The human rights and humanitarian situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains dire. The DPRK government, under "Supreme Leader" Kim Jung-un, bears the primary Responsibility to Protect its population from crimes against humanity, but is manifestly failing to do so.
For decades the government has attempted to insulate itself from international scrutiny, however, in March 2013 the UN mandated a Commission in Inquiry (CoI) to investigate alleged abuses. The CoI published its findings in February 2014, establishing responsibility at the highest level of government for ongoing crimes against humanity, as well as other systematic and widespread human rights violations committed by the government against its people.
The CoI's report describes in harrowing detail abuses committed by the DPRK government, including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation." According to the CoI, the state systematically employs violence and punishment amounting to gross human rights violations, with persons accused of political crimes being subject to execution without trial. DPRK has also previously abducted and disappeared non-nationals.
For nearly a decade UN bodies, including the General Assembly, Human Rights Council and Secretariat, have expressed concern over grave human rights violations and called upon the government to improve the situation. Following on recommendations within the CoI's report, in March 2014 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution requesting that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights create a field-based structure for further monitoring and documenting abuses in DPRK. The UN Human Rights Office in Seoul was established in June 2015 to carry out that mandate. On 6 July 2016 the United States for the first time imposed sanctions on top North Korean government leaders and entities associated with human rights abuses or censorship.
Prior to 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) had engaged with DPRK almost exclusively in the context of nuclear non-proliferation and had never directly addressed ongoing human rights abuses. Security concerns regarding the ongoing division of the Korean Peninsula as a result of the 1950-1953 Korean War, overshadowed human rights issues. In December 2015, with the support of nine Security Council members, the human rights situation in DPRK was added as a formal agenda item.
While the CoI's members, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK, have continued to voice concern over the situation, the DPRK government's refusal to engage with any UN processes or participate in dialogue has hampered the international community's efforts to meaningfully address the situation.
On 23 March 2016 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations in the [DPRK] that, in many instances, constitute crimes against humanity, as well as at the impunity of perpetrators," and extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in DPRK for one year. The resolution also requested a panel of independent experts to explore approaches to seek accountability for human rights violations in DPRK, in particular where such violations amount to crimes against humanity.
On 15 November the UN General Assembly's Third Committee adopted a resolution on the grave violations of human rights in DPRK, condemning "systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights in the DPRK...that may amount to crimes against humanity, and the continuing impunity for such violations." The resolution called upon the UN Security Council to consider referring the situation in DPRK to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
After a procedural vote on 9 December the UNSC held its third meeting on the situation of human rights in DPRK. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson reminded the Council that the international community has a collective responsibility to protect the population in DPRK from the most serious violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of human rights, while living up to the "principle and norm of the Responsibility to Protect."
On 19 February 2017 the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK, Mr. Tomas Ojea Quintana, released a report on recent developments in DPRK, which included additional reporting by a group of experts tasked by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate modes of accountability for the commission of crimes against humanity in DPRK. In their report the group of experts called upon member states to bear in mind the responsibility to protect and take further steps to achieve accountability, including through a UNSC referral of the situation to the ICC.
It is imperative that, in keeping with the Responsibility to Protect, the international community continues to focus attention not only on the nuclear threat posed by DPRK, but also on the threat the government poses to the universal rights of its own population. The government of DPRK has a responsibility to protect its people from crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that it does so.
Last updated: 10 April 2017