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UN rights expert says everyday life in North Korea is about fight for basic survival

SEOUL / GENEVA (15 December 2017) – The lives of many North Koreans have been reduced to sheer economic survival, a United Nations human rights expert has said after meeting those who have recently fled the country.

People living in the countryside are facing an especially dire situation, said Tomás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in a statement after a four-day visit to the Republic of Korea.

“The people I have interviewed have painted a very grim picture of everyday life, particularly in the countryside,” said Mr. Ojea Quintana. “It is a life marked by arduous forced labour, with a total breakdown in the basic services meant to be provided by the state, and people being left to fend for themselves.

“The idea of self-reliance – the Juche – which was at the very foundation of the DPRK, seems in reality to have moved away from collective action by the masses to an individual form of self-reliance and survival, where people are forced to secure for themselves the basic necessities for their bare survival.”

UN humanitarian work in North Korea was being restricted as a result of Security Council sanctions, the Special Rapporteur noted, stressing that the potential adverse impact on human rights and livelihoods had to be considered when international sanctions were being designed and implemented.

He also urged North Korea to produce substantive data on the impact of the sanctions on the population, and to begin regular communications with UN human rights mechanisms and the Security Council on the issue.

“The security threat posed by the DPRK’s ballistic and nuclear programme has led to increased international pressure through the Security Council sanctions regime,” said the Special Rapporteur. “While the DPRK must be urged to strictly uphold its own obligations as a member state of the United Nations, the dire human rights situation facing the North Korean people cannot be forgotten.” 

The Special Rapporteur also encouraged people documenting human rights violations in the DPRK to continue doing so to pave the way for future prosecutions, saying their critical work would not only help hold the perpetrators to account, but would also deter policies that violated human rights, and provide victims with future avenues for seeking legal remedy.

He noted: “At the same time, I see many channels of engagement with the DPRK that are opening up, including in the area of human rights. Many individuals and groups are working tirelessly to address longstanding issues such as the situation of separated Korean families who long to be reunited with their loved ones in the North.”

The situation of specific victims of separation such as the elderly, those who wished to return to the DPRK, or the group of 12 female restaurant workers whom the DPRK claims to have been abducted by the Republic of Korea, also required urgent action, he said.

“My door remains open,” said Mr. Ojea Quintana, “and so are many other offers of support that have been extended to the DPRK Government, through the mandate of other Special Rapporteurs, as well as the regular interaction with the UN Human Rights Office, for North Korea to engage in human rights dialogue for the benefit of its own people.”

The Special Rapporteur will spend 15 and 16 December in Japan, where he is expected to meet Japanese government officials as well as families of Japanese nationals abducted by the DPRK. Mr. Ojea Quintana will report on his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.


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.

UN Human Rights country page – DPRK

OHCHR Seoul Office

For additional information and media requests, please contact:
In Seoul: in English, Tarek Cheniti (+82 10 5927 8724/ tcheniti@ohchr.org); in Korean, YounKyo Ahn (+82 10 6607 3595 / yahn@ohchr.org)

In Geneva/Tokyo: Olga Nakajo in English/Japanese (onakajo@ohchr.org, +41 79 444 4332 during the visit; +41 22 928 9348 before/after the visit)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact:
Jeremy Laurence – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org)

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