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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to the Republic of Korea


Seoul, 25 June 2015

Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.

This has been my first visit to Asia since becoming High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the first visit by any High Commissioner to the Republic of Korea for more than a decade. It has had two principal purposes: firstly to open an office here to work on human rights issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in line with a recommendation made last year by the ground-breaking Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. And secondly to discuss various human rights issues relating to the Republic of Korea itself.

I would like to thank the Government for hosting our new office, and also for enabling my visit with such warmth, efficiency and openness. The Republic of Korea has shown increasing leadership on human rights on the international stage in recent years, most notably in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, of which it is currently a member. And this visit has, I believe, strengthened our already strong relationship in ways I hope will ultimately bring concrete improvements in the lives of people in both Koreas.

It was encouraging to see the importance given to the opening of the new office by the Government itself, which was represented by the Foreign Minister and other senior officials, as well as by the diplomatic community, media, civil society and the general public.

It is rare that the opening of a small office is such big news. I believe this reflects the fact that we all fervently want to see the same thing: a major improvement in the human rights situation in the DPRK. And while none of us expects a new UN human rights office will dramatically alter that situation overnight, we do all feel, I think, that it is a significant step: a breakthrough that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and one that was not even on the far horizon before the Commission of Inquiry took place and issued its powerful, devastating and extremely influential report in February 2014.

My predecessor, Navi Pillay, had issued a statement a year earlier urging the Human Right Council to create an international Commission of Inquiry. It was an unusual call for a High Commissioner, because there was no new war, or particular atrocity, that triggered it. And this was precisely why she made it. The population of the DPRK has been suffering appalling human rights violations and deprivation for decades, and much of the outside world was barely aware of what was going on there and focussed only on the nuclear issue.

In the words of the Commission of Inquiry, “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The Commissioners did not mince their words, stating unequivocally that a wide range of crimes against humanity had been committed there, arising from policies established “at the highest level of State.”

The Commission of Inquiry report had an enormous impact in the international arena. Because of that report, the victims now have faces and they have voices. Brave voices revealing heart-rending personal tragedies produced by systematic cruelty and depravity beyond our darkest imagination. In addition to the public hearings, the Commission’s report drew on interviews with more than 240 witnesses and victims who were afraid to speak publicly, but whose experiences were no less searing, and who provided evidence which, if taken up by prosecutors, may one day prove vital in a court of law.

Thanks to the Commission of Inquiry, the human rights situation in the DPRK is now firmly on the international agenda, and is a regular topic of discussion in all three principal organs of the United Nations dealing with human rights, namely the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly and the Security Council. Some of its most important recommendations – such as a referral by the Security Council of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court – have not yet been acted on, but still could be. But the fact that this UN human rights office in Seoul is now a reality, and will start fully operating in a month or so, is a sign that the Commission’s work is starting to bear fruit.

In addition, the Government of the DPRK is reacting. Sometimes this reaction comes in the form of angry threats. But at the same time there are signs the DPRK Government is making more effort to at least engage with some of the issues being raised in the international arena, for example during the process known as the Universal Periodic Review during which every State’s human rights record is examined by the other States.

I hope this reaction will continue and mature to a point where it produces some concrete results. The purpose of our new office is not just to monitor, report and criticize – though it will do all of those. It is also to engage with civil society, with refugees and defectors and with Governments of the region. We will also keep our channels open to the authorities in the DPRK itself. Engagement is vital. And so is accountability. These are not opposing forces. They are both essential if a society in as bad a state as the DPRK is to one day recover and start to prosper.

The people of the DPRK are currently facing the consequences of what appears to be the worst drought in living memory, compounded by decades of disastrous agricultural practices and chronic economic mismanagement. To avert the extremely high risk of famine, the Government must engage with its neighbours and with humanitarian agencies, and they should reciprocate with support. The right to food, the right to health, and other social and economic rights are just as important as civil and political rights -- even if the latter often garner more attention. Estimates that some 70 percent of the population are food insecure, and more than a quarter of all children in the DPRK are chronically malnourished, are truly shocking.

Some issues originating in DPRK also directly affect RoK, and even countries further afield such as Japan, from where at least 881 people are now believed to have been abducted to DPRK. The terrible suffering of their families along with hundreds of thousands of other separated families across the two Koreas remains unresolved: out of the almost 130,000 people who have actively applied for reunion since the year 2000, a pitifully small number -- less than 2,000 -- have been allowed to meet briefly face-to-face. Tragically, almost half of those who applied -- some 62,000 -- have since died without ever seeing, let alone being reunited with, their loved ones from whom they were separated decades ago.

In stark contrast to the DPRK, the Republic of Korea has undergone a highly successful transformation since becoming a democracy just over 30 years ago, rising to become the 13th largest economy in the world. Its performance on the human rights front has also improved significantly in parallel with its economic growth. In general, the country’s recent history makes it one of the world’s most dramatic success stories – an excellent model for countries in transition to try to emulate.

Like even the most established democracies elsewhere in the world, the country nevertheless still faces challenges.

Civil society groups whom I met earlier today raised a number of issues, many of which have also been raised by various UN Treaty Bodies which periodically monitor the performance of countries that have ratified international human rights treaties.

One of the most prevalent concerns is the limitations imposed on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly by the 1948 National Security Act which is considered by many to be long overdue for reform. The vague language of Article 7 of the NSA, which refers to “anti-Government organizations” without defining what this means exactly, has in the past led to unjust and inappropriate convictions of bona fide human rights defenders and non-threatening groups – sometimes simply for comments made on social media -- and is likely to continue to do so until it is amended.

In addition, concerns are regularly raised about restrictions on freedom of expression on line and dissemination of information of public interest by Government-controlled institutions that use vaguely defined concepts, such as “harming the public interest” or “false communication” to block internet content or impose criminal charges. Other concerns relate to freedom of association, particularly with respect to the activities of trade unions.

The Republic of Korea lives under constant threat from its heavily armed neighbour, and has an obligation to protect its citizens. Finding the balance between honouring the human rights of its citizens and minimizing threats to their security is difficult, but not impossible, and amending the NSA is an essential part of that process. The increasing sophistication of the country’s population means society is easily robust enough to cope with dissenting voices and contrary views without resorting to the heavy hand of an ill-defined law. There needs to be a constant recalibration of security measures to ensure the protection of human rights while guarding against such threats.

Balancing genuine security needs with the right to privacy in an age when it is so easy for States to spy on their citizens’ every movement and communication is another 21st century dilemma facing many democratic States, and – as in a number of other countries -- there have been allegations of excessive use of intrusive surveillance, especially of internet connections and social media, by the National Intelligence Service. Again, it is essential that laws, and their interpretation and implementation by the authorities, need to be constantly reappraised to ensure that human rights are not diminished as technology evolves.

There are also some lacunae in RoK’s legislation regarding the protection of certain minorities, and especially migrant workers who continue to be exploited and abused by employers and have little protection under the law. In this regard, the country would certainly benefit from a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to provided better and broader protection.

I have been heartened to see the RoK is looking to stimulate positive change in the broader region. I was told, for example, about how the Constitutional Court is reflecting on the need for a regional court of the type that exists in some other parts of the world. And Korean cities like Gwangju and Seoul are networking with others nationally and internationally to promote the powerful concept of “human rights cities.”

I met many distinguished people during this visit, including of course President Park Geun-hye – whom I was privileged to meet just an hour or so ago -- and a number of her ministers, the Mayor of Seoul and other top Government and State officials. But, in many ways, the three people who impressed me most were the three women I met yesterday, Kim Bok-dong, Gil Won-ok, and Lee Yong-soo. Their personal stories broke through the impersonal nature of the historical arguments about the tens of thousands of so-called “Comfort Women” forced into sexual slavery by occupying Japanese forces during World War II.

These women, just young girls at the time, were raped as many as 15 times on weekdays, and 50 times a day at weekends. For days, months, and even years on end. As I did the arithmetic in my head, the enormity of what happened was overwhelming. During their period of sex slavery, some of these women and girls were raped thousands of times, and many died as a result. And even after they were liberated, they received no therapy, no support and were submerged in shame. Many were rejected by their families, some committed suicide. Others were rendered sterile and most never married or had children.

You can never get over something this horrendous. As Kim Bok-dong put it: “We still have knots in our hearts.”

The three women I met were so dignified. They greeted me warmly. They laughed with me. They held my hand. And despite their age, they had started a campaign, the Butterfly Fund, to help other women around the world. I find it terribly sad that, despite some significant steps taken by Japan over the years, the victims of this terrible crime do not feel their suffering has been adequately and universally recognized. In the final analysis, it is only the victims who can decide whether enough has been done, and it was clear from my conversation with them, that these three remarkable women do not think that is the case. I firmly believe and hope that a satisfactory solution can be found.

As one of them told me quietly: “I do not want to die with sorrow in my heart.”

I salute them, and I will never forget them.

Thank you.


For more information please contact:

In Geneva: Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org or Cecile Pouilly: +41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org
In Seoul: Rupert Colville (for the duration of the mission): SMS +41 79 506 1088 / rcolville@ohchr.org

Learn more about the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul, in English and Korean:
Website: seoul.ohchr.org
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