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Human Rights Watch thanks Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana for his work on human rights in North Korea, and in particular his attention to abuses against women documented in his latest report. Sex and gender-based discrimination and subordination of women are pervasive in North Korea. Stereotyped gender roles are set in childhood. Government and society are thoroughly dominated by men. Acts of violence against women are prevalent, including physical, sexual and psychological harm, threats, coercion and arbitrary detention. North Korean escapees have told Human Rights Watch that in mixed-gender classes, boys are almost always made leaders; even though most teachers are women,  male teachers usually make decisions. Escapees have also said it is harder for women to access university and join the military, and by extension, the ruling Korean Workers Party, which serves as a gateway to positions of power in North Korea.

In recent years, we have grown increasingly concerned that US and South Korea’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea to address weapons proliferation issues appears to have led to decreased attention to North Korea’s human rights situation. For several years after the landmark 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report documented crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances, the UN Security Council debated North Korea’s human rights record during regular sessions. Since 2018, however, the United States has refrained from promoting debates, fearing they could jeopardize ongoing negotiations. Last March, Japan dropped its leadership on North Korea resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, and last November, South Korea failed to cosponsor a North Korea resolution at the UN General Assembly.

This is the wrong approach. Weapons counter-proliferation efforts and human rights are inextricably linked in the case of North Korea. The Special Rapporteur is correct in stating that “integrating fundamental human rights into the current negotiations is crucial for the sustainability of any agreement for denuclearisation and peace for the Korean Peninsula and beyond.”

Focusing on justice is essential. As the Special Rapporteur has stressed: “now is the time to develop and test concrete avenues for accountability and justice” in North Korea. In addition to renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, we call on the Human Rights Council to expand the mandate of the currently appointed accountability experts to collect and preserve evidence of international crimes for use in eventual prosecutions.

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