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Letter to South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul

Re: Republic of Korea’s Foreign Policy and Human Rights

Dear Minister Cho Tae-yul,

In light of the current membership of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on the United Nations Security Council and the country’s increasingly prominent role in international affairs, we write to you to outline key areas where we believe your government could take important and impactful steps. We see several opportunities in 2024 with respect to improving human rights globally, particularly in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), as well as China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Sudan, and other vital issues.

Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights in some 100 countries around the world. We have reported on human rights in South Korea since the late 1980s.

North Korea

We urge your government to support several new initiatives at the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council, and General Assembly.

In recent months, South Korean and international nongovernmental organizations have been urging concerned governments to seek more information about direct connections between North Korean human rights violations and the government’s weapons development. We urge your government to support efforts to gather information about these connections by UN mechanisms—including the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

We urge your government to advocate for the Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution at its 55th session (March 2024) requesting that OHCHR prepare a report that provides a comprehensive update on the human rights situation in North Korea since the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report, and appoint a senior expert to assist in its preparation and release. We also recommend that concerned governments use meetings and debates in all UN forums, including meetings at the UN Security Council on weapons proliferation and human rights issues, to request more information about these connections from civil society groups, UN member states, and UN agencies and mechanisms mandated to focus on human rights, weapons development, sanctions, or related issues.

We urge your government to use its voice and leverage at the Human Rights Council to ensure that OHCHR’s work on criminal accountability on North Korea is supported and resourced to gather evidence and build case files for use in future mechanisms set up to pursue criminal accountability for crimes by the North Korean government. Government agencies in the Republic of Korea should be collecting and preserving evidence of human rights violations in North Korea to support future criminal prosecutions, and should be sharing relevant information with OHCHR.

The Republic of Korea should also explore with other governments how to address the human rights implications of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s increasingly close relationship with Russia. For years, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have pointed out—as the UN Commission of Inquiry noted 10 years ago—that North Korea’s human rights record is inexorably linked to the security challenges posed by its weapons development, and that the United Nations and concerned member states need to address both weapons issues and human rights concerns together, not separately or sequentially.

As we and 11 other civil society groups noted in a statement in 2021, it is essential for governments to re-prioritize human rights issues in strategy discussions about North Korea and commit to incorporating human rights into future negotiations with Pyongyang. In our view, interlinking security issues with human rights concerns is mutually reinforcing. North Korea’s abuses—forced labor, totalitarian repression, the prioritization of the leadership’s survival—are underlying predicates for its weapons’ programs. And any future diplomatic progress or durable verification of counter-proliferation processes will only be possible if North Korea begins cooperating with the United Nations system in general, including its human rights mechanisms. North Korea should also take into consideration that several key US sanctions are human rights related, which means that any potential relaxation of those sanctions cannot occur without North Korea making progress on human rights. Your government should be publicly acknowledging these issues and pressuring Pyongyang on both weapons issues and human rights concerns, together, in all forums.


We encourage you to make it clear, both privately and publicly, that business as usual cannot occur with the Chinese government as it intensifies pervasive repression across China and beyond. The Republic of Korea made an important contribution by its intervention this year at China’s UN Universal Periodic Review by condemning illegal repatriation of North Koreans from China. We urge your government to regularly and more explicitly condemn the Chinese government’s rights record, including crimes against humanity in Xinjiang against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims, which have included mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights. The Chinese government continues to crush basic freedoms throughout the country and in Tibet and Hong Kong, while increasingly persecuting dissidents abroad. All of these abuses, particularly the use of forced labor, create serious risks of complicity in abuses for South Korea companies doing business in China.

The Republic of Korea should commit to taking more effective action to address China’s human rights record. Your government should adopt targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for serious abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in the country and commit to supporting action by the UN Human Rights Council to create an investigative mechanism on China as recommended in 2020 by 50 UN human rights experts, and support future efforts to pursue justice for documented crimes.


Human Rights Watch has long called on the UN Security Council to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar, refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, and impose targeted sanctions on its military and military-owned companies. In December 2022, the Security Council adopted a long overdue, first-ever resolution on Myanmar. Your government should work with other council members—in particular the United Kingdom—to hold a public debate on the Myanmar military’s lack of compliance with the resolution and considers a new resolution imposing the measures above.

The Republic of Korea should work closely with other concerned governments in the region such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to increase pressure on Myanmar’s junta through strengthening the coordination of targeted sanctions. The South Korean government should impose targeted sanctions against military leaders and military-owned conglomerates as several concerned member states have done. South Korean companies continue to be significantly involved in revenue producing business activities—in particular in manufacturing and the natural gas sector. It is essential that your government ensure that steps taken by allies to stop revenue to sanctioned entities, including the US, EU, and UK sanctions—are matched by actions by the Republic of Korea to deny revenue and financial capacities to the Myanmar military leadership.


Afghanistan continues to experience a dire human rights crisis under the Taliban, especially for women and girls. Security Council members are currently considering how to implement the recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s assessment report, which contained several options for the establishment of mechanisms and appointment of an envoy. We urge your government to work with other council members to ensure that no new mechanism displaces the role of the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, especially its rights monitoring. It’s crucial that Afghan women are full and active participants in all discussions, including the proposed UN-convened large format group and contact group. Also, should a Special Envoy be appointed, it should be someone with deep expertise and credibility on human rights, with a gender advisor, a public reporting mandate, and a mandate to consult with Afghan women. The Council should also remain seized of the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, which has been exacerbated by the Taliban’s actions.


Your government should continue to condemn Russia’s violations of the laws of war and other grave abuses in Ukraine and call on all parties to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Human Rights Watch has documented Russian forces’ military use of schools and attacks on schools and other educational facilities in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The attacks have had a devastating impact on Ukrainian children’s access to education. The Security Council has not been able to take concrete action on the current situation in Ukraine due to Russia’s veto power. However, Council members should use every opportunity at the UN to demand that Russian forces cease unlawful attacks on schools and uphold UN Security Council Resolution 2601 (2021) on protecting education in conflict. Council members should urge Russia to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

Israel and Palestine

We urge the Republic of Korea to work with other Security Council members to bring an end to violations of international humanitarian law harming civilians in the hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. The current deadlock at the Security Council should not deter you from pursuing action there to push the parties to adhere to international humanitarian law, including statements or resolutions condemning war crimes by all parties, pushing parties to protect civilians, calling for compliance with the binding orders issued by the International Court of Justice, and ensuring basic services and sufficient quantities of humanitarian assistance reach all civilians in Gaza. The Council managed in late 2023 to adopt an important resolution, its first on Israel/Palestine in seven years, showing that significant action is possible.

It is also crucial to address the impunity that fuels continued violence and repression in Israel/Palestine. We urge you to press other council members on the need for actions that would end impunity and support impartial justice for the victims of crimes committed in the current hostilities, as well as past and ongoing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution committed by Israeli authorities against Palestinians.


Your government should work with other council members to ensure that the termination of the UN mission in Sudan, UNITAMS, does not result in diminished scrutiny of the warring parties in Sudan. To avoid this, Council members should invite relevant special advisors, including on conflict-related sexual violence and children in armed conflict as well as the Secretary-General’s newly appointed envoy to regularly brief the Council on Sudan. The Security Council should prioritize the protection of civilians in Darfur and Sudan as a whole and should explore ways to rebuild a UN presence on the ground that monitors human rights and the protection of civilians and reports its findings to the Security Council. In light of the gravity of events in West Darfur state in particular, where Rapid Support Forces and allied militia have committed ethnically targeted mass killings, rape, arson and pillage, we encourage you to support efforts to sanction those responsible.

We look forward to working with you and discussing these issues with you further.


Elaine Pearson
Asia Director
Human Rights Watch

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