North Korean Human Rights: It's Time To End Impunity For Human Rights Violators

* Following is a statement I delivered at the 34th Session of the High-Level Segment of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on 27 February 2017

Mr. President,

Since we met in this august chamber last March, the international community has made diverse efforts to promote and protect human rights and dignity around the globe. As always, the UN Human Rights Council has been at the forefront of these efforts, by adopting and implementing many resolutions and decisions to defend the rights of the vulnerable and the oppressed. World leaders also gathered last year at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul and at the High-level meeting on refugees in New York to address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

However, we still witness significant gaps between our commitment to protecting human rights and dignity and dire reality on the ground. Indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians, gross sexual violence and humanitarian crises caused by armed conflict are still rampant in many parts of the world.

These daunting challenges highlight the need to mainstream human rights throughout the UN system. We also need to take a holistic approach encompassing all three pillars of the UN – peace and security, human rights and development – as was stressed by last year’s landmark UN resolutions on sustaining peace. It is because there can be no peace without human rights and vice versa.

As High Commissioner Zeid eloquently stated this morning, without a commitment to fundamental human rights and human dignity, and I quote, “Our world will become chaos, misery and warfare,” unquote.

Time and again, we have witnessed cases where persistent human rights violations posed serious threat to peace. A case in point is North Korea.

Three years ago, the Commission of Inquiry (COI) submitted to the Human Rights Council a historic report on the systematic, wide-spread and gross human rights violations in North Korea. It established that and I quote, “crimes against humanity have been committed pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state,” unquote.

Since then, the dire human rights situation in North Korea has been high on the agenda across the whole UN system. Not only have the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in North Korea, but also the Security Council, which has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, has discussed this issue as its formal agenda for three consecutive years. This unusual development reflects the global concern over the ever-worsening human rights situation in North Korea and its implications for international peace.

Last year, the General Assembly adopted the strongest-ever North Korean human rights resolution by consensus. This landmark resolution highlighted for the first time the responsibility of the North Korean leadership for the human rights abuses. It also expressed grave concern about the human rights situation of North Korean workers sent abroad and the impact of diverting resources to advance WMD programs on humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea.

As a matter of fact, we now have an endless list of dismal records of human rights abuses in North Korea:

  • According to UN reports, some 80,000 to 120,000 people are imprisoned to date in political camps suffering from deliberate starvation, torture, forced labor, executions and rape. Indeed, the whole country has turned into a massive gulag with unrelenting surveillance;

  • Its human rights violations are not confined within the country. It is running its labor camps abroad with tens of thousands of overseas workers whose fundamental human rights are denied as pointed out in the recent report of the Special Rapporteur. European Parliament resolution last year likened the situation of North Korean overseas workers to state-sponsored forced labor;

  • Over the past five years, several hundred high-level officials have been openly or extra-judicially executed in North Korea, not to mention the countless ordinary people. It is no wonder that an increasing number of North Koreans including the elite class have defected to South Korea and elsewhere.

This is not the end of the story. Just two weeks ago, the world was shocked when North Korean leader’s elder brother was brutally assassinated at an international airport on Malaysian territory. Malaysian authorities suspect that 8 North Koreans involved in this assassination included one diplomat at its Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The other seven are reported to hold official passports issued by the North Korean government.

They revealed that the victim was killed with VX nerve agent, a chemical weapon classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN and also strictly banned by international norms and resolutions, including the Chemical Weapons Convention.

All these acts constitute a serious violation of various international human rights instruments to which North Korea is a party. It is also an outright challenge to the rules-based international order.

In fact, North Korea has a long record of heinous crimes such as the 1983 Rangoon bombing killing more than 16 cabinet members and high-level officials of the ROK Government and the 1987 bombing of Korean Air killing over 115 innocent Korean and foreign passengers.

Mr. President,

We the international community should no longer allow innocent North Koreans to suffer such serious human rights abuses. The aggravation of North Korean human rights situation will not remain local but become a threat to the peace and security of the whole international community. We should act, individually and collectively, before the violation of human rights lead to much bigger calamity.

Just as the UN Security Council adopted last year the strongest-ever sanctions in the face of North Korean nuclear threats, it is high time to end impunity for human rights violators including its leadership.

Now, the international community should hold those violators accountable by bringing the North Korean case to the ICC as recommended by the resolutions adopted at the UN General Assembly and this august body. In this regard, we welcome the recent report by the Group of Independent Experts on Accountability which recommended the submission of the North Korean case to the ICC or the establishment of an international tribunal for accountability.

We all know who is ultimately responsible for the abuses and crimes. The Republic of Korea fully supports such endeavors and looks forward to working closely with the international community to this end.

On our part, with the new North Korean Human Rights Act in force, my government has started collecting and recording information on human rights violations in North Korea through the newly established Center for North Korean Human Rights Records.

Mr. President,

In his new year’s address, UN Secretary-General Guterres appealed to make 2017 “a year for peace.” He went on to stress that and I quote, “Prevention is not a priority, but the priority,” unquote. I cannot agree more.

I echoed his appeal at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bonn two weeks ago by underscoring the need to pay a particular attention to human rights abuses. It is because the protection and promotion of human rights is the most important factor in the prevention of conflicts.

The Human Rights Council should always bear in mind that its activities ultimately contribute to sustaining peace and sustainable development. In promoting human dignity and human rights, the Council needs to strengthen its role in promptly responding to various human rights crises.

As a responsible member of the Human Rights Council, the Republic of Korea will play its due part in realizing human dignity across the globe, working closely with the UN human rights mechanisms including the OHCHR. Thank you.