StatementsOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Statement by Assistant Secretary-General Ilze Brands Kehris on the human rights situation in DPRK, delivered by James Turpin, Chief, Prevention & Sustaining Peace Section
17 March 2023
James Turpin, Chief, Prevention & Sustaining Peace Section, OHCHR NYO
Security Council Arria-formula Meeting on “The Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”
Members of the Council,
Thank you for the opportunity to deliver these remarks on behalf of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris.
The ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula pose a threat to regional and international peace and security. These tensions cannot be separated from the dire human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The risk of human rights violations is inherent to any threat to the peace. At the same time, human rights are an essential tool for alleviating tensions, for building confidence and for providing a foundation on which a political solution can be built.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, information suggested that 10.1 million people - 40 per cent of the population of the DPRK - were food insecure and in need of food assistance. During and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the DPRK’s isolation from the international community has deepened. Although data is hard to come by – given that all international humanitarian staff remain outside the country - the quarterly reports of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation continue to highlight the high levels of food insecurity and impoverishment that the people of the country are facing. Interviews conducted by OHCHR with people who have recently left the DPRK suggest that since the country’s COVID-19 measures were introduced, parts of the country face starvation.
Despite the dire situation, there is limited collaboration with the international community from the DPRK to address its people’s humanitarian needs, while political discussions with the international community have virtually ground to a halt.
According to information received, the current isolation of the DPRK coincides with an increase in the repression of civil and political rights in the country. The Government has strengthened measures to prevent access to information from the outside world. OHCHR interviewees indicate that the State maintains an extreme level of surveillance over its people. People’s right to privacy is systematically violated and people’s homes are subjected to random searches for possession of any information that has not been authorized by the State. This is combined with a system of punishments, which in themselves constitute gross human rights violations, for anyone attempting to exercise their basic human rights, including freedom of expression, religion, peaceful assembly, and association.
In addition, interviews conducted by OHCHR with people who have left the country continue to provide information on systematic human rights violations of people held in detention centres and prisons across the country, including patterns of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, forced labour, and sexual and gender-based violence.
Tight restrictions on freedom of movement internally and across the country’s borders remain in place, exacerbating problems of distribution of essential goods and impairing people’s access to life-saving humanitarian assistance, including to food and medicines.
The cases of thousands of people reportedly abducted by the DPRK from the Republic of Korea, Japan and other countries remain unanswered and unresolved. Many families on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone continue to endure the suffering of separation from loved ones, while many have no means to obtain information on the fate of their relatives.
Excellencies, this is a mere snapshot of the serious human rights situation in the DPRK.
Our Office regrets that the Government of the DPRK continues to refuse to acknowledge the more serious reports of human rights violations or to take action. However, while the Government has not indicated when it will allow the return of the international community and humanitarian agencies, it has publicly signalled the gravity of the food and economic situation in the country, and has referred to the need for diplomatic efforts, exchanges and cooperation with other countries.
While this may indicate the smallest of openings, it may nevertheless provide the Security Council with an opportunity to consider actions to bring the DPRK out of its current level of isolation and to encourage it to embark on meaningful dialogue to address its chronic human rights situation.
A critical appraisal of previous approaches, including on sanctions, may encourage the DPRK to open the door to dialogue, and enable the return of the United Nations Country Team to implement a new partnership framework. If successful, such measures might facilitate further opportunities to engage on human rights in the interests of peace and security, including a partnership framework that incorporates recommendations from the UN human rights system, including the Universal Periodic Review. The next UPR for DPRK will take place in October next year and several treaty body reviews are forthcoming, constituting opportunities for structured dialogue on key human rights obligations which themselves relate to risk factors for peace and stability.
At the same time, ensuring accountability for past and ongoing human rights violations remains critical – particularly in relation to those violations that may constitute international crimes, such as crimes against humanity. At the international level, referral of the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court remains a possible course of action for the Security Council. Individual Member States might actively pursue domestic avenues of accountability, such as through the exercise of universal or extra-territorial jurisdiction. Non-judicial forms of accountability, including administrative reparations programmes – particularly requested by escapees during consultations by the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul - might also be considered.
In the meantime, the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul will continue to monitor, document and analyse information of human rights violations in the DPRK, including through the preservation of such information in a central repository, to support future accountability processes.
The increasing tensions in the region cannot be allowed to distract the international community from the ongoing sufferings of the people of the DPRK. This year, as we mark ten years since the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK began its work and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must take every opportunity to advance the human rights of the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - not only to relieve their sufferings, but because it offers a secure foundation for an enduring peace and guarantee for security for the Korean peninsula and for the wider region.
 The is in line with the Security Council’s 1718 Panel of Experts’ report to the Security Council (S/2019/171, para. 180): “The Secretary-General should request the Secretariat to carry out an assessment of the humanitarian impact of sanctions in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”