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On Friday, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convened a high-level debate on North Korea’s nuclear program at the United Nations Security Council, as tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and foreign affairs ministers took to the floor in turn expressing their growing concern about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a Security Council meeting on the situation in North Korea at the United Nations, in New York City, U.S., April 28, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

But a number of the speakers went further. Several states, including the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Sweden, and Italy, noted the link between the nuclear program pursued by the regime’s leaders and the gross deprivations faced by North Korea’s people. Tillerson warned that “North Korea feeds billions of dollars into a nuclear problem it does not need while its own people starve.”

Last month, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made the case that, “systematic human rights violations help underwrite the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs” as “the government forces many of its citizens, including political prisoners, to work in life-threatening conditions in coal mines and other dangerous industries to finance the regime’s military.”

The Security Council is increasingly recognizing that Pyongyang’s nuclear aspirations are inextricably linked to its cruel treatment of its citizens – which a UN-mandated commission of inquiry found amounted to crimes against humanity. This offers a glimmer of hope to North Korea’s countless victims that their plight will not be forgotten in the pursuit of security.

What was left largely unsaid, however, was the importance of holding people responsible for abuses – abuses that had no parallel in terms of their gravity, scale, and nature, according to the UN commission of inquiry. Asking North Korea to do so is a non-starter, since the state is responsible for the policies that led to gross violations.

In today’s briefing, Tillerson asked “the community of nations to help us preserve security and protect human dignity” of the people of North Korea. A critical part of that effort should include bringing those responsible for crimes of humanity to justice.



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