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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana on his mission to Republic of Korea, from 17 to 21 June 2019

Korea Press Center, Seoul, 21 June 2019

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), I have now completed my sixth mission to Seoul, ahead of the presentation of my next report to the UN General Assembly in October. 

I had a fruitful mission thanks to the kind invitation by the Government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Let me share with you my activities during this mission and the issues that were discussed as well as some preliminary conclusions and views.

Government

I had a round of meetings with government officials which included the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Lee Taeho, the Vice-Minister of Unification Mr. Ho Suh, the Director-General of the Korean Peninsula Peace Regime Bureau Mr. Rhee Dong-yeol, and the Director-General of the International Organizations Bureau Mr. Kweon Ki-hwan, both from MOFA.

We discussed the importance of the peace process of the inter-Korean negotiations, and I reiterated the need to bring North Korean human rights concerns to the negotiations framework. I welcomed the decision to release to North Korea the pledged humanitarian aid, which should never be subject to politicization. We also discussed the role of South Korea in engaging with China to enhance the protection of North Korean escapees. Finally, I was briefed about the situation of North Koreans who entered South Korean territorial water in fishing boats.   

I met the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) researchers. We exchanged views on the deteriorating situation of the right to food in North Korea as a result of multiple issues. We also discussed humanitarian assistance and the rapidly increasing access to information technology for North Koreans. Finally, they shared with me their findings about numerous public executions which were carried out by gun fire after ordinary and special trials between 2013 and 2017, on charges of murder, illegal access to foreign dramas and drug dealing. 

I visited the National Assembly and had an open discussion with a member of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on the role of South Korea in protecting the human rights of North Koreans. As part of these efforts, I raised the urgency of the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, to support civil society organizations that are facing difficulties in developing programmess, according to the North Korean Human Rights Act. 

I also visited the Corporate Association of Kaeseong Industrial Complex to find out about safeguards that ensure labour rights of North Korean workers when the Complex reopens. They were aware of their responsibilities in this regard, and also receptive to my recommendation to hold consultations with the International Labour Organization (ILO). But what struck me most was how they depicted the sentiment and situation of the 55,000 North Korean workers, 60% women and 40% men, most of them farmers, after the complex was closed in 2016: “it was hell to them“.  They referred to the abrupt deprivation of a decent job, access to adequate water and sanitation, health care and food, which helped improve their lives. I believe that economic cooperation, based on human rights standards, offers a significant opportunity to improve people’s right to work and access to an adequate standard of living.  

Civil Society

I met with various civil society organizations, human rights activists, members of academia, as well as family members of victims and recent escapees. I praise their courage and tireless efforts to push North Korea’s human rights agenda forward. They brought to me their concerns over multiple human rights issues.

1) Kwanliso, Political Prison Camps

I continue to receive information that kwanliso, a system of political prison camps, is operational and people live in fear of being sent to them. 

Kwanliso are operated by the Ministry of State Security (MSS). MSS is the agency dealing with serious political crimes – “anti-state and anti-people crimes”. Suspects of anti-state and anti-national crimes are arbitrarily arrested by MSS agents without any warrant or notification of reasons, and without judicial guarantees. The suspects’ families are never informed of the decisions or their whereabouts; these should then be considered cases of enforced disappearance. North Korean escapees who believe that their family members were sent to a kwanliso told me that they used bribes and connections and found out that their family members were sent to a kwanliso but they could not obtain further information and they do not know what happened to them even after many years.

Enforced disappearances in North Korea also include those from the Korean War, and the Japanese and other foreigner abductees, which also remain a serious concern.  

2) North Korean escapees arrested and detained in China

I have been receiving an increasing number of individual cases of North Korean escapees, including children, detained in Shenyang City, in China’s Liaoning Province. Information suggests that China may have recently strengthened the search for North Korean escapees in collaboration with the Government of North Korea. Without discussing the Chinese legal categorization of the escapees, I have been raising my concern that repatriation is contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, to which China is bound to, as repatriated North Koreans are at great risk of serious human rights violations, including torture. The Government of North Korea criminalizes those who cross the border irregularly, with particularly severe punishments, including being sent to a kwanliso for those deemed to have left  with the intention of going to South Korea or to have made contact with Christian groups.    

Repatriation puts people’s lives at risk, breaks family ties, and further aggravates the dire situation of human rights in North Korea. I see it as a new wave of separated families. On 20 June, we celebrated the World Refugee Day, which reminded me of their special rights and concerns.

I met with women who recently escaped from North Korea in the Hanawon resettlement centre. They all left North Korea seeking a better life. They expressed their frustration with the physically hard life of trying to make a living in North Korea but also with the oppressive control over all aspects of their lives including engagement in commercial activities, freedom of movement within the country and abroad, access to foreign TV and music, and the invasion of privacy such as through the practice of self-criticism. Some described being sent to a kwanliso (political prison camps) as the “sudden kidnapping of a person” and shared their fear about heavy punishment for petty things such as watching South Korean soap operas.

When asked about their lives in North Korea, one said “no freedom, no rations, no commercial activities, surveillance and the risk of crackdown, no happiness for anyone in farming areas“. Another talked about discrimination against women: “We are considered servants of our husbands”. In striving for a better life, these women needed to risk their lives or sell themselves to Chinese men through a broker.

Media specialists

I met with media specialists who shared with me their views on freedom of the media in North Korea. Newspapers, radio, TV and the internet are completely controlled by the Government, in particular by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The first Vice Director of this Department is the sister of the Leader. The content of all the media is more or less the same. The vast majority of people have their own mobile phones and they can even shop online in some areas, but international calls are strictly prohibited. There is an intranet system in the country, which is widely available and contains many business sites, but access to the global internet is not allowed. Any infringement of this controlled system is punished with heavy penalties.

In the border areas, mobiles phones are smuggled in from China and people use them to make international phone calls illegally. There seem to be illegal download centres in many places where people pay for downloading foreign content. People buy foreign media content on USBs illegally too.

This heavily controlled system completely denies the right to freedom of expression which includes “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (ICCPR, Article 19(2)). 

UN Country Team

I exchanged views with the UN Country Team on the right to food, among other issues. According to their findings, 11 million people, or 43.4 per cent of the population, are undernourished. Food insecurity is at an alarming level. 

The Government of North Korea has the primary responsibility in ensuring the right to food. It is violating these obligations due to its failing economic and agricultural policies, including shortcomings in the allocation of its resources, and pervasive discrimination in the public distribution system where ordinary citizens, especially farmers, have not been receiving any rations. In addition, climate conditions, infertile land and the negative impact of sanctions have contributed to further food insecurity. At the same time the Government is not developing the conditions where people can securely access food through markets without being criminalized, including through the denial of their freedom of movement. One woman who recently left North Korea described her frustrations to me: “I didn’t receive rations or allowances. But I wasn’t allowed to freely engage in commercial activities to make money.”

The UN Country Team raised their concern about the anticipated food shortages in the upcoming season, and reported that only 11.9 percent of the humanitarian appeal that the UN made has been met. I urge donors to respond to this appeal accordingly and reiterate that humanitarian assistance should not be politicized. At the same time, the Government of North Korea needs to provide more information about people’s right to food and allow close monitoring and access by external actors to gain donors’ trust. 

While welcoming the resumption of Global Funds’ activities, which provide basic health assistance to the people, let me express my regret and disagreement at the closing of the UNDP programmes on the ground by the end of this year. 

Diplomats

Finally I held a diplomatic debriefing. I should say that States, while being expectant about the peace and denuclearization process, remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea, and they continue to be supportive to my mandate.

Conclusion

Despite the progress and prospects of the denuclearization process, the human rights situation in North Korea remains of the most serious concern. 

At the last Summit with the US in Hanoi, the Leader of North Korea expressed his readiness to discuss denuclearization. I urge North Korea to also express its readiness to discuss human rights.

It is quite clear that North Korea is at a historical crossroads. If the right and just decisions are made, a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula will appear on the horizon. But I stress once again that without basic human rights for the people, that horizon will be likely hidden from view, covered only with dark clouds.