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Türk Addresses UN Security Council Open Debate On The Situation In The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea

UN Security Council open debate on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Statement by Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Delivered from Geneva on 12 June 2024

Mr. President,

Members of the Council,

Thank you for this invitation.

I welcome the attention that the Council pays to the precarious human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - and to working through the interconnections between human rights, peace and security, as well as development.

The protracted nature of this situation is trapping people in unmitigated suffering.

It is also a factor behind instability with wider regional ramifications. It is not possible to divorce the state of human rights in the DPRK from considerations around peace and security in the peninsula, including increasing militarization on the part of the DPRK.

Today, the DPRK is a country sealed off from the world. A stifling, claustrophobic environment, where life is a daily struggle devoid of hope. I am asserting this against the backdrop of a number of factors that we have observed of late.

First, deepening repression of the right to freedom of movement. Recent months have seen a very partial reopening of the border, allowing limited movement – some citizens returning home, a small number of incoming diplomats, and some travel by government delegations and sports teams.

The brutal reality, though, for the population at large remains one of strengthened border controls. It is now almost impossible for people to leave unless they have the permission of the Government. Extremely few people secure this. Leaving your own country is not a crime – on the contrary, it is a human right, recognized by international law.

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Last year around 200 escapees from the DPRK arrived in the Republic of Korea, less than one fifth of pre-COVID arrivals. Of those who arrived, only a small percentage had actually left the DPRK after the COVID border closures in early 2020, the majority having been in third countries.

In short, we are witnessing a situation where people can no longer leave even when they are in the most desperate of circumstances or at peril of persecution. One consequence is that divided families are even more divided. No departures means no reunification with families abroad. Even the briefest of meetings between separated relatives no longer occur as official efforts on this front have stalled for years. And phoning or sending money to family in the DPRK is now almost practically impossible. Yet that’s exactly what would build some sense of confidence and hope.

This arbitrary interference in family life causes deep anguish. I urge the DPRK to re-open possibilities for families to connect and ultimately be together.

Second, repression of freedom of expression has worsened, particularly as a result of enforcement of three laws. One deals with the consumption of foreign media which are deemed to be “reactionary thought”. Another criminalizes the use of language not in line with the Pyongyang dialect, while a third focuses on forcing youth to “conform to a socialist lifestyle”.

All of these impose harsh punishments for the exercise of fundamental human rights protected by international law, including the right to freedom of expression and right to access and impart information; going so far as to punish parents for the actions of their children.

Article 7 of the Reactionary Thought and Culture Denunciation Law is a particularly chilling example, authorizing severe sanctions, including capital punishment, for the offence of introducing, viewing or disseminating so-called “reactionary” culture. Put simply, people in the DPRK are at risk of death for merely watching or sharing a foreign television series. This law squarely violates freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and the right to take part in cultural life, putting the DPRK in clear breach of its obligations under international law.

I urge the DPRK to repeal these oppressive laws and to institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty throughout its legal system with a view to its abolition, as is the overwhelming global trend.

Third, the socioeconomic conditions of life in the DPRK have become unbearably harsh. I am particularly troubled about the lack of access to food. Every single person interviewed by my Office has mentioned this in one form or another. In the words of one: “It’s very easy to become fragile and malnourished because there is nothing to eat.”

While the Government seems to be making some efforts to address food security, it is at the same time shutting down the majority of small-scale markets, the jangmadang, and restricting what vendors can sell in the rest. This increasingly centralized food production and distribution are undermining access to food. Reports indicate almost half of the population as food insecure in recent years, with child wasting on the rise in some provinces.

I call on the Government to fulfil the right to food of all of its citizens, without discrimination, and take advantage of offers of international cooperation to this end.

Fourth, forced labour persists in many forms inside the DPRK. The Government also exerts a high level of control on workers sent abroad, many of whom have been interviewed by my Office. They describe a life of terrible hardship – work that is often physically dangerous, a scarcity of food and health care, extreme levels of surveillance, physical violence and the confiscation of up to 90 percent of their wages by the State.

Moreover, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, as well as a lack of fair trials are ongoing tactics of repression.

I have also consistently raised the tragic issue of enforced disappearance both inside the DPRK and of citizens of other countries, notably the Republic of Korea and Japan, perpetrated over the past 70 years. Painfully, the full truth as to the fate of these people - which we estimate to be over 100,000 - remains unknown to this day.

I again call on the DPRK to comply with its international obligations to return these individuals to their long-suffering families or reveal their fate and return remains to loved ones.

Accountability for these longstanding, serious and widespread violations needs to be a priority. Ten years ago, the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK called on the Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, which I endorse. In addition, I urge States to explore avenues for judicial accountability that may be at their disposal, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, in accordance with international law.

As for non-judicial routes, these must remain part of our collective effort to bring redress to victims. Truth telling, memorialization, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence all must be advanced.

And I recognize the enormous contribution of civil society in consistently documenting violations and supporting victims. I will be providing, at the request of the Human Rights Council, a comprehensive report on the human rights situation over the last 10 years in 2025.

Given the precarious human rights situation in the DPRK, there are compelling reasons for recognizing international protection needs of those seeking it outside of the country. It is essential that the principle of non-refoulement is scrupulously observed. We have received troubling reports of people being deported back to the DPRK in clear violation of international law. Our monitoring confirms that individuals forced back in this manner are subjected to torture, arbitrary detention or other serious human rights violations.

Mr. President,

It is important that the international community continues to pay close attention to this most troubling human rights situation. This Council is uniquely placed to address the growing isolation of the DPRK which is a driver of both human rights violations and regional instability. It is really critical for the international community to be creative in finding ways to revive dialogue.

We have seen some positive signs recently from the DPRK in their engagement with the international human rights system, which is welcomed. The upcoming Universal Periodic Review session this November and the 2025 review process of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities each provide an opportunity to be grasped.

The landscape of misery, repression, fear, hunger and hopelessness in the DPRK is profoundly alarming. All paths out of this start with making a U-turn from the dead end of self-imposed isolation: opening the country, re-engaging with the international community, enabling people-to-people contact, embracing international cooperation, focusing on the wellbeing of all people.

I urge the Government of the DPRK to flip the orthodoxies and overcome its isolationist mindset which only breeds deeper and deeper distrust, setting off a never-ending spiral of groupthink at the expense of a more prosperous and secure future for its people. Human rights in all their dimensions offer a solution and a way forward.

Thank you.

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