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The Peninsula

South Korea Heads UN Security Council Discussion on North Korea Human Rights

Published June 27, 2024
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) discussed serious human rights abuses carried out in North Korea on June 12, with South Korea’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Joon-kook Hwang serving as UNSC president. The roles of North Korea and South Korea at the UNSC meeting highlight the stark differences between the two Korean states at the United Nations.

Since the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea in 2013, the UNSC has taken up Pyongyang’s serious and ongoing human rights violations on many occasions. However, the discussion on June 12 was unique because it was the first time that South Korea’s UN ambassador was serving as president of the UNSC during the discussion on North Korean human rights.

South Korea Presides Over UNSC in the June Debate on North Korea

The fifteen-member UNSC is composed of five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The other ten countries are non-permanent members elected to serve two-year terms, with five new member states beginning their term each year. These ten non-permanent rotating members are divided among regions of the world to ensure regional balance. The presidency of the UNSC rotates every month, with permanent and non-permanent members serving in alphabetical order.

There is stiff competition among the 193 UN member states to serve on the UNSC. Even with non-permanent member terms rotating every two years, sixty of the UN member countries – almost a third of UN members – have never served on the UNSC. Significantly, North Korea is one of those countries that has never been elected to serve as a UNSC member. Furthermore, North Korea’s rogue nuclear weapons program has been a frequent topic of UNSC discussions, and the UNSC has imposed sanctions against Pyongyang on many occasions.

On the other hand, South Korea has been a serious and conscientious member heavily engaged with the United Nations. South Korea has served as a member of the UNSC three times. That is particularly significant because North and South Korea were not members of the United Nations for the first 46 years of its existence. Both were admitted to UN membership at the same time in 1991. South Korea has only been a member of the UN for 33 years, but it has elected a member of the UNSC for three separate two-year terms. South Korea served as a UNSC member in 1996-1997, 2013-2014, and is currently serving its third term for 2024-2025. Furthermore, former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon has been one of only nine international leaders to head the United Nations as Secretary General since the founding of the organization in 1945.

The agenda of the UNSC is determined by current international conflicts, but the variety of international issues is broad. Putting human rights issues on the UNSC agenda has always been somewhat controversial. Some countries, frequently permanent members China and Russia, have argued that human rights matters should be delegated to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with social, humanitarian, and cultural issues. Both UN bodies have special responsibilities for human rights issues. Other UN member countries have argued that violations of human rights, in particularly egregious cases, are a serious threat to international peace and security and, thus, a responsibility of the UNSC as well.

In placing North Korea’s human rights issues on the UNSC agenda in April 2024, South Korean Ambassador Joon-kook Hwang noted that North Korean human rights issues have been part of the UNSC agenda and certainly since December 2014 when the report of the UN COI on North Korean human rights was formally discussed at a UNSC meeting.

At the UNSC debate, Ambassador Hwang emphasized that human rights and nuclear weapons are linked. He said that North Korea is like a “two-headed chariot” driven by nuclear weapons and human rights violations. “If human rights violations stop, nuclear weapons development will also stop. This is why we need to look at the DPRK human rights situation from the perspective of international peace and security.”

The Failed Attempt by China and Russia to Prevent the UNSC Discussion

Before the meeting on North Korean human rights was underway, the Chinese representative demanded a vote on the provisional agenda. “The Security Council is not the proper place to address human rights issues,” the Chinese envoy said. The Russian UN representative agreed, saying “a narrow group of states” was seeking to exploit the UNSC “to advance their own geopolitical agenda.” He argued that the North Korean human rights issue is not within the UNSC mandate.

US Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield, speaking for the United States as well as Japan and South Korea, criticized China and Russia for their efforts “to protect the DPRK.” She cited the 2014 report of the UN COI on North Korean human rights, noting the conclusion that North Korea had “committed systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” and that human rights abuses and violations were a threat to international peace and security.

The representative of the United Kingdom expressed support for the discussion of “any issues” related to international peace and security. She pointedly added “that the Russian Federation has often called meetings on human-rights-related issues in Ukraine.”

The vote on whether to proceed with the discussion of North Korea’s human rights abuses was approved by an affirmative vote by twelve of the UNSC member countries (France, United Kingdom, United States, Algeria, Ecuador, Guyana, Japan, Malta, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, and Switzerland) and one abstention (Mozambique). The two countries that opposed the discussion were China and Russia. While the five permanent members have a veto over UNSC decisions, they do not have a veto over the UNSC agenda. Decisions on the agenda require the vote of nine UNSC member countries.

The UNSC Discussion of North Korean Human Rights Abuses

The UNSC session began with statements from three individuals. The first speaker was Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since October 2022 and the most senior UN official on human rights issues. He is an Austrian attorney with a distinguished record of service in UN human rights and refugee issues. Türk emphasized the interconnection between human rights, economic development, and peace and security. He was particularly critical of North Korea’s increased limitation on freedom of movement for North Korean citizens. He said that “leaving your own country is not a crime – on the contrary, it is a human right, recognized by international law.”

Türk also sharply criticized the lack of freedom of expression in North Korea. He reported that “people in the DPRK are at risk of death for merely watching or sharing a foreign television program.” He called on Pyongyang to repeal the country’s repressive laws and said the death penalty should be abolished. Türk also reported that living conditions “have become unbearably harsh, including the lack of access to food.” He cited credible reports that half of North Korea’s population is food insecure. He criticized the North Korean government’s use of forced labor and abusive control of workers sent abroad. Workers sent abroad face extreme levels of surveillance, physical violence, and the confiscation of 90 percent of their wages by the regime. He also reported that North Korea carries out arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment of prisoners and that the legal system does not conduct fair trials.

To help remedy these problems, Türk called for referring North Korean human rights abuses to the International Criminal Court (ICC). He also endorsed the UN Human Rights Council’s call for a comprehensive report in 2025 on North Korea’s human rights situation examining the the last decade, since the original UN COI Report on human rights in North Korea came out in 2014.

The second report to the UNSC in this meeting was Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea Elizabeth Salmón, who was appointed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the request of the UN Human Rights Council. Professor Salmón expressed concern about Pyongyang’s increased focus on nuclear weapons and missile programs. She told the UNSC that “resources available for realizing human rights are reduced, exploitation of labor to finance militarization is rampant, and as a result the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights is often overlooked.”

Salmón also reported that much-needed humanitarian assistance has been very limited. New laws in North Korea impose the death penalty for minor crimes. She expressed concern that only a handful of refugees have been able to leave the North since the complete border closures in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “People are isolated and silenced inside the country without access to information from outside.” She called on the UNSC to discuss accountability measures, including referring the human rights abuses in North Korea to the ICC.

The third individual to speak was Gumhyok Kim, who is not a UN official but a “civil society” representative and refugee who fled North Korea twelve years ago. Since he left the North, he has been denied any contact with or information about family members still in North Korea. He discussed the brutal living conditions in the North and said that if the North Korean leaders “developed the economy instead of missiles there would be no need for any North Koreans to starve to death.” He also called for improved access to information for the North Korean people.

Each of the fifteen member countries of the UNSC made statements on the topic during the proceeding. Thirteen of the fifteen UNSC member countries, excluding China and Russia, called for improved human rights conditions in North Korea. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “Protecting human rights is not a distraction from safeguarding peace and security. The two are inextricably linked.”

The Russian and Chinese ambassadors opposed holding the UNSC meeting, but they did not defend North Korea’s human rights record. They simply repeated their argument that discussion of human rights conditions was not in the mandate of the UNSC and argued that these issues should be discussed elsewhere.

UNSC Discussion Emphasizes North Korea’s Isolation

North Korea, as the country of focus at the UNSC meeting, would have been invited to participate in the UNSC session. As it has consistently done in the past, North Korea chose to boycott its participation in the session at which its policies were discussed and criticized.

To underline how far North Korea is from the mainstream at the United Nations, a statement was made at a press conference by 57 UN member states shortly before the UNSC meeting on North Korea’s human rights abuses began. The statement called for all UN member countries to cooperate on bringing “concrete” changes for the welfare of the North Korean people and to contribute to a more peaceful and secure world.

Ambassador Hwang read the joint statement at the press conference. The statement said, “The DPRK continues to commit systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.” These include “restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of movement, collective punishment, arbitrary detention, torture and other cruel, in human and degrading punishments.”

While North Korea suffered a public relations blow from the harsh criticism voiced again at the UNSC session for its appalling human rights record, the effort to discourage North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has suffered setbacks at the United Nations. In March 2024, Russia vetoed the UNSC resolution to renew the appointment of the UN panel of experts that monitors the enforcement of longstanding UN sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The sanctions remain in place, but the panel of experts, which identified and publicized North Korean violation of the sanctions, has been disbanded. The panel’s important functions of monitoring and publicizing North Korea’s nuclear and missile efforts will not continue.

This frank and open discussion of DPRK human rights in the Security Council is a particularly effective and important step in pressuring Pyongyang for improvement in the treatment of its own citizens.  The Security Council session underlined the fact that North Korea is an international outlier and a rogue regime, while its nemesis (South Korea) is a respected and leading international participant.  The session highlighted the broad international consensus that respect for human rights is an international norm and obligation of UN member countries.  The fact that twelve of the fifteen members of the Security Council questioned North Korea’s human rights practices highlights just how far Pyongyang is out of touch with the accepted norms of international behavior.  This raises questions about the legitimacy and integrity of the Pyongyang regime.  This UNSC session also highlighted the contrast between Pyongyang and Seoul.  South Korea was President of the UNSC for the discussion, and North Korea, which has never served as a member of the Security Council, was “in the dock” for its failure to conform to established international human rights norms.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former US Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo capture from UN Web TV.

KEI is registered under the FARA as an agent of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a public corporation established by the government of the Republic of Korea. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

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