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Panel Discussion “Human Rights Situation in the DPRK: Current Situation and Initiatives by the International Community” Dec 1, 2016 UN Headquarters, New York

Japan cohosts a panel discussion in US to address North Korea’s human rights abuses, including the abductions issue

Despite the growing attention and efforts by the international community, there have been no major improvements in North Korea’s ongoing, systematic and widespread violations of human rights, which range from torture, arbitrary detention, restrictions on freedom of expression and movement, and enforced disappearances and abduction. The exploitation of North Korean workers sent overseas and the buildup of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and missiles, are also matters of deep concern. The Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (COI), says “the gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The report also urges North Korea to take concrete measures against such violations, which may amount to “crimes against humanity,” and calls upon the international community to make further efforts to improve the situation.

At a panel discussion held Dec. 1, 2016 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York—cohosted by the governments of Japan, the European Union, Australia, the Republic of Korea and the United States—a panel of experts that included government and UN officials discussed various issues under the title “Human Rights Situation in the DPRK: Current Situation and Initiatives by the International Community.” Coincidentally, the symposium came the day after the UN Security Council strengthened sanctions against North Korea by passing resolution 2321 (2016) in response to that country’s fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9.

The symposium, moderated by Gillian Bird, Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, began with opening remarks from Joao Vale de Almeida, Permanent Representative of the EU to the United Nations, who touched upon the importance of raising awareness of the violations perpetrated in North Korea, and the European Union’s belief in the importance of engaging with Pyongyang. Thereafter, Katsunobu Kato, Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, Government of Japan; Lee Jung-hoon, Ambassador-at-large on North Korean Human Rights, Government of the ROK; Signe Poulsen, Representative, OHCHR Office in Seoul; Robert R. King, Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, Government of the USA; and Param-Preet Singh, Associate Director, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch made presentations that examined the current situation vis-à-vis North Korea and looked at possible avenues for the international community to address North Korea’s human rights abuses, among other related issues. A question-and-answer session explored various pertinent topics before the symposium ended with closing remarks from Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations, who summarized proceedings and underlined the importance of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, while trying to apply pressure aimed at inducing policy change.

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Following are excerpted versions of the panelists’ presentations:

Gillian Bird

Gillian Bird
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations

Joao Vale de Almeida
Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations

Joao Vale de AlmeidaJoao Vale de Almeida
Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations

The exchange we’re having today has the objective to focus on initiatives that the international community can offer to help improve the human rights situation on the ground. UN resolutions and awareness-raising initiatives like today, are concrete contributions, albeit with indirect impact. Additional support will certainly come from the recently appointed Special Rapporteur, Mr. Tomás Quintana, and from the group of independent experts on accountability. Mr. Quintana just finished his first visit to the Republic of Korea and to Japan, which allowed him to gather first-hand testimonies from people who have left the DPRK. He will present his first report, including the report of the group of independent experts on accountability, to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next March, and we are looking forward to the recommendations that these experts will address to the international community on how to further improve our engagement.

The European Union continues to believe in its critical engagement approach toward the DPRK. In our view, restrictive measures can only work if at the same time constructive dialogue is pursued on all issues of concern, including human rights. We believe that keeping the dialogue open remains the best way to foster change.

For this reason, the EU remains open to credible engagement with the DPRK on human rights, as well as on other subjects. We have signaled many times our readiness to cooperate concretely and we have proven that we mean business. For example, the EU member states currently fund a number of projects in the DPRK focused on food security, health, water and sanitation, that are of direct benefit to some of the most vulnerable people, such as children, the elderly and the disabled, and their enjoyment of basic rights, like rights to food and to health. We intend to continue with those activities, through which we also keep the channel of communication open.

Human rights-related sanctions may effectively raise the pressure on the leadership of DPRK, but they should not be seen as precluding dialogue. This is why it was so important for the EU that the final resolution we just adopted a few days ago maintained the call for dialogue. The engagement of DPRK with Universal Periodic Reviews, if serious, and if maintained, and given real follow-up by the authorities, can offer some grounds for optimism that at least some human rights challenges will be addressed. The situation nevertheless remains extremely serious; we remain extremely concerned.

Katsunobu Kato
Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, Government of Japan

Katsunobu KatoKatsunobu Kato
Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, Government of Japan

Today, I will talk about the issue of abductions committed by the DPRK. There is an independent section entitled “Abductions and enforced disappearances from other countries” in the COI [Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK] report. The report provides details of various cases of abductions of the citizens of many countries, including Republic of Korea, Japan, Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Singapore and Romania. The COI concludes that the abductions and enforced disappearances by the DPRK may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

The Government of Japan has identified 17 citizens as victims of abduction committed by the DPRK, and police authorities are investigating more than 800 cases in which the possibility of abduction by the DPRK cannot be ruled out. On these bases the COI concluded, “It is probable that at least 100 Japanese nationals have been abducted by the DPRK.”

The Government of Japan has consistently demanded that the DPRK secure the safety of the abductees, bring them back to Japan immediately, reveal the whole truth, and hand over the perpetrators. As a consequence, the DPRK agreed to conduct an investigation of all Japanese, including those who may have been abducted, at the Intergovernmental Consultations in May 2014. Since then, however, they have not provided any concrete investigative results, nor has the repatriation of abductees been realized.

The international community would attach great value to a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court as one of the strongest measures ensuring the accountability of the DPRK for its crimes against humanity. To that end, a unified action of the permanent members of the Security Council is imperative. I wish to take this opportunity to call on all members of the United Nations, including the permanent members of the Security Council, to be united in taking action to safeguard human dignity the world over.

The Government of Japan wishes to make the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK Kim Jong-un understand the actual intent of these words of Prime Minister Abe’s: “It will be impossible for DPRK to envision their future without resolution of the abduction issue.” Therefore, under the principle of dialogue and pressure and action for action, we will take all manner of measures, including resolutions of the UN Security Council against the DPRK as leverage, so as to encourage through dialogue the DPRK to take concrete actions.

At the same time, the Government of Japan will continue to work closely with the United Nations and the countries whose representatives are gathered here today so that human dignity is secured not only for abductees from Japan or other countries, but also for the many citizens subjected to the harsh conditions in the DPRK.

Lee Jung-hoon
Ambassador for Human Rights of the Republic of Korea

Lee Jung-hoonLee Jung-hoon
Ambassador for Human Rights of the Republic of Korea

Somehow, North Korea has been very successfully flying under the radar of international attention. That is, until the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 initiated the investigation into the North Korean situation, and in 2014 came up with the now-famous COI report, which elaborated and compartmentalized the human rights violations taking place in North Korea and also provided recommendations for the Security Council and the General Assembly.

The most important of those findings is that in North Korea, the COI report claimed, crimes against humanity are being committed. So, since 2014, it has no longer been the case where we can simply just talk about listing the violations in North Korea: that’s not enough. Now the question is—especially here at the UN—what are we going to do about it? How do we hold the perpetrators and the violators accountable? How do we go about enforcing the prosecutory mechanisms so that we might have some sort of improvement in the human rights condition in North Korea? And in that sense, the newly passed Security Council resolution 2321, although it’s for the nuclear test, has a coupling effect, in the sense that 2321 is supposed to put a ceiling on the North Korean exports of coal, which of course, is its main export item.

North Korea’s treatment of overseas workers has been likened to slavery, because people are forced to work and the state takes 90 percent of their wages. Many North Korean overseas workers have been turned away from Qatar and there are some places where visas will no longer be issued, like Poland and Malta. This is a very serious matter for North Korea, because overseas workers—who number between 100,000 to 120,000 in about 40 countries—bring in as little as 400 to 500 million dollars, though some estimate as high as 2 billion dollars. Five-hundred million dollars may not seem like a lot for an advanced industrialized country, but for a country like North Korea, whose total trade value only amounts to 7 billion dollars, it’s a lot.

I think it’s very positive that the new Security Council resolution was passed with the consent of the Chinese government. But the enforcement will also require significant Chinese cooperation, because over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports goes into China, particularly its coal. Therefore, Chinese cooperation will be very important.

North Korean compliance isn’t going to be easy, and this is because the nuclear weapons as well as human rights violations are directly linked to North Korea’s regime-survival tactics. Nuclear weapons stave off external pressure. North Korea wants to do whatever it wants and keep outside interference away, and is therefore very much bent on having nuclear weapons. Human rights is also a tool for regime survival.

Provocations are not likely to stop easily, so one has to take a very active and firm stance in dealing with North Korea, especially on human rights issues. Political prison camps: we still have well over 100,000 where there are absolutely no human rights. Public execution, forced abortions, rape, the North Korean defector issue—it continues. I’ll remind you that 75-80 percent of North Korean defectors are women. So it’s not just a Korean issue or North Korean human rights; it’s a women’s issue; it’s a children’s issue.

In the post-Korean War period, we’ve had abductions issues. From official estimates, 516 South Koreans have been abducted. If you’re counting those abducted during the Korean War, which numbers in the thousands, this is a most serious issue. We still have over 500 POWs not returned.

There are ways to deal with North Korean situation. But if we’re serious and genuine about actually improving the situation, making a difference, then one has to really hunker down, particularly at the United Nations level and pursue this, otherwise we’ll be talking about the same issues five years or 10 years down the line.

Signe Poulsen
Representative of the OHCHR Office in Seoul

Signe PoulsenSigne Poulsen
Representative of the OHCHR Office in Seoul

Since its establishment, our office has conducted research in various ways, including through interviews with people who have left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea very recently, as well as academic researchers, civil society and other people who have information. And through this research we continue to receive information about serious human rights violations happening in the DPRK.

This includes areas such as unlawful killings and the existence of large political prison camps where people are sent after processes that fall far short of international standards for fair trial. We continue to hear accounts of detention conditions that are very severe, including ill treatment and torture. We hear of a pervasive system of monitoring of opinions expressed by citizens and limitations on accessing information, as well as discrimination based on family background. We also receive reports of pervasive corruption at all levels, resulting in a system where all kinds of services are commercialized.

Facing concern about its human rights record at the international level, we have witnessed this year the government of the DPRK make some engagement at the multilateral level. So in April and May, the government submitted state reports to the Committee on the Right of the Child, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The government has also stated that it will imminently ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Another process through which we see some level of engagement is the strategic framework signed by humanitarian agencies and the government of the DPRK, in which is it explicitly noted that a human rights-based approach is adopted.

We continue to up the pressure because we believe that some of this progress is related to dialogue, but it’s also related to the continued insistence on ending the serious human rights violations.

Let me conclude with a few words on the issue of separated families. In a forthcoming report, we propose a victim-centered, human-rights-focused approach. While different groups of separated families have had different experiences, it’s clear that all groups need a sustainable solution that places victims at the heart of decision-making processes as active participants, rather than as passive beneficiaries, and that pave the way for future accountability processes as well.

Robert R. King
Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, U.S. Department of State

Robert R. KingRobert R. King
Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, U.S. Department of State

We tend to treat security and human rights issues as separate. If we need to sacrifice one goal for the broader concerns, we always tend to sacrifice human rights. I’d like to suggest that we need to consider the link between human rights and security. And I think as we do, it becomes clear that the importance of human rights in terms of the security issue has much more importance than we’ve sometimes been willing to give it.

The struggle for human rights, I would argue, is not just a struggle for human rights in its own, and I want to emphasize that human rights alone is a value that we should give attention and priority to. But I’d also argue that it’s a struggle for security as well. A country that respects the rights of its own people will respect the rights of others, and will cooperate and work with others in solving issues that may be controversial.

One of the things that has been particularly important in the process of pressing North Korea on its human rights record, has been the role that the United Nations has played; the role that many of the members of the United Nations have played in focusing attention on North Korea. Ambassador Lee mentioned the importance of the Commission of Inquiry and its reports, the importance of the resolutions that have been adopted in the Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly for the last 12 years. These efforts are important efforts as we continue to press the North Koreans for progress in these areas.

One of the key things that limits the ability of the people in North Korea to influence and affect the decisions of their government is the lack of information that the government tries to impose on them. We’ve worked with a number of our allies in terms of trying to open up information to the North Korean people. The United States spends considerable sums on broadcasting, radio broadcasting into North Korea. There are broadcasts from South Korea as well into North Korea that are an important part of information reaching North Korea. The BBC has recently announced that it will begin broadcasts in Korean that will include North Korea. These are all important steps.

I hope that as we think about what we do on the human rights situation, and what we do as we deal with the nuclear situation we don’t draw the conclusion that these are two separate issues. These are two issues that are very much related, and to the extent that we make progress on human rights, we’re going to be able to make progress as well, in terms of dealing with the security issues that are so serious in terms of involving North Korea.

Param-Preet Singh
Senior Counsel, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch

Param-Preet SinghParam-Preet Singh
Senior Counsel, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch

Accountability is important for victims. Until the UN’s COI report was issued, the suffering of North Korea’s victims was largely taken for granted, but also largely ignored. The COI report changed that status quo: a shift that was long overdue. Holding to account those responsible for decades of crimes is an important way to give victims the justice they deserve and make sure that they are not pushed back into the shadows.

The threat of accountability has also resonated with Pyongyang, as measured by North Korea’s increased engagement at the UN in Geneva and in New York, and bilaterally with some states. While the impact of this engagement has been limited, it nonetheless revealed a vulnerability in North Korea’s leadership: They feel threatened by the idea that they could be brought to justice.

Current dynamics in the Security Council make an ICC referral unlikely for the time being. Nonetheless, the possibility of an ICC referral should remain a critical part of any accountability strategy moving forward, for several reasons. First, it keeps the international community engaged on the question of justice for victims. Second, the push for an ICC referral has become a rallying point to press for accountability for North Korea’s worst violators, including those in senior positions in the government. And finally, political dynamics are not static: we cannot assume that just because it’s impossible now it will remain impossible in the future.

While the threat of accountability proved to be an effective pressure point for North Korea, how can we continue to build on that threat, when its realization remains uncertain? First, it’s important to continue to support ongoing documentation efforts by the OHCHR Seoul office and NGOs. Second, it’s important to direct those documentation efforts where possible. Third, the goal of this analysis should be to develop a list of key perpetrators. Even in the absence of any immediate prospect for arrest, identifying those responsible for violations increases the international community’s leverage on North Korea.

Q&A session

During the question-and-answer session, panelists fielded questions from the floor, including from representatives of UN Missions, an academic and a member of the press. The questions ranged across a wide range of topics including the possible ramifications of resolution 2321; the reaction of the North Korean regime to the international pressure that has so far been applied; how to more effectively engage with the North Korean authorities; whether North Korea should be forcefully stopped from getting nuclear weapons; concrete steps taken on the abduction issue; and whether a trigger point for victims’ rights will emerge in the foreseeable future.

Closing remarks

Koro BesshoKoro Bessho
Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations

Koro Bessho: The panelists, I felt, spoke from different perspectives reflecting their national or professional backgrounds, but I think they all came together to illustrate to us the persistence of the DPRK leadership, especially in their disregard for human dignity and human rights. At the same time, I think it also became clear how defiant they have been in the face of the international community’s criticism about the situation in DPRK. Though we also heard today that they are feeling the pressure. I think this is very important, and this gives us strength to carry on with our efforts.

Can I just add a word as an incumbent member of the Security Council? Yes, we’re trying to put pressure on DPRK for them to change their policy. At the same time, after the vote, quite a number of member countries of the Security Council said that this is pressure, also to bring them to the negotiating table. We’re not thinking of a military solution—we want them to come to the negotiating table so that we can solve the problems.

I think the point that was made here, as far as the relationship between security and human rights are concerned, is that human rights violations in the DPRK is an issue not just for the DPRK nationals or foreign citizens that have been abducted, or foreign nationals wrongly held in DPRK, but it’s an issue that threatens every one of us around the world. And that is why I believe that raising the awareness of the fact that the DPRK human rights issue is not just an issue for these limited group of people, it affects all of us.



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