United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Tomas Quintana, visited South Korea last week to discuss the ongoing issues north of the demilitarized zone.
Quintana told reporters in Seoul the human rights situation remains dire in North Korea.
Despite the diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang to reduce tensions on the peninsula, “It is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious," he said.
Basic human rights do not exist in North Korea
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, describes the North Korea situation as “a consistently bad situation in human rights.”
North Korea has a “systematic use of forced labor, both in the penal system also the use of people and forced labor camps and on forced labor crews building infrastructure,” said Robertson.
A November 2018 Human Rights Watch report uncovered the systematic sexual violations and use of women by local officials, and basic civil and political rights like freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful public assembly, and the right to protest are nonexistent in North Korea.
Robertson says the lack of progress on North Korean human rights is worrisome since the “South Korean government seems to be so eager to do deals and promote investment in North Korea when [Pyongyang] is still the same rights-abusing government that it was before.”
That assessment was corroborated by Quintana, who noted, “In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country's population is being left behind."
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s Executive Director, Greg Scarlatoiu, was not surprised by the lack of progress on human rights during the past year.
“Across multiple US administrations, human rights has often been outcompeted by nukes and missiles, political, security, and military concerns,” he said.”
A lack of human rights discussions
While human rights discussions were absent from talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their three 2018 summits, as well as Kim’s summit in June with U. S. President Donald Trump, the United States recently imposed sanctions on three additional North Korean officials for rights abuses and censorship.
North Korea's foreign ministry warned those measures could reverse the current diplomatic detente and North Korea's disarming could be blocked forever.
A 2014 United Nations Office of Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry report found “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in North Korea that in many instances constituted crimes against humanity.
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” it added, calling North Korea a state that “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.”
Denials from the North
North Korea denies it commits human rights abuses. Pyongyang says the international community uses the issue as a political ploy to isolate it.
“The Kim regime wants security guarantees,” says Scarlatoiu, asserting that “it will be impossible for multilateral and bilateral development banks, as well as foreign investors, to intervene in North Korea without the improvement of the North Korean human rights situation.”
“Human rights should be included in US North Korea policy [and] should be the job of the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues,” he says, noting the post has been left vacant for two years.
Robertson says that both South Korea and the United States need to discuss the issue of human rights in North Korea and that there is no reason why South Korea and the United States “should accept that North Korea can dictate that there will be no discussion about human rights because human rights also has to be part of the discussion.”
Joanna Hosaniak, Deputy Director General of the Citizens Alliance for North Korea Human Rights also says that security and economic development issues and human rights concerns are intertwined.
She says North Korea should be pressed on the issue as a member of the United Nations. However, she added the pressure doesn’t necessarily matter if that comes from the office of the Special Rapporteur or the U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, but “North Korea should deliver on its obligations.”
Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.