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Critical juncture for human rights in North Korea – UN expert

11 January 2019

  • Special Rapporteur urges DPRK to allow him to visit
  • Human rights situation remains ‘extremely serious’
  • System of political prison camps a serious concern

GENEVA (11 January 2019) – Reflecting on breakthroughs that brought an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula in the past year, the UN’s human rights expert on North Korea said that 2019 represented “a critical test, not only for peace and denuclearisation but for human rights”.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, urged the DPRK Government to engage with his mandate and allow him to visit the country “to hear the voice of the people and the authorities”. Up to now, the North has refused to cooperate with the mandate.

At the end of a five-day visit to the South Korean capital Seoul, Ojea Quintana said that despite the positive developments of the past year, it was “regrettable” that the human rights situation on the ground remains “unchanged” and continues to be “extremely serious”.

Referring to the lives of ordinary citizens, he stated that much of the population in North Korea were “being left behind”.

Ojea Quintana noted that in his New Year address, the North’s Leader had stated that “improving people’s standard of living radically is of importance for the Party and the State”, and authorities “should lend an ear to their sincere opinions”.

“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 UN expert said in a statement.

He called on the international community to continue to support the vital humanitarian assistance that was being provided by various actors to the people of the DPRK. “In particular, it is important that humanitarian cooperation is extended without politicization and in full respect of the principles of neutrality and independence,” he said.

Ojea Quintana repeated a call he made to the UN 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 DPRK. 


The Special Rapporteur expressed serious concerns about the system of political prison camps which continue to exist in the North. “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,” he said.

“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’.”

Ojea Quintana urged the Government of the DPRK 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 considered themselves as enemies and hostile players,” he said.

“It is my sincere hope that 2019 will usher in a new era for human rights for the people of the DPR Korea.”


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 also led cases of criminal corporate responsibility. 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 English, Olga Nakajo (+41 76 691 10 99 before, during and after the visit/ [email protected]) or in Korean, Yumi Song (+82 2 725 3524 / [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts: Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])