Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
8 December 2017
Members of the Security Council,
This is the fourth briefing to the Council by my Office on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in as many years, and I regret that it is impossible for me to point to any significant improvement in the human rights situation.
The international security crisis with reference to the actions of the Government of the DPRK ought not to negate our concerns about the human rights situation of ordinary people in the country. Indeed, security tensions seem to have deepened the extremely serious human rights violations endured by the DPRK's 25 million people.
Our picture of the situation is necessarily incomplete, given my staff's lack of access to the DPRK. However, escapees have reported to us extremely widespread violations of rights in almost every aspect of people's lives.
I will begin with the horrific conditions in the country's large network of prisons and labour camps. Testimonies collected by my Office indicate that torture is widespread in detention centres overseen by the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security, where it is used to extract information or confessions from people suspected of planning to leave the country, of communicating with the outside world using foreign telecommunications networks, or of engaging in smuggling activities. Detainees work in mines or infrastructure projects in conditions of severe deprivation. People formerly held in these camps have told my staff of being beaten by prison guards or other inmates, and being fed so little they barely survived.
Moreover, while it has been possible to gather some information on the situation in regular prison facilities and labour camps, there is absolute secrecy when it comes to people detained in the five political prison camps which are also reportedly operational. OHCHR’s interviews with persons who have left the DPRK indicate that fear of being sent to these political prison camps is a powerful instrument of control.
In recent months, military tensions have led to more severe controls over freedom of movement and civil and political rights. My Office continues to receive reports of new physical barriers being erected along the border. Increased surveillance by the authorities also makes escape more difficult. People who attempt to leave the DPRK without authorization do so at great risk to their lives; it is now almost impossible to cross the border without engaging a broker or trafficker. Women, who make up the majority of those who manage to escape the DPRK, are frequently forced by traffickers into sexual exploitation, forced marriage or cheap bonded labour.
A number of escapees are sent back to the DPRK, despite the fact that monitoring by my Office indicates everyone who leaves the DPRK without authorisation will face persecution if returned. Over the past year, OHCHR has received more than 70 reports of women, men and children who escaped to China only to be sent back to the DPRK after the authorities found them to be "economic migrants" – notwithstanding the overwhelming human rights violations taking place in the DPRK.
Repatriated escapees are routinely subjected to multiple forms of torture and ill-treatment at detention centres located on the border with China, including beatings; forced labour; deprivation of food and healthcare; and sexual violence. Women have told my staff that following their forced returns, officials also subjected them to invasive body searches, using methods which may amount to rape under international law. My Office continues to receive reports of people who cross the border carrying poison, in case they are caught. In July, a family of five reportedly committed collective suicide as they were about to be taken to the DPRK border for repatriation. Anyone found to have attempted escape to the Republic of Korea, or to have attempted to contact people in the Republic of Korea, will also receive particularly harsh treatment.
The case of Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in the DPRK, and who was returned to the US earlier this year in a coma with extensive loss of brain tissue, is suggestive of the severe violations endured by persons deprived of their liberty in the DPRK. Three other nationals of the United States and six nationals of the Republic of Korea are currently detained in the DPRK, and denied access to their families or to any outside help. No progress has been made regarding cases of international abductions and enforced disappearances of foreign nationals. Efforts to locate 12 Japanese nationals and 516 nationals of the Republic of Korea have been hampered by the deteriorating security situation.
The people of the DPRK also face severe violations of their economic, social and cultural rights. They continue to endure chronic food insecurity, in part due to diversion of resources to military objectives, and laws and practises which make access to basic rights conditional on perceived loyalty to the Government. A failing public distribution system, and pervasive corruption in delivery of public services, are forcing people to look for alternative means to secure access to basic economic and social rights. Even very poor people must frequently pay hefty bribes to enable their children to pursue primary or higher education, or to engage in private business, register as overseas workers, or access healthcare.
The humanitarian assistance provided by UN agencies and others is literally a life-line for some 13 million acutely vulnerable individuals. But sanctions may be adversely affecting this essential help. For example, controls over international banking transfers have caused a slowdown in UN ground operations, affecting the delivery of food rations, health kits and other humanitarian aid. I ask that members of this Council conduct an assessment of the human rights impact of sanctions, and that action be taken to minimize their adverse humanitarian consequences.
Above all, every effort must be made to ensure the Government of the DPRK makes urgent changes to the country’s laws and policies, to enable greater freedom and access to fundamental services and goods.
My Office is implementing Human Rights Council resolution 34/24, following recommendations by the Group of Independent Experts on accountability in the DPRK, which urged us to strengthen monitoring efforts by recruiting criminal law experts and establishing a repository of cases to be used in future prosecutions.