North Korea human rights left behind amid political progress: U.N. expert

While the political climate surrounding North Korea has dramatically changed, the country’s human rights situation has been left out of key discussions, a U.N. human rights expert said Tuesday.

«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,» Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, told reporters.

«It is the time for North Korea to show commitment to the human rights agenda in some way or another.»

Ojea Quintana was referring to the spate of summits that have been held since an improvement in relations in the wake of the winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. These included a historic summit in Singapore in June between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Although Argentinian lawyer Ojea Quintana described the changes as «extraordinary developments» that offer hope of achieving a long-sought peace on the Korean Peninsula, more needs to be done on the rights front, he said.

«What I think is needed now from North Korea and in the context of the peace talks, etc. is a sign, a signal from North Korea that they will discuss human rights at some point,» he said. «I would like to see a signal to start working based on that commitment.»

While Ojea Quintana said it was unrealistic to expect North Korea to suddenly open up completely, he stressed that human rights must not be left behind as political developments are «moving so fast».

One such positive move, he explained, would be for Pyongyang to accept a visit by the head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

«No human rights language has been included in the key inter-Korean public statements that have emerged during the latest rapprochement, nor in the Singapore statement,» Ojea Quintana said, speaking of the meeting between Trump and Kim.

Ojea Quintana, who has served in his post since 2016, has not been allowed into North Korea. He bases his findings on information compiled from interviewees in nearby countries, which include escapees, many of whom are living in South Korea.

In his yearly oral report to the U.N. General Assembly’s third committee, which debates social, humanitarian and cultural issues, he touched upon the living conditions North Koreans continue to face.

They include restrictions on freedoms, food insecurity, particularly faced by people in rural areas, as well as the conditions under which political prisoners live. He also raised concerns about women who are repatriated from China.

(Mansu Hill in Pyongyang in October 2018)

Japanese and South Koreans have also been abducted in the past, with 12 from Japan who have been officially recognized and 516 from South Korea.

«On the abductions issue, I have not seen any progress, unfortunately for their families who are getting old, many of them who don’t know where their relatives are,» he said in response to a question raised about the Japanese nationals who were kidnapped mostly during the 1970s and 1980s. «The priority is to seek the truth about what happened to these people.»

In his written report, Ojea Quintana also addressed an issue raised by Pyongyang, which has alleged that 12 North Korean restaurant workers were taken from China to South Korea in April 2016.

He had met with two of them, Kim Ryong Hui and Kwon Chol Nam, both currently in South Korea, and has called on the South Korean authorities to review their cases with «a view to granting them the possibility of travel» back to their home country.

There was no North Korean representative present to respond to Ojea Quintana’s findings. However, diplomats from countries such as China, Russia and Syria expressed objections to his report, claiming it was used to «politicize» the situation.

«We believe that the (General Assembly’s) discussion of (North Korea’s) human rights issues should solidify the current momentum of easing and of dialogue, not the opposite,» the Chinese representative said.

All — Kyodo News+

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