Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, on January 11th the UN deplored the country’s human rights situation. UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Tomas Quintana, visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation, the results of which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March. Quintana was refused entry to visit North Korea.
However, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, although those efforts have not translated into improvements in the lives of most people, Quintana said in his preliminary report.
"The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged and continues to be extremely serious," he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul. "In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country's population is being left behind," he added.
The isolated country denies the human rights abuses, saying the issue is being used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it.
Human rights were noticeably off the table during talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, where they discussed North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship, which prompted North Korea's foreign ministry to issue a statement warning that the measures could lead to a return to “exchanges of fire” and North Korea's disarmament programme could be blocked forever.
Quintana said the international sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and "raised questions" about the possible impact on the public, noting that he had "no specific information" on whether sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans.
He cited a reference by Kim in his New Year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgement of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans.
However, Quintana has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing "thousands" of inmates, quoting one source as saying "the whole country is a prison." He also cited witnesses, who recently left North Korea, saying they were facing widespread discrimination, labour exploitation and corruption in daily life.
“There is also a continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities,” Quintana said.