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The Peninsula

United Nations Appoints Peruvian Scholar Elizabeth Salmón Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea

Published July 25, 2022
Author: Robert King
Category: North Korea

At the conclusion of the 50th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the President of the Council named eight individuals to human rights related positions, including Elizabeth Salmón as the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.”  Salmón is a professor of international law at the Faculty of Law of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Salmón follows Tomás Ojea-Quintana of Argentina, who served as Special Rapporteur from 2016-2022.

Under UN policy and practice, Professor Salmón is appointed to the position for one year, but she may be reappointed for up to a total of six years of service in that particular post.  She is the fourth special Rapporteur to serve, and the first woman to hold that position.  The three previous appointees were each annually reappointed and each served for total of six years.  Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, professor of law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, was Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK from 2004-2010.  Former lawyer, member of parliament and Prosecutor General of Indonesia Marzuki Darusman served in this position from 2010-2016.  Tomás Ojea-Quintana, a prominent Argentine human rights attorney, served as Special Rapporteur from 2016-2022.

Professor Salmón holds a PhD in international law from the University of Seville, Spain.  In addition to her position on the Faculty of Law of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, she is Director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights of the university, as well as a visiting professor at Universidad Externado de Colombia.  She has served as Chairperson of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, a body of 18 independent experts serving as a think-tank to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Professor Salmón is author or editor of 22 books and 76 articles on international human rights law.  (See her UN Human Rights Council biography.)  Professor Salmón was selected from eight well-qualified applicants.

As the Special Rapporteur, Professor Salmón will identify and report annually on specific North Korean human rights concerns.  She will report to the UN Human Rights Council at a regular plenary session of the Council in Geneva (usually in March), and she will present a report to the UN General Assembly at a meeting of the Third Committee in New York City (usually in late October).  She also will work closely with the UN human rights office located in Seoul, South Korea, which documents human rights abuses in North Korea.  Although the format for these reports is well established, the Special Rapporteur enjoys considerable flexibility in terms of the topics she (or he) addresses in the reports to the various United Nations organizations.

North Korea Denounces Appointment of New Special Rapporteur

The government of North Korea has consistently opposed the UN Human Rights Council’s designation of a Special Rapporteur for human rights in the North.  All three of the previous Special Rapporteurs on human rights in North Korea, as well as the chair of the Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights (2013-2014), have formally requested to visit North Korea and to meet with government officials.  Pyongyang has not even bothered to respond to previous formal requests.  Chinese government officials, who were contacted about discussing North Korea human rights issues, have at least had the courtesy to respond, although Chinese officials have not met with any of the Special Rapporteurs on DPRK human rights.

When the appointment of Professor Salmón as the new Special Rapporteur was announced by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not acknowledge her appointment, but denounced the position of Special Rapporteur for DPRK human rights.  Pyongyang also argued that “country-specific ‘special Rapporteur’ mechanism must be abolished immediately.”  (See, 12 July 2022. DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Country-Specific ‘Special Rapporteur’ Mechanism Must be Abolished Immediately.”)

The commentary continued: “The post of the ‘special rapporteur’ on the situation of human rights in the DPRK is a political plot-breeding tool invented by hostile forces out of their ulterior motive to debase our Republic and to topple our socialist system.”  Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry official argued that the human rights Special Rapporteur for North Korea “is nothing but a marionette of the U.S. and the West.”  The conclusion: “We stand firm that we never recognize this post, whoever takes its seat.”  With that verbal barrage, the first priority of the new Special Rapporteur clearly will not be filing a visa application for a trip to North Korea.

In recent North Korean government commentaries on the Special Rapporteur, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials belittled and criticized Tomás Ojea Quintana, who is leaving this post.  In a North Korean news commentary on his last visit to South Korea as Special Rapporteur, the Foreign Ministry commentator said Ojea “ran about with bloodshot eyes to tarnish our image with all sorts of falsehood and fabrication.”   The description of his visit to South Korea said that he “crept into south Korea twice like an alley cat and groundlessly slandered the anti-epidemic measures taken by our state.”  (Pyongyang makes a point of never capitalizing the word “south” when the term “south Korea” is used.  See, 4 July 2022. DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Living Corpse Makes a Spectacle of Himself.”)

The venom reserved for the previous Special Rapporteur only suggests that his thoughtful reports to United Nations organizations regarding human rights conditions in North Korea over the past six years have been remarkably accurate.

South Korea Welcomes New UN Human Rights Rapporteur

In contrast to the reaction from Pyongyang to the designation of the new UN human rights rapporteur, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson hailed the appointment:  “The government expects Salmón will contribute to the international society’s efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights situations with her expertise and experience from years of academic activities and the UN human rights field.”

The Ministry spokesperson also pledged the government’s commitment to work with the UN to improve conditions in the North:  “The government will continue its efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights conditions in coordination with the international community while actively cooperating with the new U.N. Special Rapporteur.”

Statements from the new South Korean President and his new Foreign Minister indicate greater emphasis on human rights.  In remarks at CSIS in June, Foreign Minister Park Jin said “President Yoon, during his inauguration speech, stressed that we must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights.”

The new South Korean Foreign Minister added, “We should take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves, but also for people in other parts of the world, including North Korea.”

United States Dawdles in Appointing Special Human Rights Envoy; South Korea Announces New Ambassador for Human Rights in North Korea

In addition to the UN Special Rapporteur, the United States and South Korea have played important roles in the past focusing attention on human rights in the North.  The United States had a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights in the past until January 2017, but that position was not filled during the four years of the Donald Trump Administration.  Ironically, Trump signed legislation extending the legal requirement for the appointment of a Special Envoy for North Korea human rights in July 2018, but still made no appointment during the entire four years of his tenure in office.

The Biden Administration has been in office now for over a year and a half.  Despite assurances from current U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken that a new U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights would be appointed, the Biden Administration has also thus far failed to appoint a Special Envoy.

Recently, however, South Korea has taken positive action.  South Korea’s National Assembly created the position of Ambassador for North Korea Human Rights in the North Korea Human Rights Act adopted in 2016.  The position is similar to the U.S. Special Envoy position.  In September 2016 Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon was named to that post.  He served until the Moon Jae-in Administration came into office in 2017.  The position remained unfilled during the entire five years of the Moon Administration.

After only two months in office, the new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol announced on July 19 the appointment of Professor Lee Shin-hwa as Ambassador on North Korea human rights.  Ambassador Lee is a professor of political science at Korea University with a undergraduate degree from Ewha Womans University in Seoul and a PhD from the University of Maryland in the United States.  She has written extensively on North Korea and international cooperation efforts.

The stronger position on human rights now being taken by the new South Korean government, including the appointment of a new Ambassador for North Korea human rights in addition to the appointment of Professor Elizabeth Salmón as the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK, suggests a more vigorous effort to deal with human rights problems in North Korea.

Robert R. King is a Distinguished 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 Contraloría Perú’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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