26 October 2007


26 October 2007
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


This year was a “propitious” year to address past issues, Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today.

His focus was two-fold: to recognize constructive developments and respond to his office’s 2004 mandate, which covered a series of human rights concerns.

Among the constructive developments, he noted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had been party to four human rights treaties, and engaged with human rights committees under those treaties, including the women’s anti-discrimination committee and the child rights committee.  Second, in his consultations with United Nations agencies in the country, many had told him they had been collaborating “quite well” with authorities, particularly since August, when serious floods had hit the country.

In the broader context of the six-party talks, he said developments could have human rights implications.  The recent agreement, which aimed to resolve nuclear issues, included a quid pro quo of humanitarian aid if Pyongyang followed through on its obligations.  Bilateral talks with the United States and Japan on issues stemming from the 1950-1953 war could also progress, particularly on unsolved cases of Japanese who had been abducted by agents of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Drawing from the report he presented to the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) earlier in the day, he turned to food security issues. Although harvests had improved in 2005 and 2006, floods had wiped out those gains, particularly in the southern “rice basin”.  One million people had been impacted and nearly 20 per cent of arable land had been destroyed.  Given that situation, key food security questions centred on dealing with crop loss, managing land and ensuring people’s participation in their agricultural livelihoods.

On freedom issues, he said repression, prison conditions, non-freedom of religion and disrespect of labour rights had impacted both nationals and non-nationals.  Addressing the issues of abductions and persons missing since the 1970s and 1980s had affected Japanese and South Koreans.

Issues of refugees and asylum were particularly sensitive, he said, in that they also impacted other countries.  He explained that it was important to analyse the situation from the perspective of abiding by international law.  Among the key concerns was the fact that Pyongyang punished citizens who returned from elsewhere without having obtained the required exit visa to leave in the first place.

There was also interest around the extent to which those leaving the country could be considered refugees and, therefore, afforded rights recognized under international law, he said.  Many were indeed refugees, including political dissidents who had left their country of origin for a fear of persecution.  Those leaving for economic reasons -– including hunger -– generally were not classified as refugees.  However, because the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea required exit visas to leave, and threatened punishment upon return, even hunger cases could be seen as refugees if they feared persecution.  International law classified such cases as “refugees sur place”.

Concerning other vulnerable groups, he highlighted the plight of women smuggled into neighbouring countries.  In his interviews with refugees, he had learned that smugglers targeted women, in part because they were less likely to be punished for illegal entry, and they often fell prey to practices such as forced marriage, trafficking, prostitution and forced labour.  On top of that, they were often more trusted to pay for smuggling, which could cost around $3,000.  He also noted the socio-political stratification in countries of origin, whereby those not in the elite class were seen as hostile to it, were discriminated against and ultimately pressed to leave.

New in this year’s report was recognition of the fact that civil society had raised the issue of State responsibility for human rights violations.  Non-governmental organizations had documented cases and advocated both State and individual responsibility for egregious violations.  There had been talk about whether crimes against humanity had been committed against the population of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and a possible link-up with international criminal tribunals.  “That is work in progress,” he said.

Important steps for the Government in the future included abiding by the obligations of the various human rights treaties to which it was party; not pushing people back to their country of origin; improving the prison system; accepting food aid on the basis of “no access no food”; and allowing him entry into the country.  He also urged the international community to use the entire United Nations system to integrate those human rights concerns into various agencies.

Among other notable aspects of today’s plenary, he said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had asked him a question on the extent to which countries should be singled out in United Nations resolutions, and appeared less critical of his work.  He added that he had become the Rapporteur after the mandate of his office had been defined.  Also, beyond the six-party talks, there were various entry points for engagement on human rights, including at the multilateral level.  United Nations agencies had noted that the Government was more open to working with them.  There were also various bilateral tracks with Japan and other countries.

Taking a question on how he conducted his research, he said that, since the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not accept his office’s mandate and had not allowed him entry to the country, he interviewed United Nations agencies that had a field presence in the country.  Also, he travelled to neighbouring countries, including Mongolia, Japan and the Republic of Korea, to interview refugees.  Finally, he interviewed non-governmental organizations. “It is very important to have a plurality of sources”, to have checks and balances, he stressed.  As to whether he had been to China, he said some countries had voted against his office’s mandate, and it would, therefore, not be logical to visit those countries.

On whether Pyongyang’s policy of punishment through “guilt by association” was still practiced, he said interviews with refugees indicated that guilt by association was indeed still practiced.  Many refugees were hesitant to be interviewed out of fear that family members would be punished if their identities were revealed.  “Sadly, that is the nature of the State,” he said.

Asked about controversy around the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) spending in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he said that, while he could not speak for UNDP, several United Nations agencies were currently undergoing audits.  It should be recognized that, since the August floods, there had been good collaboration between the Government and concerned agencies.  He highlighted that, for the first time in 10 years, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) would work with the Government to conduct a census in the next year, which would be very important in terms of planning.  He was under the impression that UNFPA had access to localities.  Another United Nations agency also had such access to provide medical aid and equipment.  Humanitarian aid was unconditional, but premised on the need for transparency and monitoring.  Food and crop assessment would also take place and involve the food-related agencies.  The United Nations human rights bodies, however, did not have access.

As to why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had toned down remarks to his report, he said that perhaps the country had recognized his constructive and impartial approach to his work.  This year had been a constructive year in terms of how the country was being viewed by the international community, particularly through the six-party talks and the inter-Korean summit.

On whether his office had examined the United States role in keeping the country closed to the international community, he responded that he followed his office’s mandate to analyse the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

On whether labour rights were in his mandate, he said that labour rights –- and all rights -- in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were in the mandate.  He looked at the country holistically.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.