Accessibility links

UN Human Rights Envoy Meets North Korean Defectors

A special envoy appointed by the United Nations to investigate North Korea's human rights situation says recent North Korean defectors told him personal stories of violence and exploitation during his visit to a South Korean care center. The envoy's investigation is the basis for a major human rights vote expected at the United Nations later this month.

Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn told reporters in Seoul Thursday North Korean defectors were grateful for the care they received upon arriving in South Korea. The Thai legal scholar, who was named a United Nations Special Rapporteur, or investigator, two years ago, was given rare access to South Korea's Hanawon training center this week.

Professor Vitit says many defectors at the facility, about 60 kilometers from Seoul, were traumatized by their experiences in North Korea.

"They all recounted very sad stories of what had happened to them and their families," he said. "Different forms of violence, guilt by association - the phenomenon of, if a person is punished, the family is also punished, across generations."

Nearly 6,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since 1999 - half of those in the last three years. Most of them travel to China, then enter a third country before reaching South Korea - a journey that Professor Vitit says is often dangerous.

"Quite a few of them had been smuggled," he said. "And some of them had been trafficked into a sexual exploitation situation."

Professor Vitit's visit to Hanawon helps to confirm North Korean human rights abuses that have been documented for years. North Korea officially rejects the human rights investigator's U.N. mandate, and has never allowed him to enter the country.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has passed three resolutions in recent years urging North Korea to improve its human rights situation. South Korea has refused to vote on all three items, and is expected to abstain when a fourth resolution comes before the U.N. General Assembly later this month.

South Korea's contacts and economic cooperation with North Korea have steadily improved since the two countries held a historic summit in 2000. The administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun says it is too early to confront North Korea on human rights issues at this time. Authorities here contend that increased cooperation with the North will gradually transform North Korea into a civil society.