North Korea is one of a handful of autocracies that fall under a Special Rapporteur mandate with respect to its human rights record. The mandate was adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission in 2004, and has been extended annually since. Each year, the Special Rapporteur submits two reports, one to the Human Rights Council and one to the General Assembly.
The current report to the UNGA—issued last month and the first such report since the ascendance of Kim Jong Un—focuses on freedom of opinion and expression; the Criminal Procedure Code; the case of Oh Kil Nam and his family; the situation of asylum seekers and trafficking of persons and the economic situation in the country.
A few highlights—or low points—of the report:
- The Special Rapporteur reports frequently drill down into features of the legal system that grant extraordinary discretion to prosecutors and curtail due process. Among those noted in this report are a number of measures that are illegal, but not clearly defined:
- “For instance, the Criminal Code prescribes punishments, mainly in the form of hard labor, for a person who “plunders” the property of the State (see art. 90), occupies a property of the State by “deception” (see art. 92), “defrauds” the State or a social cooperative organization (see art. 92) or “hinders” the normal management of the economy [...] of State property (see art. 136). However, nowhere in the Criminal Code are terms such as plunder, deception, defraud or hinders defined.”
- Officials and managers are technically liable for outcomes that may be beyond their control. For instance, article 143 calls for punishment by labor for up to two years if an inspector fails to inspect or repair equipment that leads to damage or stoppage of production of any goods.
- Article 233 of the Criminal Code still permits up to five years of hard labour for anyone “illegally” crossing a border of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite the fact that the restraints on cross-border movement are in violation of the fundamental right to leave any country, including one’s own.
- The report provides a good overview of the strange case of Oh Kil Nam, a South Korean who was lured to North Korea with promises of a stable job and medical care for his wife Shin Sook Ja, but who were then pressed into service for the regime to turn other South Koreans (both as a broadcaster on “the Voice of National Salvation” aimed at the ROK and as a recruiter in Germany). When Oh defected, his family was held hostage and purportedly interned in Yodok. His wife was subsequently reported to have died and Mr. Oh was informed that his children wanted nothing to do with him. In an example of how the UN system can be fruitfully involved in spotlighting and airing the abuses of guilt by association, the the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has sought information on the fate of Ms. Shin and her children and protested their detention, which is contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- The report highlights the myriad ways in which the ongoing economic crisis in the country in and of itself constitutes a violation of a number of basic human rights conventions. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, rights which have been used by dictators to justify authoritarian rule.
- The Special Rapporteur continues to emphasize the rights of asylum seekers, and makes several points we have repeated ad nauseum:
- “The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that while some persons flee the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea due to persecution, others leave for economic reasons. Whatever their motivation, it is pertinent to provide all individuals with protection. The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, founded on the principle of non-refoulement for refugees, defines a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a social group. Persons leaving a country for reasons of economic hardship may be entitled to refugee status if they have been compelled to leave the country due to discriminatory economic and political policies by the Government.”
- Moreover, the report makes an argument which we think carries even greater force: that “individuals who flee the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea due to economic hardship may also be refugees sur place. Refugees sur place may not fit the definition of persons who are refugees when they leave their country, but become refugees subsequently because of a valid fear of persecution upon their return, due to their membership in one of the specified categories. People from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who leave their country for economic reasons can thus become refugees sur place if they have valid fears of persecution upon return.”
For realists, these efforts to remind North Korea and the international community of its legal obligations may seem quaint. We disagree, and heartily endorse them. Sovereignty claims are frequently the cloak of rogues; it is always worthwhile to have an international ombudsman paid to make that point.
One odd thing about the report are its citations--or lack thereof. Material from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is used abundantly but never acknowledged explicitly. Likewise my colleague Marcus Noland's estimates of North Korean inflation are reproduced, attributed to "sources"--plural. I never knew Noland had multiple personality disorder.