will be a disappointment for the victims and sow the seeds of further instability and tension. Accountability is vital and we hope the Security Council will remain seized of this matter. The General Assembly has again in its resolution this year encouraged the Security Council to take appropriate action to ensure accountability, including through consideration of a referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court.

Improvement in human rights in the country will not only protect the livelihoods and dignity of people in DPRK but also promote long-term security and stability in the region and beyond. Escalated security tensions, however, will further isolate the country and leave the DPRK population as usual to bear the terrible consequences, at yet further expense of their human rights.

Thank you.