SEOUL (2 September 2022) - The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Elizabeth Salmón, conducted her first official visit to the Republic of Korea from 29 August to 3 September 2022.
I am very pleased to be here in the Republic of Korea. I assumed the mandate on 1 August and have already had the opportunity to visit the Republic of Korea in the same month. I thank the government of the Republic of Korea for accepting my visit so soon after I have taken up the mandate. Also, I would like to thank all the escapees, victims, families of victims, civil society organizations and state institutions who have talked so openly and frankly with me during this visit.
This was my first time to visit the Republic of Korea, which I take to be an advantage as I come to this mandate with fresh eyes and fresh perspectives.
My priority on this visit has been to listen to my interlocutors which, most importantly, has included some of the victims of human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and escapees from the DPRK. It is a priority of mine to meet with, speak to and learn from these victims. I will assume a victims-centred approach throughout the course of my mandate. In the past decades, we have learned that it is the victims of human rights violations that must be the focus of any human rights or humanitarian endeavour. The legitimacy and effectiveness of our work rests on this. For my mandate, this will include providing more opportunities for the voices of victims to be heard. I am particularly determined to bring more attention to the experiences of women and girls, to improve understanding of their specific needs, and to better appreciate the adversities they face in the DRPK.
MEETINGS AND ISSUES DISCUSSSED
I had the opportunity to meet with female escapees from the DPRK who have recently arrived in the Republic of Korea. These women bravely shared their stories with me, and I will use my position as Special Rapporteur to amplify their voices. The two women I talked with, who had courageously embarked on the long and dangerous journey to South Korea, came from very different backgrounds and had very different experiences. But what they both shared was their common desire to experience freedom. This really struck me.
Victims and CSOs
During my visit to the ROK, I have been impressed by the active and dynamic civil society that is working to bring improvements to the situation of human rights in the DPRK. This includes escapees, the family members of victims and a range of civil society organizations. They have helped to provide me with a panoramic view of the human rights issues in the DPRK – including the issues of South Koreans abducted by North Korea during and after the Korean War, South Korean prisoners of war during the Vietnam War who were later taken to DPRK, prisoners of war of the Korean War and their families remaining in the DPRK, and the ongoing pain of separated families. Other issues raised have concerned accountability and justice for victims, the campaign for peace between the two Koreas, access to food, the provision of humanitarian assistance, North Koreans’ lack of access to information, the practice of forced labour, and COVID-19 and the country’s quarantine measures. I have also learnt more about the issue of escapees detained in China, and those who were forcibly repatriated to the DPRK, as well as the issue of support for the resettlement and the integration of North Korean escapees in the Republic of Korea. The civil society organisations in the ROK are working on a wide range of issues. This is a good demonstration of the commitment of civil society working here. I was also encouraged to hear from the CSOs that, in the absence of any access to the DPRK, they are exploring creative ways including the use of technologies to reach out to the people of the DPRK and to monitor and document human rights violations there.
During my meetings, I was encouraged by the commitment of high-level government officials to seek improvements to the human rights situation in the DPRK, as well as to explore ways of providing humanitarian assistance. I also discussed with the government how to utilize the information that they gather from escapees to raise awareness and to ensure future accountability.
Human Rights Concerns
I am at the beginning of my term, and am not yet in a position to present any detailed human rights analysis of the situation in the DPRK. As I alluded to at the beginning of my statement, I am currently in listening mode. I come to the mandate with no preconceptions; just with the determination to use this position to push in every way I can for progress in improving the situation of human rights in the DPRK. I am collecting and digesting information and establishing important personal contacts with people who will assist me throughout my time on this mandate. This network of contacts will grow, and I hope that it will grow to include DPRK government representatives – whether that be directly engaging with me or whether it be through me assisting engagement with others.
It is also important to stress at this moment the lack of information that is coming out of the country. Almost all of the actors I met with said they do not have access to any updated information on what the current situation of human rights is in the DPRK. The current isolation of the DPRK and the lack of information coming out is one of the biggest challenges I will have to address in carrying out my mandate.
Food and health
Having said that, some of the information on the current situation that I have received has been alarming. I have received information indicating a strong possibility of starvation among the most vulnerable populations. One of the recent escapees told me that the price of products had gone up by 6-7 times by early 2021, and that rice from the military reserve had been released to soldiers. With the prolonged shutdown of the border, I am worried about what is happening to the 40 percent of the population who were already food insecure before the COVID-19 outbreak.
I am also concerned about people’s access to health since the COVID-19 outbreak. I heard from experts that the health system would struggle to cope with a large number of patients. I am also concerned about the lack of medicine available because of the prolonged border closure. I heard that the DPRK is interested in receiving vaccinations, but that this will also require capacity development including in the cold chain and securing a reliable supply of electricity.
Women and girls
I am very concerned about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 measures on women and girls. In the DPRK, I learned that every institution, including women’s associations and schools, is given a quota to fulfil, which women and children have to contribute to by providing material and labour. Many children were suffering from malnutrition and stunted growth even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Women must also be under further pressures during the COVID pandemic as market activities, which the women relied on for their living, were greatly reduced due to the prolonged closure of the borders since January 2020. With no alternative source of income, they are still required to feed their family, look after sick family members – including potentially those with COVID-19 – while also providing contributions to the State.
Here in the Republic of Korea, I have listened to the sufferings of separated family members. Securing the reunion of separated families should be the priority for both governments in the North and South, regardless of their political relationship. I urge the DPRK to engage with the ROK on resuming reunions, online or offline.
This pain of separation from family is also experienced by escapees from the DPRK now living in the ROK. One young escapee shared with me how much she is missing her parents left behind in North Korea.
I have also received information that some escapees’ families who were left behind in the DPRK have been relocated from border areas to further inland and have been put under harsher surveillance.
I will continue to gather all available information and data and report to the international community to give visibility to the North Korean people’s sufferings. My first short report will be presented to the General Assembly in New York in late October.
Accountability for ongoing and past human rights violations in and by the DPRK remains critical to human rights improvement and ensuring justice in the DPRK. I will continue to engage with all stakeholders including governments, CSOs, victims and other groups to explore possible avenues, both judicial and non-judicial, to pursue accountability and guarantee the rights of victims.
I will also try to seek engagement opportunities with the DPRK authorities through concrete issues such as women and girls’ rights. During the mission, I was encouraged to hear about small changes that the DPRK’s engagement with the UN human rights mechanisms and the international community have brought about. North Korea will not suddenly open up to the external world. I am also fully aware that the DPRK Government opposes country-specific human rights mandates including my mandate. However, that does not mean that we should not try. I hope the Government will revisit its policy and engage with my mandate. There will be windows of opportunity to engage and to make small steps. We should not give up on engagement with the DPRK because what is at stake are the lives of the North Korean people and their human rights.