United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation
of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea (DPRK) concludes visit
to the Republic of Korea
25 January 2008
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Vitit Muntarbhorn issued the following statement at the end of his visit to the Republic of Korea.
Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK, paid an official visit to the ROK from 19 to 24 January 2008. The purpose of his visit was to assess the impact of the DPRK’s human rights situation on the ROK. He was accompanied by an official of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This was his third visit to the ROK.
The Special Rapporteur had open access to all entities that he sought to meet and he thanks warmly the ROK Government and the public for the cooperation and hospitality. He met a number of Government officials, parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations, and other persons, and was informed of a broad variety of views. Importantly, he interviewed a number of DPRK nationals who had sought refuge in the ROK and learned first hand about their life stories. They ranged from new arrivals, housed in the Hanawon reception centre, to others who had settled for a period of time in the ROK.
His visit was at a time when a transition was taking place with the election of a new President in the country. Various policy changes, including those concerning the relations between the ROK and the DPRK, were pending, and the Special Rapporteur was cognisant of a number of key developments and possible trends. Importantly, the Six-Party Talks (between the DPRK, ROK, USA, China, Russia and Japan) concerning the denuclearization of the nuclear build-up in the DPRK were still taking place. While there was progress in disabling the core nuclear facilities of Yongbeong in the DPRK under various agreements and targets reached between the parties, other elements awaited progress. This would have impact on the overall atmosphere and sense of security on the Korean peninsula with possible traction for the humanitarian space under the Six-Party umbrella.
The two countries also recently held a Summit whereby they adopted the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity in October 2007, under which they pledged to cooperate on a variety of issues, including the transformation of inter-Korean relations into ties of mutual trust and respect, mitigation of tensions and the guarantee of peace on the Korean peninsula, and the development of inter-Korean economic and humanitarian cooperation projects. They also agreed to promote the interests of the Korean people and “the rights and interests of overseas Koreans on the international stage”. Various innovative activities between the two sides were being initiated, including the establishment of railway links. A key cooperation project, i.e. the economic zone in Gaeseong, began several years ago.
The ROK has dealt with a variety of human rights issues in its dialogue with the DPRK, at times at the bilateral level, at times in the multilateral and other levels. First, there is the issue of the consequences of the Korean war 1950-53. The two countries have come together periodically to facilitate the reunion of families separated by the war, and with the help of the Red Cross Societies of the two sides, there have been a number of meetings between families, as well as through videoconferencing. There remains the issue of ROK nationals taken as Prisoners of War (POW) and missing persons taken by the DPRK during and after the war.
Second, the ROK has provided various forms of emergency and humanitarian aid to the DPRK, including food, medicines and fertilizers. Third, the ROK has accepted over 10,000 nationals from the DPRK for settlement in their search for refuge from the country of origin. During all his visits, the Special Rapporteur went to talk to new arrivals at the Hanawon centre, and the improved facilities of the centre are much welcome.
The authorities have increased their support for these persons, such as through longer term protection periods, the provision of pensions, and employment and other opportunities. More recently the aim has been to promote more independence and self-reliance on the part of those who settle in the country. The law concerning divorce of DPRK nationals after arrival in the ROK was passed in 2007, allowing them to file for divorce from the spouse in the DPRK if the location of the latter cannot be identified. The Special Rapporteur was encouraged by educational and training programmes for the young generation from the DPRK, complemented by caring neighbours who help them adapt to society.
Other cases, such as torture victims from the DPRK and the older generation, may need longer support systems, given that they may find it difficult to adapt to the new society. Individualised care and support, coupled with psychological and other back-up, with family and community networks, are important. The Special Rapporteur was informed that some of these persons later leave for other countries in search of other futures. A key activity is to promote a positive image of those who seek refuge from the DPRK, such as success stories, to ensure understanding of their plight and to foster interactive cooperation between the newly arrived and the rest of the population, such as through volunteer projects to help the new arrivals.
Another issue inviting a more proactive response is that of children of mixed marriages and family reunion (e.g. a DPRK national who has a child with another national en route to the ROK and the child is left behind in the second country). This heartbreaking situation invites bilateral and other links to enable them to exit from other countries and reunite in the ROK. There are parallel family reunion challenges in regard to the family members left behind in the DPRK, with the additional fear that they might be intimidated by the DPRK authorities, if the identity of the people who have sought refuge in the ROK are known to the DPRK. Guarantees of the safety of family members and their reunification are thus essential.
Fourth, the ROK has supported the work of the Special Rapporteur, particularly in regard to his visits to the country, and the Special Rapporteur is greatly appreciative of this. There are various key links between the ROK authorities, civil society and other entities with the UN on human rights issues. The work of the National Human Rights Commission of the ROK is well-known on this front and in times of change, it is essential to ensure the independence and pluralism of this national institution in conformity with international principles and standards. There may also be room in future for the establishment of the OHCHR in North-East Asia, and the support of the ROK on the issue will be essential.
In view of the above and the changing political scenario in the ROK, the Special Rapporteur underlines the following considerations:
1. The Special Rapporteur welcomes the ROK’s membership of various human rights-related treaties, including the Refugee Convention, and the ROK’s signature of various treaties on human smuggling and trafficking, and invites other countries to ratify these treaties, complemented by effective implementation at the national and other levels.
2. The Special Rapporteur highlights the various human rights issues mentioned above in inter-Korean relations, including the impact of and the aftermath of the Korean war, such as the issue of POWs, missing persons and separated families; humanitarian aid to the DPRK with effective monitoring to ensure that it reaches the target groups; the grant of assistance and protection of those who seek refuge from the DPRK; and cooperation with the UN and other entities on human rights.
3. The Special Rapporteur invites a more comprehensive support system for those who seek refuge in the ROK, including longer term facilities to help them adapt to their new lives, and social, educational, employment and psychological back-up, with family and community based networks; more family reunion possibilities; more protection to be afforded to those who do not receive the protection of other countries; and a more active information campaign using success stories of those who have settled in the ROK to ensure a positive image and nurture a sense of empathy for those who exit from the DPRK in search of refuge elsewhere.
4. The Special Rapporteur is encouraged by various cooperation activities between the ROK and the UN, and looks forward to the further strengthening of such ties.
5. The Special Rapporteur recognizes the catalytic leverage that the ROK may have on human rights in the DPRK and welcomes constructive actions at the bilateral and other levels to increase the humanitarian space and traction in the DPRK for the promotion and protection of human rights.