Asia Pacific / Politics

Human rights situation in North Korea ‘has not changed’ despite Pyongyang’s warming ties with Seoul and Washington, U.N. investigator says

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The ongoing detente between North Korea and the United States has done little, if anything, to improve Pyongyang’s abysmal rights record, the U.N. independent investigator on human rights in the nuclear-armed country said Tuesday, just weeks before the expected passage of a Japan-led resolution condemning the situation there.

“The human rights situation at the moment has not changed on the ground in North Korea despite this important progress on security, peace and prosperity,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, said at a televised news conference.

“It is the time for North Korea to show commitment to the human rights agenda in some way or another.”

Although Quintana, an Argentinian lawyer, characterized the recent moves — including the landmark summit between the U.S. and North Korean leader — as “extraordinary developments” toward achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula, he was unequivocal that more must be done on the issue of human rights.

“What I think is needed now from North Korea and in the context of the peace talks, etc. is a sign, a signal from North Korea that they will discuss human rights at some point,” he said. “I would like to see a signal to start working based on that commitment.”

He said one of his proposals is to ask the new U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to initiate “a process of engagement” with North Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in June for a historic summit aimed at convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. Kim has also met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in three times, agreeing to a number of grandiose statements laying out future goals.

Amid this push, critics say the human rights issue has been brushed aside as the U.S., South Korea and others focus on the North’s nuclear arsenal.

In an interview earlier this month with The Washington Post, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha admitted to the difficulties of broaching the issue in government to government talks with the North, saying that “there are times to raise these issues” and that now was not the time “when we very much need to move forward on the denuclearization issue.”

Quintana, however, called such an approach worrying.

“I have been very clear that I’m very concerned that neither in the Panmunjom Declaration, neither in the Singapore Statement, have we seen any human rights concern reference,” he said, referring to the two key statements to emerge from Kim’s meetings with Moon and Trump, respectively. “We don’t even know if the human rights issues were even discussed in those meetings.”

Pyongyang, which has been subject to numerous U.N. reports and 13-straight annual resolutions blasting it’s horrendous rights record, has lambasted any attempts by the global body to take it to task over the issue. Japan, together with the European Union, is expected to present the resolution next month.

Among its most egregious violations, rights group Amnesty International said in a report this year that the North is believed to hold up to 120,000 people in the four known political prison camps, where they are subjected to forced labor as well as torture and other ill-treatment. Some of the violations have amounted to crimes against humanity, it said.

Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said that the issue remains a delicate subject for Pyongyang, even amid its apparent push to improve ties with the outside world.

“Human rights is so sensitive for North Korea because it strikes at the core of Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy,” Oba said. “That the Kim regime uses repressive, coercive means to ensure its control goes completely against the narrative it promotes every day.”

Oba said “it’s virtually impossible for Kim to maintain power without violating human rights and engaging in repression. So, given that Kim’s No. 1 interest is survival, the odds that you’re going to make progress on human rights through engagement are going to be extremely low.”

Still, while Quintana noted that it was unrealistic to expect North Korea to suddenly open its doors, he stressed that human rights must not be left behind amid “very fast” political developments.

Quintana spoke of his previous job as U.N. investigator in Myanmar, a position in which he raised alarm about “crimes against humanity” being committed by the military during that country’s political transition in 2012, noting that his concerns had been pushed aside.

“And now we see the consequences,” he said, alluding to findings of military abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

He said that while the situation in North Korea is not the same, “we shouldn’t undermine the principle of human rights because sooner or later it will come back.”

Asked about the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s, he said there had been no headway.

“On the abductions issue, I have not seen any progress, unfortunately for their families who are getting old, many of them who don’t know where their relatives are,” he said. “The priority is to seek the truth about what happened to these people.”

The abduction issue has long been a thorn in the side of Japan-North Korea relations and remains a key obstacle to any meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Quintana, who has served in his post since 2016, has not been allowed to enter the North and bases his findings on information gathered from interviewees in neighboring countries, including defectors, many of whom reside in South Korea.