Eleven years after the collapse of the previous dialogue, North Korea has agreed to re-open bilateral talks with the EU to discuss its human rights situation.
The decision was triggered by last month’s high-level visit to the EU by Kang Sok Ju, International Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party and former chief negotiator at the Six-Party Talks. Kang visited the EU’s External Action Service in Brussels, Belgium, along with Switzerland, Germany and Italy, then stopping off in Mongolia on the way back to Pyongyang.
Kang offered the human rights talks while in Brussels during a meeting with Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s special representative for human rights. The EU has yet to respond, as the decision to accept has to be taken by the Council of Ministers which met last Monday but is not due to meet again for another month.
“The Council of Ministers is very likely to accept, since the EU has been pushing for this dialogue for a considerable time,” a Brussels insider on China told NK News, “No one is expecting sudden and rapid progress but this shows significant movement.
“We’re hoping this will follow the same path as the EU’s dialogue with China that’s been going on since 1995. Although China’s not exactly a haven for human rights, and there undoubtedly have been other factors at work, the situation there has markedly improved”.
Details have yet to be worked out, but it is likely that an EU delegation would be led by Lambrinidis, that it would involve the European External Action Service, and that the first round of formal talks would be held in Pyongyang.
Previous human rights negotiations from 2001-03 broke down after the EU’s sponsorship of a resolution in Geneva condemning North Korea’s human rights record, and vocal objections from American groups such as the Heritage Foundation.
The offer of talks comes after the publication this year of two key human rights reports by the United Nations. The first was the February 2014 Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK report, which strongly condemned North Korea’s human rights record. North Korea responded by publishing its own report into American human rights abuses, arguing that “the U.S. is a living hell.” North Korea has consistently maintained that Americans suffer human rights abuses from their government and, in August this year, KCNA condemned the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri as a “gross violation of human rights.” Last month, North Korea also released a 53,558-word report arguing that its people enjoy more human rights than in any other society.
The second UN report was its May 2014 Universal Periodic Review, conducted every four and a half years, which looks into the human rights situation in every UN member state. While the DPRK rejected most of the 256 recommendations in this report as well, it accepted some 113, including admitting that its people sometimes face police brutality and wrongful imprisonments.
The talks are not expected to be a quick fix, but rather to be a process that lasts a number of years, and one that would begin with the EU gathering information.
There is no fixed date as yet for the talks to begin and it is also still to be decided who the chief negotiator would be from the North Korean side.
North Korea’s motivation for offering the talks is also not yet clear. The EU has given no signs of lifting its sanctions on the North and that the EU is still expected to co-sponsor its annual resolution at the UN condemning the North Korean human rights record. It is likely that in return for the talks, North Korea expects some gesture from the EU in terms of improved relations and greater political dialogue.
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