In recent days, North Korea’s human rights abuses were again debated at the United Nations and a resolution critical of Pyongyang is being circulated for consideration. North Korea’s human rights record has been debated and a resolution critical of the government in Pyongyang has been adopted by the UN General Assembly every year since December 2005 and the expectation is that the resolution being circulated will be adopted this December as well.
Earlier in April, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a strongly-worded resolution critical of North Korea that “condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
Shortly before the UN General Assembly began the Fall 2022 session, the Secretary General presented to UN member countries an equally-strongly worded report on the “Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” This report is called for by the General Assembly in its resolution adopted in December 2021 on North Korea’s human rights conditions. The report is drafted by UN officials, including the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK with the cooperation and assistance of the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ permanent office in Seoul. In that report, the High Commissioner reported that “there were reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and may be ongoing.”
The action on North Korean human rights in the Fall 2022 session of the General Assembly is noteworthy because two key players in the process are involved for the first time. The newly designated UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Elizabeth Salmón, made her first report to the General Assembly. Also participating in the meetings on North Korea for the first time is Ambassador Shin-wha Lee, the newly appointed South Korean Ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights. It is noteworthy that the South Korean government is cosponsoring the North Korea human rights resolution after four years when Seoul did not cosponsor or support such North Korean human rights resolutions.
New UN Special Rapporteur Makes First Report to General Assembly
The President of the UN Human Rights Council, after consultation with members of the Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, names UN special rapporteurs to report and make recommendations on difficult human rights problems. Such appointments are made for one year, but they can be extended annually for a total of six years. A UN Special Rapporteur focusing on North Korea human rights has been in place since 2004. Professor Elizabeth Salmón, a professor of international law on the Faculty of Law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, was named to the position in June of this year.
Professor Salmón made the first trip to Seoul following her appointment at the end of August. She met with recent escapees from North Korea now living in the South, senior South Korean government officials including the foreign minister, met with members of separated families who have not been permitted by Pyongyang to meet with family members living in South Korea, civil society organizations, and scholars and researchers who deal with North Korean human rights issues. Professor Salmón met with the South Korean Foreign Minister and the new Ambassador for North Korean human rights. In meetings with humanitarian organizations, she expressed concern that North Korean women and girls are under severe pressure to provide food for their families because of the impact of the COVID pandemic health regulations in the North. Markets have been closed, imports have declined significantly, and limitations on travel have made food distribution difficult.
On October 26, Professor Salmón made her first presentation on North Korea to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. In her report, she said she had requested to visit North Korea and meet with officials there, but she received no response. This is the same lack of response that her predecessors as Special Rapporteur also received. At the Third Committee session she identified three objectives of her efforts with Pyongyang. She will seek the cooperation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s “to transform its practices violating human rights, strengthening accountability and raising awareness of the grave situation there.”
Following Professor Salmón’s report, the floor was opened for questions and comments. Significantly, the first country to speak was the representative of the United States, who “called on Pyongyang to recognize that human rights violations are occurring within its borders and to address them.” The U.S. representative also called upon North Korea to “grant international humanitarian associations and human rights monitors unhindered access” to the country.
Other countries which spoke in support the Special Rapporteur’s call for greater respect for human rights included the European Union on behalf of its 27 member countries, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and several other governments. The list of the countries whose representatives disputed the Special Rapporteur’s human rights statements reads like the rogue’s gallery of human rights violators—Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Belarus, and Iran.
South Korean Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights Makes Her First Statement in the General Assembly Debate
Just a few weeks before the General Assembly Third Committee meeting in New York, Ambassador Lee Shin-wha participated in the meeting in Seoul with Special Rapporteur Elizabeth Salmón and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin. This was the occasion when the UN Special Rapporteur made her first official visit to Seoul. The symbolism of that meeting was clear—Ambassador Lee is at the Foreign Minister’s right hand on issues involving international action on North Korean human rights.
Last week at the General Assembly Third Committee meeting in New York, Ambassador Lee made her first speech before this UN body since being named South Korea’s ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights. Ambassador Lee spoke on behalf of the government of South Korea during the discussion of the Special Rapporteur’s presentation on North Korea human rights. In her UN speech, Special Rapporteur Ambassador Lee raised issues of rights violations by Pyongyang including “abductions, enforced disappearances [and] prisoners of war [which] continue to be a deep concern and should be addressed immediately.”
Ambassador Lee also raised the troubling incident of the unarmed South Korean civilian fisheries official, Lee Dae-jin, who was killed in September 2020 when North Korean military found him in a small boat on the Yellow Sea in waters claimed by the North. She called upon North Korea to “disclose all relevant information and ensure such events are not repeated.” Shortly before traveling to New York to participate in the United Nations discussion of North Korean human rights issues, Ambassador Lee met with the brother of Lee Dae-jin. Ambassador Lee said she would use her position to raise the awareness in the international community regarding the death, and she would seek to hold North Korea accountable.
That particular incident involving Lee Dae-jin was given extensive media attention two years ago when the incident occurred. He was subsequently killed by the North Korean troops, and his body and the boat were burned. The incident was poorly handled by the administration of then President of South Korea Moon Jae-in when officials failed to intervene immediately after he was reported captured by the North Korean military, which could have saved his life. South Korean officials tried to portray the official as trying to defect to North Korea because of gambling debts, mental health issues, and an unhappy life. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un later admitted publicly that the killing was “unfortunate” and “should not have happened.”
Following the change in government with the South Korean presidential election earlier this year, a report by the South Korean National Assembly concluded that the South Korean coast guard failed to follow proper search procedures in the case, and they failed to report the capture of the fisheries official to other South Korean government ministries in a timely fashion. Earlier intervention might have saved his life. Furthermore, reports that he was attempting to defect to the North were said to be false and invented by South Korean officials in an effort to cover up their poor handling of the case. Prosecutors are currently investigating possible criminal liability of former South Korean government officials, and former president Moon Jae-in has been formally notified of the investigation.
For the First Time in Four Years, South Korea Cosponsors Resolution on North Korea Human Rights
For the first time in four years, the South Korean government has engaged with other UN member countries in the development of the resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record. UN precedent is that the European Union on behalf of the EU’s 28 member countries takes the lead in pulling together the resolution and working with other delegations to produce a suitable draft for consideration by the General Assembly. This year for the first time in over four years, South Korean diplomats at the United Nations headquarters in New York have participated in the development of the resolution.
Beginning in 2005, shortly after the United Nations began the annual cycle of resolutions and reports on North Korean human rights, South Korea had consistently cosponsored and spoken in favor of resolutions calling for improvements of human rights in the North. For the last four years of the Moon Jae-in presidency which ended earlier this year, however, South Korea did not sponsor such resolutions. In a very clear reversal of policy following the election of Yoon Suk Yeol as President of South Korea earlier this year, Seoul endorsed the resolution this fall on North Korean human rights.
At a regular press briefing earlier this week, the South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk affirmed the change in policy by announcing that Seoul would cosponsor the resolution: “North Korea’s human rights issue is a matter of common human rights, and we believe a consistent action based on principle is necessary. . . We are also actively participating in the discussion with the United Nations and the international community to promote the human rights of North Koreans.”
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea.