U.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has issued another report on human rights in North Korea (or more accurately, the lack thereof). The bad news is that the situation hasn’t improved, and North Korea and China are still stonewalling:
Regrettably, the situation remains the same, despite the grave concerns reiterated by the international community in different forums. The Special Rapporteur also reflects on issues around accountability for those human rights violations, which should be addressed at an early stage, and on current efforts by the international community to address the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in general.
3. The Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight from the outset that in March and again in June 2015 he requested meetings with delegates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to follow up on the discussions that he had with them in October 2014 in New York. He regrets that his requests were declined. He firmly believes in the value of dialogue and hopes that the authorities will answer his future request positively.
The good news is that the report itself is strong — exceptionally so. In clear and strong language, it recounts the reports of North Korea’s recent waves of purges and executions, its failure to make progress on the return of abductees, its refusal let divided families reunite, and evidence that North Korea and China systematically abuse North Korean women, including by forcing them into sexual slavery.
41. The Special Rapporteur notes with great concern from the data provided by the Ministry of Unification on arrivals of defectors in the Republic of Korea that more than 70 per cent of the defectors are women. A striking estimate of 70-90 per cent of those women reportedly become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to, inter alia, forced marriage and sexual exploitation in China and in other Asian countries.14 They are particularly vulnerable to actions by smuggling gangs, whose influence has significantly increased recently owing to the clampdown by Chinese authorities on charities and evangelical groups from the Republic of Korea that used to facilitate their escape through China.
42. Female overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent to China have also fallen victim to sexual exploitation. It was reported that, in June 2014, the Government of China deported a group of female workers in a food factory because they were forced into prostitution at night, upon instructions from an executive of the factory and with the complicity of the security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of their surveillance. The latter was also forcibly repatriated.
The report also denounced China’s inhumane repatriation of refugees, including children, to an uncertain fate in North Korea.
36. In that regard, the Special Rapporteur is strongly concerned by reports indicating that a group of 29 citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including a 1-year-old child, were detained by the Chinese authorities in Shandong and Yunnan provinces between 15 and 17 July 2014 and subsequently forcibly returned to their country of origin.12 Their whereabouts were unknown at the time of writing. In addition, in October 2014, the Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 individuals (10 adults and 1 child aged 7) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were seeking to enter Myanmar in the southern region of Yunnan province.13 Their whereabouts are also unknown.
37. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Committee against Torture included that case in its list of issues in relation to the fifth periodic report of China. It sought information about their fate upon return and enquired, inter alia, whether there were “post-return monitoring arrangements in place to ensure that those returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are protected from the danger of being subjected to torture” (CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 9). He hopes that the Government of China will clarify the matter during the fifty-sixth session of the Committee, in November 2015.
38. The Special Rapporteur regrets that his requests to meet representatives of the Permanent Missions of China in Geneva and New York in March and May 2015, respectively, were unsuccessful. He remains available to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government of China to find a sustainable solution to that pressing issue.
Some of the report’s best language, however, dealt with North Korea’s exports of forced labor for hard currency. Its choice of words in this context — “forced labor,” “slave labor,” “contemporary forms of slavery” — deserves to draw greater global attention and action. And it names names:
26. According to various studies, it is estimated that more than 50,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operate abroad. 8 The vast majority are currently employed in China and the Russian Federation. Other countries where workers operate reportedly include Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
27. The overseas workers are employed mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. Their conditions of work have been documented by civil society organizations that conducted interviews with former overseas workers.
They found that:
(a) The workers do not know the details of their employment contract;
(b) Tasks are assigned according to the worker’s State-assigned social class (songbun): the lower classes are reportedly assigned the most dangerous and tedious tasks. Workers with relatives in the country are preferred, to ensure that they will fully comply while abroad;
(c) Workers earn on average between $120 and $150 per month, while employers in fact pay significantly higher amounts to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (employers deposit the salaries of the workers in accounts controlled by companies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);
(d) Workers are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. In some instances, if they do not fulfil the monthly quota imposed, they reportedly do not get paid;
(e) Health and safety measures are often inadequate. Safety accidents are reportedly not reported to local authorities but handled by security agents;
(f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;
(g) Freedom of movement of overseas workers is unduly restricted. Workers are under constant surveillance by security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of ensuring that they comply with the Government’s rules and regulations. Those agents confiscate the workers’ passports. The workers are also forbidden to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during their assignment;
(h) Workers are threatened with repatriation if they do not perform well enough or commit infractions. Defectors apprehended are sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
28. It is alleged that the host authorities never monitor the working conditions of overseas workers.
29. It is worth noting that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is paying increased attention to the scrutiny by foreign media and organizations on its overseas workers. In April 2015, it issued instructions to overseas workers and supervisors to prevent anyone from reporting human rights abuses in the workplace. Workers and supervisors have reportedly been ordered to destroy any recording equipment, confiscate the memory cards and even assault the person documenting the abuses. Failure to do so would result in the worker or supervisor being punished, although it is not clear what type of punishment would be applied.
30. The Special Rapporteur notes (with satisfaction) the decision in May 2015 of a construction company in Qatar to dismiss 90 employees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (nearly half of the workforce employed) for alleged repeated violations of domestic labour legislation. According to the company, “supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly”.
10 One of the workers reportedly died as a result of such treatment. The company agreed to keep the remaining workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the condition that they no longer breach any rules.
31. The Special Rapporteur takes all such reports very seriously. He intends to pay close and sustained attention to the issue in future, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul. To that end, he calls upon the Member States concerned to grant him, his successor and OHCHR staff access to verify all of the allegations.
32. The Special Rapporteur reminds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of its obligation under article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not to engage in forced labour. He stresses that companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour. They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.
In other places, the Special Rapporteur’s report shows why his office needs investigative support to keep up with the evidence. Paragraph 16, for example, cites unverified reports that Camp 15 was being dismantled, but we’ve since seen reliable reporting, backed by satellite imagery, that refutes this claim. The report also cites reports that nine North Korean children repatriated by the Laotian government might have been executed or sent to Camp 14, but fails to note that Pyongyang, no doubt mindful of the attention they’ve attracted, later showed (at least some of) the children on television. These are distracting errors, but now that the Seoul field office has started its work, we can expect to see the quality, length, and frequency of the Special Rapporteur’s reports improve.
It’s equally apparent that the Seoul field office, which is working under threats of violence by Pyongyang, needs the Special Rapporteur to offer it some protection from those threats. After all, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is both willing and able to carry out assassinations inside South Korea. Marzuki denounced those threats at length:
65. In relation to the third point, the Special Rapporteur notes with deep concern the series of threats issued by the authorities and media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Seoul office. On 23 June 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a statement accusing the “hostile forces” in the international community led by the United States of America of using the field presence to plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and “incite confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights”. On 30 March 2015, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement threatening an attack against the then forthcoming office and accusing the Republic of Korea and the United States of orchestrating a human rights plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The statement specifically said: “we will never sit back and watch as South Korea hosts the United Nations office on human rights of DPRK in Seoul. As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May 2015, the newspaper Minju Joson stated that “[the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never pardon but mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body”. 18
66. This is not the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has issued a threat. On 9 June 2014, a spokesperson for the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement protesting against the OHCHR field office in the Republic of Korea, threatening punishment and attacks at those involved in the plan, as well as staff in the office, referring to the plan as a scheme led by the United States and the Republic of Korea.
67. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cease issuing such threats. He believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Government of a United Nations Member State to issue a statement that blatantly threatens punishment and attacks on a United Nations office and its staff members. He stresses that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has a responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations to protect the United Nations, its staff and its assets.
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.
Clearly, then, this Special Rapporteur will not let the world forget what the Commission of Inquiry told us about crimes against humanity in North Korea. He repeated his call to hold the responsible North Korean officials accountable:
49. The Special Rapporteur remains convinced that the accountability track must be pursued urgently, in parallel with sustained efforts to seek engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is an irreversible process that the authorities will have to face sooner or later.
50. In his view, issues around accountability should be addressed at an early stage and with long-term strategies in mind. A process of reflection and discussion on possible accountability mechanisms and processes should start as soon as possible. This should not be done, as in previous instances with other countries, at the last minute of a change process.
Both Pyongyang and Beijing have ignored the Special Rapporteur’s attempts to engage them, and to cooperate with an investigation of the allegations. Beijing still intends to block any attempt by the Security Council to hold Kim Jong-Un accountable. Yet the Special Rapporteur did not yield on the urgency and importance of accountability. In addition to repeating the Commission of Inquiry’s call for a referral to the International Criminal Court, it called for establishing an ad hoc tribunal, and a human rights contact group of member states. Which sounds a lot like what S. 2144, a bill introduced by three Republican U.S. Senators, also called for (see, e.g., sections 302 and 305). The report also called for financial accountability through targeted, bilateral sanctions.
55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.
I don’t know what states other than the U.S. the Special Rapporteur might have had in mind. The logic is clear: if the Security Council won’t act, then it’s up to member states to use their national laws, and to mobilize world opinion, to force Pyongyang to change. And thankfully, that’s exactly where things seem to be headed. Indeed, one sees an almost unprecedented convergence here between a U.N. report and a Republican-led Congress. Meanwhile, President Obama sits passively, like the king of an ancient Asian vassal state, deferring to the emperor in the Forbidden City.
The U.N. has not shown itself to be an effective agent for action, but at least reports like these, and the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions compliance, show that the U.N. can still be an effective fact-finder. Eventually — though too late for far too many North Koreans — better facts will make better policies.