Crimes against humanity continue to be committed by state authorities against North Korean civilians.
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.
For decades the DPRK government has attempted to insulate itself from international scrutiny. 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 described 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 that DPRK has abducted and disappeared non-nationals.
According to a food security assessment released in May 2019 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme, more than ten million people in DPRK are food insecure and require urgent humanitarian assistance.
Following years of diplomatic isolation, DPRK participated in a range of high-profile political engagements during 2018 and 2019, including with leaders of the Republic of Korea, United States, China and Russia. These engagements were primarily directed towards addressing the country’s nuclear program. During June 2018 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. During their third meeting, held in June 2019, President Trump became the first sitting US President to enter the DPRK Demilitarized Zone.
The summits and other high-level engagements have so far failed to address ongoing human rights abuses in DPRK, which may amount to crimes against humanity. During June 2019 the UN Special Rapporteur in the situation of human rights in DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, expressed regret that he did not see any sign of improvement in human rights in the country and reiterated that “without basic human rights for the people, there will be no long-lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula.”
Despite recent international engagements focused on denuclearization and other security issues, the human rights and humanitarian situation in DPRK remains dire.
The country’s human rights record is intimately linked to its weapons program, which benefits from forced labor and contributes to widespread poverty and hunger. 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, meaningful engagement between DPRK and 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 (HRC) 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.
Over the last decade the UN General Assembly has considered the human rights situation in DPRK. In its latest resolution, adopted on 17 December 2018, 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.” Since December 2014 the General Assembly has passed resolutions called upon the UN Security Council (UNSC) to “continue its consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations” of the CoI, including through referring the situation in DPRK to the International Criminal Court.
Prior to 2014, the 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, which was discussed four years in a row, each time after holding a procedural vote. During 2018 UNSC did not hold the meeting, reportedly due to the growing diplomatic rapprochement between DPRK and international actors earlier that year.
On 22 March 2019 the HRC 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.
On 9 May DPRK was considered for its third Universal Periodic Review cycle held under the auspices of the HRC, during which the implementation of the DPRK’s previously accepted 117 recommendations were reviewed. During the review process DPRK officials denied the existence of political prison camps in the country and defended its human rights record.
As various governments continue diplomatic engagements with the DPRK leadership, it is essential to focus not only on the country’s nuclear program, but also on its egregious human rights record. Any negotiations on rapprochement with DPRK should aim to address ongoing human rights abuses. It is imperative that the UN General Assembly, HRC and UNSC continue to focus attention on the threat the DPRK government poses to the universal human rights of its own population.
The DPRK government should fully cooperate with OHCHR, allow entry to Special Rapporteur Quintana and fulfill its Universal Periodic Review commitments.
Access constraints have prohibited updated monitoring of DPRK.