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The Central Role of Japan in Addressing Human Rights Abuses in North Korea

Letter to Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan

Re:  The Central Role of Japan in Addressing Human Rights Abuses in North Korea


Dear Prime MinisterAbe, 

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I wish to congratulate you on your recent inauguration as the Prime Minister of Japan. 

Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights issues in more than 90 countries around the world. We established our Tokyo office in 2009 and have been conducting research and reporting on human rights violations in North Korea and the region for decades.

During the recent election campaign period, the Liberal Democratic Party pledged in the paragraph 102 of the general policy pledges J-File 2012 that your government’s diplomacy will be “conducted strategically in a dynamic manner based on universal values such as freedom, fairness and the rule of law in order to protect national interests” and that policy on North Korea will include an initiative to “also cooperate with the international community through our efforts including the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry regarding abduction by North Korea.”

We commend you on this policy and wish to communicate our strong support for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights abuses, including crimes against humanity, in North Korea. Such a COI should cover the issue of abductions of foreign nationals by North Korean government agents and the whole range of serious right abuses perpetrated by that government against its own people.   

As the drafter and main sponsor of the North Korea resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, Japan should take the initiative to call for the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry at this upcoming 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council. This council session provides an excellent opportunity to establish the COI because three consistent supporters of North Korea – namely China, Cuba and Russia – will be rotating off the council, thereby further diminishing the low level of support that North Korea has enjoyed in past years. In 2012, that reduction of support was apparent in the disinclination of erstwhile allies of North Korea to defend it in UN forums – resulting in the passage of North Korea resolutions by consensus for the first time ever at the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.  

Looking back over the past few years, it can be seen that there has been a growing support for the UN Human Rights Council’s annual resolutions on North Korea. 

Of the 47 states that will be the members of the Human Rights Council in 2013, more than 50% (a total of 28 states) have consistently voted in favor of all resolutions on North Korea in the UN since 2010. There is only one state currently on the UN Human Rights Council, Venezuela, which has consistently voted against the resolutions. Other countries have either abstained or had a mixed voting record. States with a solid positive voting record are not likely to change voting behavior simply because of proposals that the Human Rights Council strengthen the resolution.

Based on our analysis, there is a strong likelihood that with effective advocacy by the Japanese government and other supporters of this initiative, a resolution mandating a Commission of Inquiry for North Korea would pass with a clear majority. Your administration should not miss this unprecedented opportunity.

UN officials support this call for a new, more in-depth approach. Last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, delivered a scathing report to the UN General Assembly, noting the “decades” of autocratic rule. He called on the international community to consider setting up “a more detailed mechanism of inquiry” of the North Korean government’s record of abuses and crimes against humanity.

More recently, on January 14, 2013, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for urgent attention to human rights abuses in North Korea which she characterized as having “no parallel anywhere else in the world.” She added that the time has come for “a full-fledged international inquiry.” Referring to the “urgent need to clarify the fate of the many South Koreans and Japanese, abducted by DPRK over the years,” she said “I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst – but least understood and reported – human rights situations in the world is not only fully justified, but long overdue.”

A Commission of Inquiry would carry out an in-depth, independent investigation aimed at documenting the systematic and widespread human rights violations in North Korea. The investigation would be carried out by a group of independent eminent persons appointed by the UN and mandated to establish the facts and make recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council on how to respond to end the violations. While Marzuki Darusman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, and his predecessor Vitit Muntarbhorn, have decried the violations committed by the government and the impunity with which the government has acted, the gravity of the situation requires an even more detailed examination that should be done by a Commission of Inquiry.

But in order not to duplicate the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Japan should recommend the UN Commission of Inquiry be headed by the current Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, and include additional commissioners. The objective should be to investigate systematic, grave and widespread violations committed by the Government of North Korea. The resolution presented at the UN Human Rights Council should also ask for the Commission of Inquiry to be given adequate resources to investigate and report back to the Human Rights Council on these violations.

A Commission of Inquiry should ensure that it can meet and hear the voices of victims of North Korean human rights abuses, including the relatives of abductees. The Commission can document the many cases where North Korea has violated rights so that victims will gain some accounting for their suffering.

With additional resources and heightened political commitment backing a Commission of Inquiry, it should be possible to uncover in greater detail the specific nature of the abuses, the fate of victims, and steps that need to be taken to ensure accountability. The Commission would bring the additional attention and commitment to North Korean human rights issues that is commensurate with the seriousness of the situation, and it would further bolster the efforts of the Special Rapporteur.

By researching and collecting the testimonies of victims, their families, survivors and witnesses as well as by gathering all other available information, the Commission will be able to produce the most authoritative account to date on the extent, nature, and patterns of human rights violations committed by the North Korean government.

Further, the Commission could provide a detailed analysis of the legal implications of the abuses committed by the North Korean government and recommend concrete steps to address these abuses at national and international levels. As stated by the Special Rapporteurs on North Korea, some of the violations committed by the North Korean government may reach the level of crimes against humanity.

It is high time for Japan to help lead the international community to create a new strategy for North Korea. The fear generated by the systematic and pervasive nature of rights abuses in North Korea is a key way that the government can persist in these practices despite wide-spread suffering and deprivation of the North Korean people. Establishing a Commission of Inquiry that recognizes human rights abuses in North Korea as a major area of concern for the international community in its engagement with North Korea could be an important part of a new approach spearheaded by Japan.

It has already been a decade since North Korea recognized its responsibility for the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens, of whom only five were returned. Since then, North Korea has publicly stated that it considers the abduction issue closed and no further progress has been made in resolving the issue. Now families of abductees, such as that of Mrs. Sakie Yokota, are speaking up for adoption of a Commission of Inquiry that will put renewed pressure on North Korea to provide answers. 

It has been more than a year since Kim Jong-un took the reins of power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Already, there are clear signs that the situation remains extremely dire. Recent escapees from the country speak of intensifying crackdowns in the countryside after Kim Jong-il’s death. There has been a significant drop in the number of escapees entering China in 2012, suggesting stepped-up border control by both North Korea and China. Meanwhile, the government continues to apply collective punishments and forced labor, and arbitrarily detains more than 200,000 people in sub-human conditions in political prison camps and continues to allow endemic malnutrition to persist, largely by giving priority to the country’s overlarge army instead of the general public.

We urge your government to propose a Commission of Inquiry at the upcoming Human Rights Council session and direct your government officials to work on negotiating with other foreign governments. We would be happy to discuss this issue with you directly and offer you any recommendations and assistance we are able to provide. We thank you for your consideration of our views and look forward to your response.


Sincerely yours,

Kanae Doi

Japan Director

Human Rights Watch            

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