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10 Years After the UN Report: The International Community’s Role in Improving Human Rights in North Korea

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10 Years After the UN Report: The International Community’s Role in Improving Human Rights in North Korea

The Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea shocked the world with revelations of horrific abuses. It’s time to take stock of what progress has been achieved since then.

10 Years After the UN Report: The International Community’s Role in Improving Human Rights in North Korea
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On August 17 of last year, I attended a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) session devoted to discussing human rights in North Korea – the first such meeting since 2017. As a representative of civil society, I testified about the human rights situation in North Korea. The majority of participating countries, excluding China and Russia, acknowledged the dire situation in North Korea and voiced consensus on the need to improve the human rights conditions. 

Although the UNSC could not adopt a resolution at the end of the meeting, due to the opposition from China and Russia, the proceedings were spread worldwide. The meeting was so threatening to the North Korean regime that its state media arm, the Korea Central News Agency, went so far as to directly condemn me as “human scum who betrayed and fled his country” only two days after the meeting. 

The U.N. has played various roles and been actively involved in addressing the human rights issue of North Korea. Since 2003, the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have annually adopted resolutions on North Korean human rights. Particularly, the Human Rights Council meeting held in March 2013 is noteworthy for unanimously passing a resolution to establish the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea. Thanks to that decision, for the first time in history, a permanent U.N. organization initiated an investigation into the human rights situation in North Korea.

The resulting COI report, which was released in February 2014, formally acknowledged that the North Korean regime has systematically committed widespread heinous crimes against humanity. At that time, North Korea’s National Defense Commission strongly opposed the COI’s argument that top leader Kim Jong Un should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while threatening to strike the U.S. mainland.

However, despite the engagement of the U.N. and the release of the COI report, the international community still faces significant challenges in improving human rights conditions in North Korea. The biggest obstacle lies in the anti-peace and anti-human rights actions of China and Russia, both permanent members of the UNSC, to shield North Korea. Any future attempts to adopt resolutions related to North Korean human rights at the U.N. level, will be impeded by China and Russia’s continuous opposition or abstention, thereby not allowing the international community to implement substantive solutions. Moreover, China not only forcibly repatriates defectors to North Korea, supporting the human rights abuses of the regime, but also criticizes COI reports, which are purely based on factual investigations, for politicizing the human rights issue.

Some argue that despite over two decades of global efforts for better human rights conditions in North Korea, there has been no tangible improvement in the situation. However, it is evident that bringing attention to the human rights situation in North Korea has brought about changes. For instance, ordinary North Koreans who were once unfamiliar with the term “human rights” now use the term “human rights abuses.” According to testimonies from numerous defectors who came to South Korea just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, international pressure has certainly posed a threat to the Kim Jong Un regime. As a result, instances of beatings within prisons have decreased, and people use the term “human rights abuses” when experiencing unfair treatment. 

These defector accounts suggest that sustained international pressure on the regime, backed by specific and accurate information, could lead to better human rights conditions in the North. Above all, we must remember that efforts of the international community for North Korean human rights serve as a ray of hope as well as a reason to survive for many North Koreans who have been deprived of all freedoms and rights while living in oppression and fear. 

We hope that the international community will continue to publicly address the North Korean human rights issue for the sake of the freedom and rights of North Korean people. Particularly on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the COI report this year, it is crucial to conduct a progress check on the recommendations made so far for the North Korean regime and add an update on the current status. Most importantly, the issue of holding Kim Jong Un accountable, such as referring him to the ICC as suggested in the report, must be discussed. 

The upcoming Universal Periodic Review in November will provide a great opportunity for the international community to scrutinize North Korea’s human rights situation more closely and seek accountability for those responsible. It is our sincere hope that the strengthened cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan will translate into real pressure on the North Korean regime by addressing the human rights issue in the security and military context, especially with South Korea and Japan’s participation in the UNSC as non-permanent members this year.