Life in DPR Korea still ‘daily struggle devoid of hope’ warns human rights chief

Life in DPR Korea still ‘daily struggle devoid of hope’ warns human rights chief

Ambassadors held an open meeting on human rights in the country, commonly known as North Korea, convened by Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

China and Russia opposed the meeting and called for a procedural vote by the 15 members, which was defeated. 

Alone and claustrophobic 

Briefing from Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk described the DPRK as “a country sealed off from the world” and “a stifling, claustrophobic environment, where life is a daily struggle devoid of hope.” 

He urged the Government “to flip the orthodoxies and overcome its isolationist mindset which only breeds deeper and deeper distrust, setting off a never-ending spiral of groupthink at the expense of a more prosperous and secure future for its people”, adding that “human rights, in all their dimensions, offer a solution and a way forward.” 

The protracted nature of the human rights situation there “is trapping people in unmitigated suffering”, in addition to being a factor behind instability that has wider regional ramifications. 

“It is not possible to divorce the state of human rights in the DPRK from considerations around peace and security in the peninsula, including increasing militarization on the part of the DPRK,” he insisted. 

Unable to leave 

Mr. Türk highlighted the deepening repression of the right to freedom and movement in the DPRK. Recent months have seen a limited partial re-opening of the border, and it is now nearly impossible for people to leave unless they have permission from the Government.  

“In short, we are witnessing a situation where people can no longer leave even when they are in the most desperate of circumstances or at peril of persecution,” he said. 

 “One consequence is that divided families are even more divided. No departures means no reunification with families abroad.” 

Harsh laws, chilling consequences 

Repression of freedom of expression has also worsened, particularly due to laws on the consumption of foreign media, eliminating regional dialects, and ensuring young people “conform to a socialist lifestyle”, all of which carry harsh punishments. 

One “particularly chilling example” is that North Koreans “are at risk of death for merely watching or sharing a foreign television series”. 

Hunger and forced labour 

Mr. Türk noted that socioeconomic conditions have become “unbearably harsh” in the DPRK, and he was particularly troubled by the lack of access to food.  

“Reports indicate that almost half of the population is food insecure in recent years, with child wasting on the rise in some provinces,” he said, 

Meanwhile, “forced labour persists in many forms” and the authorities also maintain a high level of control on workers sent abroad.   

The UN rights chief said he has also consistently raised the issue of enforced disappearance, both inside the DPRK and of citizens from other countries such as neighbouring South Korea and Japan, which has occurred over the past 70 years. 

“Painfully, the full truth as to the fate of these people – which we estimate to be over 100,000 – remains unknown to this day,” he said. 

‘U-turn’ out of isolation 

Mr. Turk stressed the importance of continued international attention on the human rights situation in the DPRK.

“The landscape of misery, repression, fear, hunger and hopelessness in the DPRK is profoundly alarming,” he said. 

All paths out of this start with making a U-turn from the dead end of self-imposed isolation: opening the country, re-engaging with the international community, enabling people-to-people contact, embracing international cooperation, and focusing on the wellbeing of all people.”

Military objectives prioritized 

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK also addressed the Council. 

Elizabeth Salmón reported that increasing security tensions on the Korean peninsula have been driven by the Government’s decision last September to include a policy in the Constitution on bolstering nuclear weapons development, followed by the announcement in January that it would no longer pursue unification with the Republic of Korea. 

“The suspension of the 2018 comprehensive military agreement by both parties also underlines the seriousness of the issues we face this year,” she said. 

Ms. Salmón told ambassadors that the Government’s continued prioritization of its military, nuclear and missile programmes has placed a high burden on the people, particularly women and children. 

“Resources available for realizing human rights are reduced, exploitation of labour to finance militarization becomes rampant, and, as a result, the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights is often overlooked,” she said.  

Gumhyok Kim, civil society representative, briefs the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Learning a ‘horrific truth’ 

Also briefing ambassadors was civil society representative Gumhyok Kim, speaking “on behalf of millions of North Koreans who are denied humankind’s most basic freedoms.”  

Mr. Kim, who defected 12 years ago, admitted that he was nervous to speak in the Council “but I will take courage by thinking of my friends in my homeland, who dream of the freedom to say what I am about to say.” 

Born to a leading family in the capital, Pyongyang, Mr. Kim was 19 when he left to study in Beijing in 2010. Using the internet, he said he learned about his homeland and “the horrific truth” previously hidden to him. 

“The country that supposedly had nothing to envy in the world was nowhere to be seen,” said Mr. Kim, his voice breaking with emotion.  “In its place were political prison camps, death from starvation, public executions and people risking their lives to escape.” 

Mr. Kim urged the Council “to stand on the side of the North Korean people, not the dictatorship. We need to give the same level of importance to North Korean’s people’s rights as we do to nuclear weapons and missiles.” 

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