North Korea defends itself before UN Human Rights Council

North Korea defended its human rights record in a debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Rights Council examined the record of the DPRK as part of its scrutiny of each U.N. member state every four years.

Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, voiced concern at the commission of inquiry’s findings of “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” committed by officials and institutions. “We are alarmed by the widespread use of forced labor, including child labor in detention facilities, and we remain concerned about instances of violence against women, forced abduction of foreign nationals, and reports of torture and abuse in detention facilities,” King told the Geneva forum.

King called for Pyongyang to shut political prison camps and to release all inmates. Ri Kyung Hun of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly said: “I’d like to reiterate that there is no political prison camp in our vocabulary nor prison camp in law or in practice.”

The North Korea’s delegation also said that Christian groups were trying to recruit North Korean migrants along China’s border. “There are in the northeastern area of China so-called churches and priests exclusively engaged in hostile acts against the DPRK. They indoctrinate the illegal border crossers with anti-DPRK ideology and send them back to the DPRK with assignments of subversion, destruction, human trafficking and even terrorist acts,” it said.

King also called for North Korea to end what he called “state-sponsored discrimination” based on the “songbun” system, which rates citizens based on their family’s political background as “loyal”, “wavering” or “hostile”.

So Se Pyong, North Korea’s ambassador, said his country was taking positive steps, including improving legal guarantees, education, and the rights of women, elderly and the disabled.

China’s envoy, Chen Chuangdong, praised “progress” by North Korea in the human rights field, but urged its ally to construct more health facilities and housing in rural areas.

[Read full VoA article

Challenging North Korean human rights policy

There is no more vexing issue than the challenge of how to support the improvement of human rights in North Korea, a country that has consistently ranked at the bottom of international indices rating human freedom around the world.

The U.S. Congress passed the North Korea Human Rights Act almost a decade ago, the United Nations has appointed a rapporteur to examine the human rights situation inside North Korea for almost as long, and the Korean Institute for National Unification has published an ever-growing annual white paper on North Korean human rights since 1996.

This year the UN Human Rights Council appointed a Commission of Inquiry that has held public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, DC; the commission will report back to the UN Human Rights Council with its assessment and recommendations by spring of next year.

But the stream of North Korean refugee testimony to unspeakable atrocities and evidence of systemic abuses inside North Korea continues to grow.

[Council on Foreign Relations]

North Korea requires external aid to feed its people

North Korea remains one of the 34 countries in the world that require external assistance to properly feed their people. The October issue of “Crop Prospects and Food Situation” by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that there will be some 2.8 million “vulnerable” people in the communist country needing assistance until this year’s fall harvest.

The Washington-based media outlet Voice of America said that judging by official estimates tallied by the United Nations organization, Pyongyang’s spring cereal harvest for 2013, mainly winter, wheat and barley, fell shy of the initial forecast, and that this is the main reason for the current shortage. The U.N. agency also said people in the country are experiencing “widespread lack of access” to food caused in part by past floods.

North Korea is the only country in East Asia to be placed on the list requiring external aid. Others on the list of the 34 countries are in Africa and Central Asia.

The country had reported improved harvests in the fall of 2012. The FAO, meanwhile, estimated that North Korea has been able to secure 328,000 tons of various grain from November of 2012 to early last month. This is equal to 65 percent of the 507,000 tons of grain Pyongyang needs to properly feed its population.

[Yonhap News]

On relations between China and North Korea

China took a step against longtime ally North Korea by voting in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December. Here are some questions and answers concerning China’s relationship with North Korea, as summarized in an AP article:

WHY DOES CHINA SUPPORT NORTH KOREA? – Beijing fears a collapse of the North Korean regime could send a massive flow of desperate, starving refugees into northeastern China and lead to a pro-U.S. government setting up across its border. Chinese firms could lose their leading position in North Korea, while South Korean investment in China would be diverted to help rebuild the devastated North’s economy.

WHAT ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S MISSILES AND NUCLEAR PROGRAM? – China wants a stable, peaceful Northeast Asia and doesn’t want the North to provoke retaliation from the South, Japan or the United States. China calls for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, though Beijing’s leaders are seen as resigned to the North possessing some sort of atomic weapon.

WHAT APPROACH DOES BEIJING RECOMMEND? – China typically calls for dialogue instead of sanctions, and has hosted successive rounds of talks also involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. Pyongyang agreed at the six-nation talks to end its nuclear programs, but discussions broke down over how to verify that.

SO WHY DID CHINA VOTE FOR THE NEW U.N. RESOLUTION? – China wants to register its displeasure with Pyongyang’s missile launch and doesn’t wish to be seen as obstructing the U.N.’s work. At the same time, it has pushed for a watered-down response, agreeing to strengthen existing sanctions while opposing substantially new ones. Beijing also wants to appear cooperative with the second Obama administration.

HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DOES BEIJING HAVE WITH PYONGYANG? – Hard to say. Chinese scholars and officials say not as much as the outside world thinks, and that sanctions have little effect on Pyongyang. That’s despite China being the North’s most important political ally, as well as its biggest source of food and fuel aid to prevent total economic collapse. China’s overriding fear of the North becoming a failed state severely limits Beijing’s options.

WHAT’S THE HISTORY BETWEEN THESE TWO? – Chinese troops fought on behalf of the North Korean regime in the 1950-53 Korean War and relations between the communist neighbors were long described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”

In brief, Beijing is concerned that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are destabilizing the region, but is willing to go only so far to punish its economically struggling neighbor.

Stinging UN call for international inquiry into North Korean human rights

The U.N.’s top human rights official said Monday that as many as 200,000 people are being held in North Korean political prison camps rife with torture, rape and slave labor, and that some of the abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.

For that reason, said Navi Pillay, the world body’s high commissioner for human rights, nations must mount an independent probe into North Korea’s human rights record.

She said the political prison camp system involves “rampant violations, including torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment, summary executions, rape, slave labor, and forms of collective punishment that may amount to crimes against humanity.” Living conditions are reported to include scarce food, little to no medical care and inadequate clothing.

The U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, which includes all 193 member nations, have condemned North Korea’s human rights record, but Pillay said stronger action is needed, including such a probe – one authorized by the United Nations but performed by experts independent of the U.N. system.

The stinging criticism and call from the world body’s top human rights official for “a full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes” in North Korea comes a year after Kim Jong Un became the new leader of the nuclear-armed Asian country upon the death of his father.

“There were some initial hopes that the advent of a new leader might bring about some positive change in the human rights situation,” Pillay said. “But a year after Kim Jong Un became the country’s new supreme leader we see almost no sign of improvement.”

Pillay’s statement was based on extensive research submitted by a special investigator for the 47-nation Human Rights Council based in Geneva and meetings that she held there in December with two survivors of the prison camps, said Pillay’s spokesman, Rupert Colville.

[AP]