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Envoy Hopes to Lift Lid on North Korean Human Rights Situation

  • Patrick Goodenough Pacific Rim Bureau Chief
  • 2004 17 Sep
Envoy Hopes to Lift Lid on North Korean Human Rights Situation
Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The newly-appointed U.N. special rapporteur (investigator) on North Korean human rights has expressed the hope that the authorities in the reclusive communist state will allow him to visit.

Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai law professor, is visiting South Korea where U.N. human rights officials have been participating in an international conference.

Muntarbhorn was appointed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in July, in line with a resolution taken by the 53-nation body censuring Pyongyang for human rights abuses.

The resolution urged the country to allow independent access to provide for an accurate and independent picture of the situation.

It cited reports of widespread abuses, "including torture, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor; all-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association; and continued violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women."

North Korea denounced the resolution, calling it a "U.S.-orchestrated plot," and threatened to withdraw from the UNCHR in protest.

Speaking in Seoul, Muntarbhorn said he planned later this month to formally ask North Korea, through its diplomats in Geneva, to allow him direct access to the country to carry out what he said would be a fair and independent probe into conditions there.

He is expected to report back at the UNCHR's next annual session, in March 2005.

Human rights campaigners have long been pressing for the international community to take a firmer line with North Korea. Activists have pressed the U.S. government to include discussions on human rights when meeting North Korean officials for talks about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

In what may be a positive sign, the first British government minister to visit North Korea said this week that his hosts had admitted not giving human rights high priority in their policy making.

Junior Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell said in an article published in London Thursday that North Korean officials had also confessed the existence of labor camps for political prisoners.

It's believed to be the first time North Korea has admitted the existence of the dozen or so notorious camps, where researchers allege horrific abuses including torture, forced abortions, infanticide and even the testing of chemicals on inmates.

Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and criminals are believed to be held in the camps, in remote parts of North Korea, and malnutrition, forced labor, and beatings are reportedly commonplace.

Last October, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a non-governmental organization (NGO), released a comprehensive report on North Korea's prison camp system, including satellite photographs and eyewitness accounts by defectors.

Among those sent to prison camps are defectors who managed to escape into neighboring China in the hope of eventually getting asylum in South Korea or another country, but were caught and repatriated by a fellow communist regime that does not recognize the North Koreans as refugees.

U.N. human rights commissioner Louise Arbour, who participated in this week's conference in Seoul, indicated at a press conference Thursday that Beijing should protect North Korean refugees rather than send them home.

Asked about China's policy of repatriating North Korean defectors, Arbour replied that "countries that ratified the 1951 convention on refugees have an obligation to protect persons who are in a vulnerable position."

The 1951 U.N. convention, to which China is a signatory, requires member countries to "not forcibly return asylum seekers who face persecution at home."

Human rights groups have in the past roundly criticized the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR for not pressing China sufficiently on this issue.

In its annual report on religious freedom worldwide, released this week, the State Department again named North Korea as a "country of particular concern" in this area.

The report said the state of human rights in the country was "deplorable," citing the repression of unauthorized religious groups and reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches.

Ambassador John Hanford, head of the State Department's religious freedom office, told a press conference in Washington Wednesday that North Korea may well have "the largest religious prisoner population in the world."

The department said there were around 10,000 Protestants, 4,000 Catholics and 10,000 Buddhists in North Korea, a country of 22 million people.

South Korean NGOs believe the actual number is considerably higher.

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