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North Korea Reluctantly Opens Up on Human Rights

Accountability Remains Critical for Victims

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana addresses a news conference after his report to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 13, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

When you start from zero, as North Korea does on human rights, anything can seem like progress. So it’s noteworthy that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for North Korea said this week that the country is “selectively” engaging with the international community on concerns over its horrific rights record.

Tomas Ojea Quintana told the UN General Assembly that North Korea is engaging with some UN human rights mechanisms, even though it remains totally unwilling to have direct contact with the special rapporteur himself, or with the UN human rights office in Seoul. 

What do North Korea’s baby steps look like? First, there is the leadership’s ongoing engagement with UN human rights treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women. Then there’s the fact that North Korea invited Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities, to visit. Her trip marked the first time that North Korea permitted a UN Human Rights Council independent expert to conduct a country visit. These steps—small but still significant—show that Pyongyang is pursuing a charm offensive towards the UN.

But given the atrocities still unfolding inside North Korea—which a UN-mandated commission of inquiry said were likely crimes against humanity—grave concerns remain, and Quintana rightly said it’s vital that those responsible are held to account.

Soon, the EU and Japan will submit a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly that keeps the pressure on North Korea on human rights, while also developing strategies on how to hold accountable those who committed or ordered grave abuses. It is critical the international community continue to press on accountability, even if justice seems like a long way off. North Korea’s victims have suffered long enough, and those responsible should have to answer for their crimes.

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