SEOUL, South Korea — While 2018 has seen a stunning breakthrough in diplomatic relations on the Korean peninsula, human rights in North Korea remains dismal, according to a United Nations official.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, told reporters Tuesday at a press conference in New York that the “human rights situation at the moment has not changed on the ground in North Korea despite this important progress on security, peace and prosperity.”
Quintana said that he believes the North Korean government is continuing to pursue the violations and crimes against humanity detailed in a landmark 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea.
Citing that report, Quintana said that the Commission had found “crimes against humanity that entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and sexual violence” and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds, among other crimes.
Other rights groups have also described the brutal conditions inside of North Korea. In a report this year, Amnesty International claimed that North Korea held up to 120,000 political prisoners in camps, where forced labor and torture are practiced.
North Korean imposes severe limits on freedom of movement and freedom of expression, and its media is the most tightly controlled in the world, ranking dead last in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.
The UN official’s remarks come during a period in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has done much to transform his image from one of a secretive despot to a statesman. He has met three times this year with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and in April, Kim and President Trump held a historic summit in Singapore. That meeting produced an agreement promising to work towards building peace and denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
However, Quintana said that neither the inter-Korean or U.S. summits produced any references to human rights in their agreements.
“We don’t know even if human rights issues were discussed during those meetings,” he said.
Quintana, a human rights lawyer from Argentina appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, said that he welcomes the rapprochement between North and South Korea, calling it an “extraordinary development” and “historical,” but cautioned that human rights should not be ignored. He compared the North Korean situation to that of Myanmar, where he held a similar role from 2008-2014 as that country transitioned from military rule to a democracy.
A military crackdown against the Rohingya minority last year led to some 700,000 of the Muslim minority fleeing to Bangladesh and a recent U.N. inquiry into the crisis accused Myanmar’s military of genocide.
Quintana said he had raised concerns about the Myanmar military committing crimes against humanity during the transition period in 2012 but the issue was not addressed.
“The international community couldn’t reach a decision in this respect,” he said. “They were endorsing the transition, putting aside human rights, and now somehow we see the consequences.”
In addition to its engagement with the U.S. and South Korea, Quintana called for North Korea to begin tackling its human rights situation, starting with allowing both himself and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to visit the country. Quintana has not been allowed to enter North Korea and must base his findings on interviews with those who left the country.
“It is the time for North Korea to show commitment to the human rights agenda in some way or another,” he said. “We have seen nothing from North Korea in this respect.”
Japan and the European Union are expected to present a resolution to the U.N. General Assembly next month condemning North Korea’s human rights record. The assembly has backed the resolution for 13 straight years. On Monday, North Korean state news agency KCNA blasted the upcoming resolution, calling it a “thinly-veiled smear campaign” and saying it was “designed to block the positive trend of the present situation towards dialogue and peace.”
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