‘Critical test’ for North Korea as civilian suffering remains rife, warns UN rights expert

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Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, speaks during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Quintana says negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization must also include its abysmal human rights situation. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The human rights situation in North Korea remains “extremely serious”, and along with international demands for denuclearisation, this constitutes a “a critical test” for the year ahead, a senior UN-appointed expert said.

Tomas Quintana was speaking Friday in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea during a press conference in the South Korean capital, Seoul, as he continued to be denied access to its northern neighbour.

“Of those who left the North recently that I interviewed during this mission, every person gave accounts of ordinary people being subjected to exploitative labour and serious human rights violations such as forced evictions in the name of development,” he said.

“Stories were told to me of people, including children, being subjected to long hours of labour where they were forced to work without remuneration…. One person concluded: “the whole country is a prison.”

Quintana urged the North Korean authorities to engage with his mandate and allow him to visit the country “to hear the voice of the people and the authorities”.

He detailed personal testimonies gathered during his five-day mission about “political prison camps” which contain “thousands of people” accused of committing crimes against the State.

Their detention happens without “due process guarantees or fair trial, in a manner that amounts to enforced disappearances with the family not knowing their whereabouts,” the Special Rapporteur said, before highlighting that people’s “fear” of being imprisoned was “very real and deeply embedded in the consciousness of the ordinary North Korean people.”

Surveillance and close monitoring of ordinary citizens is also a fact of life in North Korea, Quintana added, as well as other restrictions on basic freedoms, not least the prohibition on leaving the country.

His comments follow a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore last June, which focused on denuclearisation talks.

Noting that Kim had stated that “improving people’s standard of living radically” was a priority in his New Year message, Quintana said that this might represent “recognition” of economic and social hardships for ordinary people.

It “represents an important first step towards taking action to address the challenges,” the UN expert said, before calling on the international community to continue to support the “vital” humanitarian assistance that was being provided by various actors to the people of North Korea.

“In particular, it is important that humanitarian cooperation is extended without politicisation and in full respect of the principles of neutrality and independence,” he said, reiterating a call to the UN Security Council to ensure its sanctions do not have a detrimental impact on the people of North Korea.

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