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(New York) - The European Union should take strong measures across a wide range of issues to push human rights progress in North Korea, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Helping Hands Korea and Life Funds for North Korean Refugees said today in a joint letter to EU foreign ministers.

The five organizations urged the EU and its member states to work to improve the situation of North Korean workers and refugees, and sponsor a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry in light of the failure of North Korea's leadership to address international concern about grave, systematic and widespread abuses that may constitute crimes against humanity.

"The European Union needs to step up its action in response to the North Korean regime's outrageous patterns of human rights violations," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. "North Korean victims and their families deserve recognition, justice and compensation. Establishing an independent international commission of inquiry would be a good first step and send a strong message that those responsible for serious violations will be held to account."

The human rights situation in North Korea is intolerable and unacceptable, the five organizations said. Public executions are routine, for even non-violent crimes such as theft of state property and other so-called "anti-socialist" offenses. The North Korean government runs large forced labor camps where those accused of political offenses are locked up with their entire families, including young children, often for life.

The country is without organized political opposition, independent labor unions, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees are routine, and lack of due process in the criminal justice system is endemic. Repression and harassment of anyone perceived as a potential critic of the existing order is so severe that there is not a single publicly known dissident or activist living in North Korea.

The letter noted that, "EU member states, including Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway, have collectively admitted hundreds of North Korean refugees" and recommended that the European Union "approach governments in Asia, particularly China, to ensure that all North Korean refugees who seek refuge at EU diplomatic facilities receive prompt assistance to be safely transferred to their desired destination, including EU member states."

The five organizations also raised the plight of North Korean guest workers overseas, and urged EU member states to "work with local trade unions and the International Trade Union Confederation to ensure that North Korean workers in Europe enjoy all basic rights and do not suffer from human rights abuse" and ensure that "North Korean workers receive net wages compliant with minimum wage laws of the host countries."

In light of a free trade agreement signed between the European Union and South Korea in October 2009, which opened the possibility that the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea could be covered by the agreement as an Outward Processing Zone, the letter said that the European Union should "press North Korea to join the International Labour Organization, accede to its core treaties, and invite ILO officials to investigate and discuss protection and promotion of workers' rights in North Korea."

"As policy-makers consider security concerns on the Korean peninsula, the European Union should shine a light on the desperate plight of the North Korean people," said Leicht. "The EU should embark on a comprehensive effort to improve human rights for North Koreans inside and outside the country."

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