GENEVA (13 June 2017) – A United Nation human rights expert on North Korea has backed proposals to resume family reunions for people separated since the 1950-1953 war, stressing that time is running out for many elderly relatives.
“There have not been any reunions since October 2015, and thousands of people are still desperate to connect with their loved ones or at least to know what happened to them,” said Tomás OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Members of South Korea’s National Assembly announced plans on 5 June for a draft resolution to resume family reunion events in August. The debate is likely to create divisions within the assembly, as Pyongyang continues to carry out ballistic missile launches despite strong warnings by its neighbours and the international community.
The issue is also likely to be dogged by tensions over a group of North Korean restaurant workers who were resettled in Seoul last year, and whose return the DPRK has demanded as a precondition to further talks on family reunions.
Mr. OJEA QUINTANA said: “I welcome the proposal to organize reunions in August. Considering the ages of the family members concerned, and the plight they continue to suffer in old age, all political considerations must be removed. The reunions should be able to go ahead without conditions, to alleviate people’s suffering. This is a matter of absolute urgency that should not divide opinion.”
Nearly 130,000 people in the Republic of Korea (ROK) have registered since 1953 to be reunited with family members in the North, but more than half have died without knowing the whereabouts of their relatives, and the majority of those still alive are over 80.
New South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office on 9 May, pledged during his election campaign to restore links between separated relatives. His administration has already taken steps to promote dialogue with Pyongyang, including the resumption of joint preventive activities to fight malaria in the North.
Mr. OJEA QUINTANA says the moment is ripe for the two countries to restart dialogue on separated families.
“There is a window of opportunity to discuss reunions as part of the wider outreach initiative by the Republic of Korea, and it should not be missed,” the Special Rapporteur said. “If the two countries can agree on conducting joint humanitarian activities, this is also their chance to respond to the reunion appeal made by the victims.”
Mr. Tomás OJEA QUINTANA (Argentina) was designated as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Ojea Quintana, a lawyer with more than 20 years of experience in human rights, worked for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and represented the Argentinian NGO “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” in cases concerning child abduction during the military regime. He is a former Head of OHCHR human rights programme in Bolivia, and served as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar from 2008 to 2014.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
Read the OHCHR report on the human rights dimension of the separation of Korean families
UN Human Rights, country page: DPRK
OHCHR Seoul Office
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