The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, is one of the most authoritarian and repressive countries in the world, severely restricting the universal human rights of its people. Following years of diplomatic isolation, DPRK participated in a range of high-profile political engagements during 2018, including with the elected leaders of the Republic of Korea, United States, China and Russia.
On 12 June United States President Donald Trump and DPRK "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong Un held a summit in Singapore - the first ever meeting between leaders of the United States and DPRK. President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim agreed to establish United States-DPRK relations and work towards a peaceful and denuclearized Korean Peninsula, although strong political differences remain over how such aims will be achieved. Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur in the situation of human rights in DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, highlighted that "a denuclearization deal will remain fragile if it sidelines the rights and needs of the DPRK population."
For decades the DPRK 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." The CoI also reported that persons accused of political crimes have been subject to execution without trial and DPRK has abducted and disappeared non-nationals.
On 9 March 2018 Special Rapporteur Quintana issued a report which included testimonies regarding ongoing human rights abuses, including of political prisoners. The report also highlighted the forced repatriation of DPRK citizens from China, with individuals subjected to detention, torture and ill-treatment upon their return. The Special Rapporteur called upon China to abide by the international principle of non-refoulement.
According to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, an estimated 40 percent of the population of North Korea requires humanitarian assistance. The situation is particularly dire for children, with 20 percent of children under five stunted because of malnutrition and nearly half of children in rural areas lacking access to safe drinking water.
Despite recent international engagements focused on denuclearization and other security issues, the human rights and humanitarian situation in DPRK remains dire. Human Rights Watch has noted that DPRK's human rights record is "inextricably linked to its weapons proliferation," as its weapons program benefits from forced labor and contributes to widespread poverty in the country. With no civil society, free elections or political space for open debate, there is little opportunity for reform of North Korea's human rights practices. Despite Supreme Leader Kim's recent meetings with foreign heads of state, DPRK's engagement with the rest of the international community remains minimal.
The DPRK government bears the primary Responsibility to Protect its population from crimes against humanity, but appears manifestly unwilling to do so.
In March 2014 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution requesting that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 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. To date, the government of DPRK has refused to cooperate with the office and has refused entry to Special Rapporteur Quintana.
Prior to 2014, 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. In response to the COI findings, in December 2014 the human rights situation in DPRK was added as a separate UNSC agenda item.
On 11 December 2017 the UNSC held its fourth annual meeting on the situation of human rights in DPRK. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, told UNSC members that he could not "point to any significant improvement in the human rights situation," highlighting widespread torture in detention centers and forced labor. While the UNSC imposes comprehensive sanctions on DPRK, these are directed towards addressing the country's nuclear program.
During July 2016 the United States imposed its first sanctions on top DPRK government officials and entities associated with human rights abuses, including Kim Jong Un. It sanctioned additional officials and entities in January and October 2017.
Over the last decade the UN General Assembly has considered the human rights situation in DPRK. In its latest resolution, adopted on 19 December 2017, the General Assembly recalled DPRK's responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity and expressed deep concern about "the pervasive culture of impunity and the lack of accountability for human rights violations." The resolution called upon the UNSC to consider referring the situation in DPRK to the International Criminal Court.
On 23 March 2018 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution highlighting "the responsibility of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to protect its population from crimes against humanity." The resolution called upon all concerned parties to implement the recommendations made by the CoI and extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in DPRK for one year.
While the DPRK government has refused to cooperate with most UN mechanisms in the past, in 2017 and 2018 it granted limited access to some representatives, including the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, and the Executive Director of the World Food Programme.
The DPRK government should cooperate with the OHCHR office in Seoul and allow entry to Special Rapporteur Quintana. Crimes against humanity identified by the CoI must be halted immediately.
It is imperative that the UN Human Rights Council and Security Council continue to focus attention on the threat the DPRK government poses to the universal human rights of its own population.
Last Updated: 25 July 2018
Access constraints have prohibited updated monitoring of DPRK.