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Letter to EU Foreign Ministers concerning European Union Policies on North Korean Human Rights, Workers and Refugees


European Union Foreign Ministers

Re: European Union Policies on North Korean Human Rights, Workers and Refugees


Dear Foreign Minister:

We write to urge you to take a stronger role in pro-actively addressing human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the situation of North Korean workers and refugees.

Our organizations have conducted research on human rights conditions inside North Korea for many years, including the right to food, workers' rights, treatment of repatriated North Koreans, prison conditions, abductees, and the plight of North Korean refugees. This knowledge and research serves as the basis for our recommendations to you.

Human rights conditions in North Korea remain dire. North Korea routinely executes people, often in public, for even non-violent crimes such as theft of state property and other so-called "anti-socialist" offenses. North Korea runs large forced labor camps where they lock up not only those accused of having committed political offense, but also 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, and lack of due process in the criminal justice system are serious and endemic violations. 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.

We welcome the fact that the European Union has co-sponsored a number of resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council criticizing human rights violations in North Korea. We also recognize that EU member states have engaged North Korea directly on human rights issues, but we believe it is time to do much more. The failure of North Korea to acknowledge, much less accept, a single recommendation during its recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the United Nations Human Rights Council demonstrates the regime's disdain for the international community's serious concerns. We believe that a more comprehensive, strategic, persistent and well coordinated approach at the highest political levels is needed to get human rights messages across to the leadership in Pyongyang.

The European Union, and its member states, should work with the United States and other international partners to ensure persistent and serious human rights violations in North Korea are addressed while advocating that China recognizes and protects North Korean refugees, and those refugees are swiftly resettled to safe third countries. The European Union and its member states should also ensure the protection and promotion of basic workers' rights for North Korean workers directly or indirectly employed by European corporations inside and outside Europe, including in Russia, the Middle East and Asia.

To pursue these objectives, we recommend that the European Union:

  • Sponsor a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry to assess past and present human rights violations in North Korea. The Commission of Inquiry should determine whether such violations may constitute crimes against humanity, and whether specific individuals bear responsibility and might be subject to investigation and eventual prosecution.
  • Appoint an EU Special Representative on North Korea to ensure persistent attention and coordination to help resolve North Korea's human rights violations, and with a mandate to work both within the European Union and with key international partners such as the United States, South Korea, Japan and China.

The Establishment of an international Commission of Inquiry

In a September 2009 report for the UN General Assembly, Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, criticized North Korea for its "abysmal" human rights record, citing food shortages, public executions, and torture, and called on North Korea to stop punishing people seeking asylum elsewhere and to institute democratic processes. This supplemented Muntarbhorn's April 2009 report to the Human Rights Council that "many violations have taken place over the years precisely because the authorities have had scant regard for any genuine implementation of human rights..."

In North Korea, the government permits no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees and lack of due process are regular practices. In his April 2010 report, Muntarbhorn broached the very real possibility of a Commission of Inquiry for North Korea by stating that "various sources have suggested a number of ways of making the powers that be accountable internationally," and "they include the possibility of the Security Council taking up the issue directly and of establishing a Commission of Inquiry on crimes against humanity."

North Korea refuses to cooperate in good faith with the UN human rights mechanisms, and continues to view the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea as unwarranted. North Korea has never permitted any of these special rapporteurs to visit the country, despite repeated requests. During the its Universal Periodic Review session at the UN Human Rights Council in December 2009, North Korea refused to accept any of the recommendations made for improvements in its human rights record. 

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in April 2010 that condemned North Korea's "systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights" and "grave, widespread and systematic human rights abuses."

Victims of serious human rights crimes in North Korea deserve recognition, justice and compensation. Establishing an independent international Commission of Inquiry would be a strong principled signal from the international community that they are not forgotten and a message to those responsible for serious crimes that impunity must end and that they will be held individually accountable.

Over the past twenty years, impunity for the most serious international crimes has become seen as increasingly unacceptable by many in the international community. The idea that those who commit international crimes must be held accountable for them is now an accepted part of international law. Only by effectively addressing these crimes can future crimes be prevented. The European Union has been a strong supporter of these principles, most recently in Conclusions adopted on May 25 in advance of the Review Conference for the International Criminal Court. In this new environment, victims have increasingly come to expect accountability for these crimes.

Strong Multilateral and Bilateral Diplomacy on Human Rights in North Korea

For too long, the international community sidelined human rights in North Korea, while focusing on security issues. One and a half decades later, North Korea's nuclear problem still remains unresolved while grave human rights violations continue with utter impunity. For a long-term resolution of security issues, we believe that there needs to be strategic and continuous efforts to address the abusive system that underpins the North Korean state.

We urge the European Union and its member states to publicly and privately include human rights concerns, and clearly articulate the remedies in all talks with North Korea and in all dialogues with the countries that have most leverage with the North Korean government, namely China and Russia. A human rights agenda should include the following key issues in addition to points on food aid, refugees, overseas North Korean workers, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, addressed below:

  • An immediate and permanent ban of public executions and steps to abolish the death penalty. North Korea routinely executes people for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
  • Cooperation by North Korea with the UN human rights bodies and special mechanisms, and opening the country to visits by UN Special Rapporteurs and technical assistance from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Of high priority should be facilitating inspection of all types of detention facilities by the United Nations or other independent international experts and implementation of recommendations from such trips.
  • Ending the punishment of North Koreans who return home, either voluntarily or forcibly, after leaving the country without state permission.


The plight of North Korean refugees is relatively well known. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China since a famine hit the country in the mid-1990s. Although the number of refugees fleeing has decreased recently, border crossings to avoid wide-spread hunger, earn income, and escape political repression continue. China has an obligation to protect and shelter these people as refugees and allow the UN's refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees unhindered access to these individuals to determine their status and conduct basic refugee protection work. Instead, in clear violation of international law, China periodically arrests and forcibly returns refugees to North Korea. Those who are forcibly returned face grave human rights abuses, including detention, inhuman treatment, torture, imprisonment in prison or forced labor camps, and even execution.

We commend EU member states, including the Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Belgium, which have collectively admitted hundreds of North Korean refugees mostly over the past two decades, but more needs to be done as part of a committed and strategic EU approach to advance the protection of desperate North Koreans.

We recommend that the European Union and its member states:

  • Include the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees as a standing item in all high-level talks, as well as human rights dialogues, with China.
  • Engage 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.
  • Send clear instructions to all diplomatic facilities of EU member states on the principle of receiving and sheltering North Korean refugees and assisting with their transit.
  • Press North Korea to abolish penalties for North Koreans who leave the country without official permission, halt their punishment in practice, and enable international monitoring of those who are repatriated or voluntarily return.
  • Press China to stop arresting and repatriating North Korean refugees, and to fulfill its obligations to shelter and protect them under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Urge China to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to North Koreans to determine their status, and assist with their safe and speedy settlement in China or transit to a third country. Send clear instructions to all diplomatic facilities of EU member states on the principle of receiving and sheltering North Korean refugees and assisting with their transit.

Food Aid

Although the country recovered from the 1990s famine that killed millions, North Korea still suffers from widespread hunger. In September 2009, the World Food Program reported that a third of North Korean women and children are malnourished and that the country will need to import or receive aid of almost 1.8 million tons of food to feed the most vulnerable population.

Anecdotal information coming out of North Korea since its "currency reform" late last year suggests North Korea's economy is in shambles, suffering from inflation in the backdrop of chronic food shortages. Outside experts of North Korea's agricultural sector have warned recently that North Koreans could face a severe food shortage comparable to the 1990s famine this year, unless the government imported a large amount of food or received international food aid.

We believe humanitarian aid should continue and should not be used as a political tool. But we would like to emphasize that it is crucial to monitor the distribution of such aid. Humanitarian aid should reach the most vulnerable, including young children, the elderly, disabled, and pregnant and nursing women. Donors should make sure that aid is reaching the intended recipients by ensuring that aid workers strictly follow international standards of monitoring.

For this reason, we believe the European Union and its member states should continue to work with key international partners and press the North Korean government to:

  • Accept proper monitoring of food aid distribution consistent with international standards of transparency and accountability. These standards include access around the country to determine needs and the ability to make visits to places where food aid is delivered.

Overseas North Korean workers

Our organizations have not directly contacted North Korean workers overseas because we understand they are closely monitored and controlled by North Korean agents and we are concerned about possible negative consequences our approach could cause for their security. As a result, our knowledge of the specifics of their individual cases is limited. However, the information provided to us from journalists and human rights activists indicates these North Korean workers do not enjoy basic rights, including freedom of movement, expression and association. The reports indicate that workers are not free to talk or associate with non-Koreans outside of work because they carefully supervised by officials from North Korea.

The US government's Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 states North Korean workers employed overseas "are subjected to harsh conditions, with their movements and communications restricted by DPRK (North Korea) government 'minders' and face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to complain to outside parties." The report further says "worker salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money for itself, claiming fees for various "voluntary" contributions to government endeavors. Workers only receive a fraction of the money paid to the North Korean government for their work."

The report further notes the countries in which North Koreans reportedly work through such arrangements include Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Angola, China, Mongolia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. They include some 10,000 to 20,000 North Koreans who have worked in the logging industry each year in the Russian Far East since 1967. According to the report, wages of some North Korean workers employed in Russia reportedly were withheld until the workers returned home, thereby "making them vulnerable to deception by North Korean authorities, who promised relatively high payments."

We recommend that the European Union:

  • Request EU member states 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. Encourage EU member states to conduct thorough on-site inspections of all enterprises and worksites where North Koreans are employed. Workers should be confidentially interviewed without others present, in large enough numbers, randomly selected, to provide some degree of protection against possible retaliation.
  • Ensure that all North Korean workers in EU member states are fully informed about their rights and that information about their rights is easily accessible, for example by requiring their rights to be publicly posted at the workplace. Information should also be provided on how to file grievances and seek assistance in cases of abuse and labor exploitation.
  • Put in place extra safeguards to seek to ensure that North Korean workers receive net wages compliant with minimum wage laws of the host countries.
  • Ensure that European employers employing North Korean workers inside or outside of Europe fully respect the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and take all necessary steps to make sure that North Korean workers in their enterprises are fully informed of their rights and how to exercise them.

Kaesong Industrial Complex

South Korean businesses employ some 40,000 North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in North Korea. International human rights organizations have never been given access to investigate the protection of workers' rights at the complex, which opened in June 2004. North Korea denied the former UN special envoy for human rights in North Korea's request to visit the KIC in 2008, despite his appeals to North Korea's UN mission in New York to reverse the decision.

Proponents of the KIC argue that the facilities are clean, modern, and the workers earn more money than most other factory workers in North Korea. The KIC Labor Law also guarantees some important labor protections, including paid vacation days, 150 days of maternity leave, restrictions on firing workers, and recognition of the employers' responsibility to protect workers from dangerous work environments.

However, in the KIC Labor Law adopted by North Korea, many fundamental rights are missing, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the right to strike, prohibition of sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and a ban on harmful child labor. In addition, although the KIC Labor Law stipulates that South Korean companies shall pay the North Korean workers directly in cash, South Korean employers are forced to pay workers' salaries to the North Korean government instead. If the North Korean government can force South Korean employers to break a regulation designed to protect the workers, there is no guarantee that other such regulations are respected.

This issue became more relevant for the European Union after a free trade agreement was reached between the European Union and South Korea in October 2009. The agreement will enter into force in the latter half of 2010 if it is approved by all EU member states and the European Parliament. Under the agreement, both sides agreed to establish the "Committee on Outward Processing Zones on the Korean Peninsula." This creates the possibility that North Korean goods from specially designated outward processing zones could enter the European Union duty free under the agreement. Therefore, we believe it is incumbent on the European Union to ensure basic labor rights are protected in North Korean export processing zones like the KIC.

We recommend that the European Union:

  • 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.
  • Insist to South Korea that unless the European Union or independent labor rights experts commissioned by the European Union are able to directly access workers in question and determine that workers' rights are fully protected as required under the main text of the EU-Korea FTA, the European Union will neither accept the KIC as an outward processing zone nor import products made in the KIC duty-free. This means the KIC Labor Law and relevant practices should meet the standards on workers' rights articulated in the ILO Declaration on Principles and Rights at Work, and that workers should be made aware of these rights.
  • Press South Korea to ensure North Korea permits independent, third-party workers' rights monitoring visits by the ILO or an international human rights, workers' rights, or trade union organization, agreed upon by European Union and Korean authorities. During the monitoring visit to worksites, monitors should randomly select workers to interview outside the watch of North Korean supervisors, collect and review relevant employer records, and publicly disclose the results of the visit.

We are fully aware that improving human rights conditions in a country such as North Korea is a daunting task. But by adopting a more comprehensive, strategic, persistent and well coordinated approach, the European Union and its member states have a chance to help improve human rights conditions for North Koreans inside and outside the country.

We would be happy to discuss these matters further with you.


Lotte Leicht 
EU Director
Human Rights Watch                            

Benjamin Hyun Yoon
Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

Kato Hiroshi
Executive Director
Life Funds for North Korean Refugees

Benedict Rogers
East Asia Team Leader
Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Tim Peters
Helping Hands Korea


EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton

European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, Mrs. Kristalina Georgieva

Ambassadors to the EU's Political and Security Committee

Permanent representatives of EU member states to the United Nations in Geneva

Permanent representatives of EU member states to the United Nations in New York

Council Working Party on Asia (COASI)

Council Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM)

President of the European Parliament, Mr. Jerzy Buzek

Chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights, Ms. Heidi Hautala

Chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Gabriele Albertini

Chair of the European Parliament's Development Committee, Ms. Eva Joly

Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation for relations with the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Christian Ehler

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