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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Korea Press Center, Seoul 11 January 2019

Good afternoon,

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPR Korea), I have now completed my fifth mission to Seoul, ahead of the presentation of my next report to the UN Human Rights Council in March.

During this mission I met different Government officials and discussed recent developments, had exchanges with civil society organizations and the diplomatic community, and listened to people who recently escaped from the DPR Korea. Once again, the visit has been very productive and informative, and let me thank the Government of the Republic of Korea for giving me this opportunity.

As I stand here, at the start of 2019, I reflect on the breakthrough at the beginning of 2018 that brought a remarkable easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, which was followed by key milestones for the advancement of the peace process, the denuclearization agenda and inter-Korean relations. I pay tribute to the commitment of the key actors who have worked hard to keep this momentum alive for the past 12 months, recognizing the importance of dialogue for the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula. As one of the leaders stated, human rights are guaranteed through peace, and peace is secured through human rights.

This year 2019 will represent a crucial test for peace and denuclearization, but also for the prospects of a new stance to human rights by DPR Korea. Up to now, the Government of the DPR Korea has been closed to cooperation with my mandate. As useful and productive as this visit has been, the reality is that instead of being here today, I should have been interacting with the Government, institutions and people from the DPR Korea, and standing in Pyongyang, not in Seoul, to deliver this end-of-mission statement. The core of this United Nations human rights mandate is to engage with the concerned Government with a view to starting a long process of dialogue to support them in fulfilling its international obligations, and equally important, is to visit the country to hear the voice of the people and the authorities.

It therefore remains regrettable that the Government of DPR Korea has not allowed me to enter and visit their country despite the requests I made in the last three years calling for cooperation, and that we have not been able to exchange views even through letters or by meeting in person. This position goes against the spirit of international cooperation enshrined in the UN Charter.

The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious.

In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind. While according to the DPR Korea’s Economic Development Plan, people should be noticing improvements in their lives, the many entrenched forms of discrimination, including on the basis of songbun (social classification status) and sex, mean a vast majority of ordinary citizens are facing serious difficulties in their daily lives. The top-down and patriarchal models of decision-making in all matters, including those related to economic development, as well as the widespread corruption, makes it inevitable that ordinary citizens have no right to participate in decisions that affect them. Of those who left the North recently that I interviewed during this mission, every person gave accounts of ordinary people being subjected to exploitative labour and serious human rights violations such as forced evictions in the name of development. Stories were told to me of people, including children, being subjected to long hours of labour where they were forced to work without remuneration. One person summarised the current situation like this: “North Korea is now only for Government officials”.

Information I have received confirms that, here on the Korean peninsula, there continues to exist a system of political prison camps, which thousands of people accused of committing crimes against the state are sent to, without due process guarantees or fair trial, in a manner that amounts to enforced disappearances with the family not knowing their whereabouts. Fear about being sent to these political prison camps are very real and deeply embedded in the consciousness of the ordinary North Korean people – as real is the control that is exercised over the people. Surveillance and close monitoring of ordinary citizens as well as other severe restrictions on their basic freedoms, including the prohibition to leave the country, are an integral part of the North Korean system of control. One person concluded: “the whole country is a prison”.

We also know there is a continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture in places of detention, against those people who escaped from the North but were repatriated.

While the complete lack of cooperation from North Korea with this mandate is an impediment to its official voice being heard on these serious issues, it is worth noting that in his New Year address, the Leader of the country stated that “improving people’s standard of living radically is of importance for the Party and the State”. Referring to the area of farming, he affirmed that there is a need “to supply the people with more meat and eggs”. Also, talking about the coal mining industry, he instructed that “the State should take stringent steps to provide good living conditions for coal miners”. In my view, this is a recognition of the economic and social hardships for ordinary people, and represents an important first step towards taking action to address the challenges.

The Leader of North Korea also stated in his New Year address that: “the Party, the Government and the working people’s organizations should give top and absolute priority to the people’s interests”, and “they should lend an ear to their sincere opinions”. This is a particular significant directive from the leadership, in a country where any opinion that contradicts the Government policies could be sanctioned with the severest punishments.

In any case, the possibility to exchange views with the Government on these kind of official statements, could be a good opportunity for cooperation. It is my belief that the “international prestige” of North Korea, that according to the Leader’s speech, “continued to be raised” because of the negotiations, would only become a reality as long as the country opens up to a human rights dialogue.

The respect of freedom of expression, together with other fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a necessary condition for the progress of the North Korean Economic Development Plan, as well as the promising inter-Korean projects, and international cooperation as a whole. We must recognise that development and human rights go hand in hand, and that one cannot be realized without the other. In this regard, I call upon the international community to continue to support the vital humanitarian assistance that is being provided by various actors to the people of the DPR Korea. In particular, it is important that humanitarian cooperation is extended without politicization and in full respect of the principles of neutrality and independence. The Government of the DPR Korea, on its part, should facilitate and expand access to all areas of the country and to the most vulnerable of the population, including those in detention. In this connection, I also wish to repeat the call I have made to the Security Council to supervise the implementation of its sanctions with a view to ensuring that they do not have a detrimental impact on the people of the DPR Korea. I also make here a similar call to those countries who have imposed unilateral sanctions. Sanctions regime should also facilitate commendable humanitarian initiatives such as family reunions that have significant implications for human rights.

To conclude, I wish to make a call upon the international community, particularly those involved in the peace and denuclearization negotiations with the DPR Korea, including the Republic of Korea, the United States and others with important roles to play, such as China, Russia and Japan. It is as much a call as a reminder, since it is a message I have espoused throughout my time on the mandate - that the international community has a historical responsibility not to neglect but continue to promote improvement of the human rights situation in the DPR Korea.

Finally, I wish to end here by reiterating my call to the Government of DPR Korea to start a process of dialogue and confidence building in human rights. We are now at a critical juncture – this coming year will see what we hope will be a rapid progress on the peace and denuclearization agenda, among parties who used to consider themselves as enemies and hostile players. It is my sincere hope that 2019 will usher in a new era for human rights for the people of the DPR Korea.

Thank you.

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