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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
17 August 2023
Members of the Council,
This open debate is a welcome opportunity to reflect and act on the dire situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, not least as human rights underpin peace and security, humanitarian action, and development.
Human suffering of such scale and magnitude engenders instability, internally, and has wider implications. And rarely has the DPRK been more painfully closed to the outside world than it is today. This is a result of Government policies that were initially linked to containing the COVID-19 pandemic, but which have grown even more extensive as the pandemic has waned.
Information collected by my Office – including through interviews, and from public information issued by the Government itself – indicates increasing repression of the rights to freedoms of expression, privacy and movement; the persistence of widespread forced labour practices; and a worsening situation for economic and social rights, due to the closure of markets and other forms of income generation.
Anyone who views so-called “reactionary ideology and culture” – a term used for information from abroad, in particular the Republic of Korea – may now face imprisonment of five to fifteen years. Any person found to have distributed such content faces life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
A travel permit system enables the State to control all travel within the country. It imposes prison terms for up to three months, without trial and in a State labour camp, for violating travel orders. Following the closure of the country’s borders in response to the pandemic, border guards were explicitly ordered to use lethal force against people approaching the border without prior notice. Since the border shutdown, only a handful of people have managed to leave the DPRK.
Widespread imposition of forced labour by the State has continued during the recent border closures. According to our information, State-run institutions have continued to rely on forced mobilization of men and women, without pay, to maintain the operation of key sectors of the economy, such as construction, mining, and agricultural production.
This longstanding and profoundly disturbing practice of forced mobilization has extended to children, as noted by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In interviews, a number of men sent to work in other countries, for the purpose of generating income for the State, described conditions that are tantamount to forced labour. These include extensive surveillance; physically arduous, and sometimes dangerous, work; minimal health and safety measures; long working hours without breaks or holidays; and inadequate remuneration, as the vast majority of their wage is taken by the State.
Within the country, markets, and other private means of generating income, have been largely shut down, and such activity is increasingly criminalized. This sharply constrains the ability of people to provide for themselves and for their families. Given the limits of State-run economic institutions, many people appear to be facing extreme hunger, as well as acute shortages of medication.
In March 2023, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization noted that "a large portion of the population suffers from low levels of food consumption and poor dietary diversity, with food security expected to remain fragile in light of persisting economic constraints and agricultural shortfalls." There are reports that starvation exists in parts of the country.
The authorities acknowledge some of the challenges, and have indicated that they are open to international cooperation to address them.
However, to date offers of humanitarian support have been largely rebuffed, or made impossible owing to border closures. International humanitarian actors, including the United Nations Country Team, remain barred from the country, along with almost all other foreign nationals.
While in the past the people of the DPRK have endured periods of severe economic difficulty and, at other times, severe repression of their rights, currently they appear to be suffering both.
According to our information, people are becoming increasingly desperate as informal markets and other coping mechanisms are dismantled – while their fear of State surveillance, arrest, interrogation and detention has increased.
This situation follows decades of chronic human rights violations – some of which the Government has acknowledged. They have been catalogued in detail by the Commission of Inquiry that was mandated by the Human Rights Council a decade ago, and whose ground-breaking report contributed to the creation of this agenda item. Recent reports of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly, reports by my Office to the Human Rights Council, and the work of the Special Rapporteur have added to this litany of suffering.
The Government's surveillance over its citizens, at home and abroad, has grown to an intensity rarely seen in other countries. People’s rights to privacy are systematically violated. Homes are subjected to random searches. Neighbours and family members are encouraged to report on each other.
Punishments for even minor infractions can be severe, possibly amounting to gross violations of human rights. The exercise of fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience, religion, peaceful assembly, and association may be sanctioned by extrajudicial killing; enforced disappearance into one of the country’s political prisons; or other severely disproportionate punitive measures.
Thousands of enforced disappearances have been perpetrated by the State over the past 70 years, including of Koreans from both north and south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and the abduction of other foreigners, mostly Japanese nationals. I sympathise deeply with the families of those who were abducted or disappeared, and who now are or would be aged in their 80s and 90s. It is imperative that we exert all efforts to ensure some measure of justice, before it is too late.
The same consideration applies to the North-South cross border family reunion scheme that has given hope and deeply valued connection to tens of thousands of separated families. This scheme has been cruelly stalled since 2018, due to political tensions.
For all the victims of the many violations and crimes committed over decades in and by the DPRK, accountability is essential. In the absence of meaningful action towards this goal by the authorities of the State, I encourage action by other Member States or in international fora, including the International Criminal Court.
Non-judicial forms of accountability must also be considered, including truth-telling, the recovery of remains, and reparations programmes – which are particularly requested by victims during consultations that my staff held in Seoul.
Meanwhile, my field presence in Seoul continues to monitor and document human rights violations in the DPRK and to explore pathways to accountability, while preserving information that might be used for this purpose in a central repository.
It is estimated that thousands of North Koreans are currently at risk of being repatriated involuntarily to their home country, where they may be subjected to torture, arbitrary detention or other serious human rights violations. The precarious human rights situation that I have just described means that they have an undeniable, compelling need for international protection. I therefore urge all States to refrain from forcibly repatriating North Koreans, and to provide them with the required protections and humanitarian support.
The persistence of severe, widespread and long-standing human rights violations in the DPRK cannot be seen in isolation from peace and security issues on the peninsula and within the wider region.
Many of the violations I have referred to stem directly from, or support, the increasing militarization of the DPRK. For example, the widespread use of forced labour – including labour in political prison camps; forced use of schoolchildren to collect harvests; the requirement for families to undertake labour and provide a quota of goods to the Government; and confiscation of wages from overseas workers – all support the military apparatus of the State and its ability to build weapons.
The UN Charter makes it clear that human rights violations of this order are a matter of international concern.
Sustainable peace can only be built by advancing human rights, and its corollaries: reconciliation, inclusion and justice.
The international human rights treaties, and UN human rights bodies, provide a shared framework to identify challenges, address disagreements and measure progress – thus helping to reduce tensions both within, and between States.
In the past, the DPRK was an active participant in a number of these mechanisms, despite its criticisms of various aspects of their work. Regrettably, in recent years, it has cut itself off from these much-needed sources of dialogue and guidance. My Office continues to encourage the government to respond positively to my offer of technical assistance.
The next Universal Periodic Review of the country, in November 2024, provides a window of opportunity for engagement, for confidence-building and for progress.
I also hope that the country will re-open to the world, paving the way for other forms of interactions with the United Nations.
The return of the United Nations Country Team to Pyongyang, and conclusion of a new partnership framework, would be crucial to advancing coordinated work to address the suffering of the people of the DPRK.
In the spirit of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I urge the authorities to engage in meaningful dialogue, and to reset much-needed freedoms as a foundation for enduring peace.
Thank you, Madam President.