A specially appointed United Nations researcher on human rights issues in North Korea says the situation there is getting worse.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Vitit Muntarbhorn sketched a bleak picture of life in North Korea Friday.
"The current situation is extremely grave," said Vitit Muntarbhorn. "Extremely grave."
Vitit - a legal scholar of Thai origin - is concluding a six-year mandate as the U.N.'s point person on North Korean human rights. He compiled annual reports pointing to severe abuses such as torture, public executions, forced abortions and deprival of basic survival necessities such as food and medicine.
He spoke to reporters in Seoul Friday during his final fact-finding trip to South Korea in the job. Vitit acknowledges the North has made what he calls "nominal adjustments" reflecting human rights concerns in its laws.
"But in substance, there have been very serious transgressions and violations throughout the six years that I've tracked this," he said. "And in regard to some issues, the past year has been even more serious a situation than, let's say, three or four years ago."
Vitit says North Korea is treating people who try to escape North Korea more harshly than in the past. Human rights groups say tens of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China since a mid 1990s famine to search for food, work, or a chance to escape to South Korea.
"People trying to leave and being punished for trying to leave, or sent back and being punished more severely - this is a very worrying state of affairs, and that's actually gotten worse over the past couple of years," said Muntarbhorn.
About 18,000 North Korean defectors live here in the South. They are a principal source of information for Vitit, as Pyongyang as denied him the right to visit and refused to cooperate with his investigation. U.N. agencies working in the North are also among Vitit's comprehensive range of second-hand sources on the situation there.
North Korea denies all allegations of human rights abuses, and describes the human rights issue as a weapon used by other nations to weaken it politically.