North Korean authorities may be increasingly open to dialogue and engagement with the United Nations on human rights, the UN’s Special Rapporteur said on the issue in a recent interview in Seoul.
Speaking to NK News as he wrapped up a five-day visit to the South Korean capital on Friday, Tomás Ojea Quintana reported that he believed an ongoing diplomatic detente with the DPRK may be making Pyongyang more open to cooperation with the UN on human rights.
“In regards to North Korea, it seems they are exploring different possibilities to engage on human rights, especially in Geneva,” he said, adding that the DPRK’s requirements under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of member states’ human rights records may offer a good “starting point.”
This could involve “technical cooperation, or capacity building of their officials on specific human rights issues.”
Space for engagement with the North Koreans on the human rights issue could also lie in discussion of what he described as “less controversial” rights.
“You can start with social rights, labor rights,” he said, pointing to the potential reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) – agreed to by the two Koreas in September last year – as offering room for that discussion.
“The human rights people will need to put the point and say ‘what about labor standards, what about wages’… that’s a starting point,” he said.
“Of course it’s not going to be a discussion on political prison camps, that’s out of reality… to start discussing that on the negotiations table.”
The Special Rapporteur also pointed to some phrases from Kim Jong Un’s recent New Year’s speech as suggesting the country’s leadership is increasingly open to discussing the issue.
“It’s the head of state saying this… there are a couple of things that have to do with human rights,” he said, pointing to the DPRK leader’s calls for the ruling party to “lend an ear to the sincere opinions” of the people as a sign that attitudes may be changing.
Ojea Quintana’s visit to South Korea was his fifth since becoming special rapporteur, and followed a trip to Seoul in July last year – a trip which saw him report that local NGOs were concerned that “human rights is being put aside” amid improving inter-Korean and DPRK-U.S. relations.
Many, he said at the time, were concerned that “the space for their cause seems to be narrowing.”
Speaking last week, however, the Special Rapporteur struck a slightly more optimistic tone on that issue, saying he had not been contacted by NGOs to report issues with work.
He also stressed that he did not believe 2018 had represented a “missed opportunity” for North Korean human rights, and that the opportunity to press Pyongyang on the issue remains open.
Nonetheless, the Special Rapporteur stressed that the situation on the ground remains “extremely serious,” and that interviews last week with recently-defected North Koreans had offered little sign that change is taking place.
“The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged,” he said in a statement to press ahead of his interview with NK News.
How, then, to engage with a country which typically dismisses any discussion of the issue as part of a “hostile policy” against it, and which has refused to allow Ojea Quintana to visit the country?
“You always have to have a starting point,” Ojea Quintana said. “There’s always a starting point… even in the worst situation.”
“North Korea has different options in addition to my mandate, to show at least willingness or progress on human rights,” he said, pointing to Pyongyang’s decision in 2017 to allow a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities Catalina Devandas-Aguilar.
“There may be some other thematic rapporteurs who may be able to engage with North Korea and even visit North Korea,” he suggested, while urging Pyongyang to “engage with me as a matter of priority.”
Increasing inter-Korean engagement may also be providing an opening for a visit by the Special Rapporteur, he said, adding he was in contact with a number of South Korean organizations who are in regular discussions with North Korean counterparts.
Among these are the South Korean Red Cross, which held frequent meetings with DPRK counterparts ahead of reunions of families separated by the Korean War last year.
“They are very supportive of my mandate and they are good interlocutors to convey my message,” Ojea Quintana said.
On other inter-Korean humanitarian issues, however, little progress still appears to have been made.
The current situation of 12 North Korean restaurant workers, reported to have defected voluntarily in 2016, for example, remains unclear.
The Special Rapporteur previously met with some of the women involved during visits to Seoul, stating afterwards he believed there were “inconsistencies” in the South Korean government’s official account of the case.
A trip to the South Korean capital in July last year saw Ojea Quintana say he believed that some of the women did not come to South Korea of their own accord.
Those comments followed local media reports in which the women’s restaurant manager Ho Kang Il claimed he had deceived his colleagues into defecting – reports the South Korean government said at the time it would seek to “verify.”
Speaking to NK News this month, however, the Special Rapporteur said neither the women nor Lawyers for a Democratic Society (Minbyun) – the organization representing them – had been in touch.
“They didn’t contact me,” he said. “But when I met two of them here together with the manager [last year], they were very clear that they really wanted a private life, that they wanted to move forwards, and they wanted passports.”
Asked to comment on the fate of the six South Korean citizens believed to be imprisoned in the North, the Special Rapporteur said that government officials had not provided any update on when they will be released – or whether Seoul has sought to pressure Pyongyang on their continued detention.
“They haven’t shared any information on that,” he said. “I hope that their detention is not being subject to negotiations… what they do deserve is first fair trial, if they are being accused of committing a crime and, if not, they should be released.”
The South Korean government previously claimed President Moon Jae-in had raised the issue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in April last year, though did not comment on the reply given by Kim.
So, with a fourth Moon-Kim summit on the horizon in the coming months – this time in Seoul – will the South Korean leader use the meeting to raise human rights?
“I don’t think that’s on the agenda,” Ojea Quintana said.
Featured image: KCNA
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