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Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: Exchange of Views on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea

As Prepared for Delivery

Madam Chair and distinguished Members of the Human Rights Subcommittee, it is a great pleasure to meet with you again to discuss the human rights situation in North Korea and discuss areas in which the United States can work with our European partners. We have deep concerns for the well-being of the North Korean people, and we both seek to improve human rights conditions in North Korea, which is one of the worst human rights violators in the world.

I first want to express our thanks and appreciation for the very important leadership role that the European Union plays in the United Nations General Assembly and in the UN Human Rights Council on the annual resolutions on the D.P.R.K. human rights record. One of the most important developments in North Korean human rights issues was the Human Rights Council’s decision in March 2013 to establish a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the D.P.R.K. to examine the “systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights.” I’d like to thank you for the EU’s role in the resolution which created the COI recognizing the seriousness of the D.P.R.K. ’s human rights abuses.

In March 2014, the Commission presented a comprehensive report of its findings to the UN Human Rights Council, concluding that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the D.P.R.K. , its institutions, and its officials. The report further concluded that in many cases, such violations rise to the level of crimes against humanity. After hearing from the Commission, the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly this past year adopted strong resolutions calling for accountability for North Korea’s human rights abuses. By an overwhelming vote of 30 yeas, 6 nays, and 11 abstentions, the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution praised the Commission’s report and called for accountability in dealing with the North Korean violations. At the UN General Assembly in December, a similar resolution was adopted by a resounding vote of 116 yeas, 20 nays, and 53 abstentions.

Also last month, for the first time, the D.P.R.K. ’s grave human rights situation was taken up as a standing agenda item by the UN Security Council. The inclusion of this issue on the Security Council’s agenda reflects the world’s grave concern and the importance of accountability. This action will ensure that the D.P.R.K. situation will receive the Security Council’s ongoing attention on the egregious human rights abuses, and it reflects the international community’s concern that these systematic and widespread violations represent a threat to international peace and security.

The D.P.R.K. , in turn, has inconsistently reacted to the international spotlight on its deplorable human rights record. In the lead up to the UNGA resolution vote, the D.P.R.K. offered visits to the UN Special Rapporteur and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but the government immediately withdrew these offers after the critical General Assembly resolution was adopted. The government also sent delegations to attend various human rights events focused on its record and even sponsored an unprecedented human rights press conference in New York, where North Korean government officials acknowledged the existence of reeducation through labor centers. On the other hand, the D.P.R.K. responded to the General Assembly resolution by threatening a fourth nuclear test. D.P.R.K. media also attacked by name the Commission of Inquiry Chair, Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby, and verbally attacked other outspoken activists. These belligerent and personal attacks only demonstrated the desperation to distract the international community from North Korea’s shocking human rights record. Together with the international community, we are using the full range of tools at our disposal to make clear to the D.P.R.K. that abandoning its current course and observing international laws and obligations is the only way to end its isolation.

Coordination between the United States and the European Union has remained strong throughout this past year. Our cooperation helped ensure that when North Korea’s foreign minister and other senior officials traveled abroad on a charm offensive last fall, they heard a common chorus of calls for progress on human rights and denuclearization. And in recent weeks, our international partners have joined us in condemning the destructive and coercive cyberattack on Sony Pictures, by which the D.P.R.K. attempted to suppress freedom of expression beyond its own borders. We are grateful that our partners have joined in calling on the D.P.R.K. to cease such attacks and in supporting a proportionate response.

Today, the D.P.R.K. remains an authoritarian state, which subjects its citizens to rigid controls over all aspects of their lives, including denying them enjoyment of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, religion or belief, and movement, as well as certain worker rights. The government maintains a vast network of political prison camps in which conditions are harsh and life-threatening, and prisoners, including children, are subjected to forced and compulsory labor. North Korean defectors and the international media continued to report public executions, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, and torture. The judiciary is not independent and does not provide fair trials. Refugees who seek to leave the country are sent to prison without any knowledge of the charges against them. Even today entire families, up to three generations, are sent to the prison camps without trial when some official determines usually without trial. There has been no significant progress in the investigation of abductions of foreign citizens by the North Korean government.

We continue to receive reports that border guards have orders to shoot to kill potential “defectors,” and prison guards had orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape from political prison camps. Secretary Kerry, six other Foreign Ministers, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted these grave injustices this past September in New York City at the time of the UN General Assembly high level meetings.

As we look forward to this year, two things strike me. First, the D.P.R.K. has few supporters left. UN Special Rapporteur on D.P.R.K. human rights, former Indonesian Prosecutor General Marzuki Darusman, spoke to the UN Human Rights Council last June. In the discussion after his presentation, less than a quarter of the countries that spoke were even supportive of the D.P.R.K. , and most of those expressed concern about the singling out of one country and did not comment on the substance of the human rights violations. The countries that defended the D.P.R.K. were among the world’s worst human rights violators – Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. This is not a group of supporters that gives much comfort to the North.

Second, the COI report was a very important step, but it is not the end. It has created momentum for the international community to continue to focus on D.P.R.K. abuses. In particular, both the COI’s report and the UN Human Rights Council resolution recommended the establishment of a field office under the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to preserve and document evidence of atrocities in order to enable future accountability. South Korea has agreed to host this office, and I thank the South Korean government’s willingness to host this field office. This office will play an important role in maintaining visibility on the ongoing human rights abuses in the North. We expect to see this office open in the next two months so that it can continue to build upon the foundation established by the Commission.

The last significant issue that I want to mention is the importance of increasing the flow of information into and out of North Korea. This country is one of the most closed societies in the world. In this era of virtually instantaneous communication, North Korea remains a dark spot – unconnected to the global information network. There are over two million cell phones in North Korea, but these phones connect only domestic users and are closely monitored. Calls to parties outside the country are difficult if not impossible to make and are illegal for most users. Internet access is limited to a tiny circle of elites.

This lack of access to independent information limits what North Koreans know about the outside world, and it also limits what we know about what is happening in the North. But cracks in the information blockade are starting to form. The latest study by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 35 percent of North Korean refugees and travelers had listened to foreign radio broadcasts inside North Korea, even though it is still illegal to possess a radio that can be tuned. Foreign videos are now being seen by even larger numbers – approximately 85 percent of refugees and travelers abroad have seen foreign, principally South Korean, DVDs in the North. North Koreans are increasingly familiar with South Korean K-Pop and have seen movies like Titanic and Bend It Like Beckham.

Information is also trickling out. Civil society has undertaken efforts to examine satellite imagery to gain a more detailed understanding of the prison camp system. Other nongovernmental organizations have developed interactive mapping tools that document the numerous human rights abuses reported by defectors. South Korea-based defector groups are breaking news stories about life inside North Korea faster than ever before. I am hopeful that we are beginning to see changes.

Our deep concern for human rights in North Korea and for the well-being of the North Korean people reflects the American commitment to the rule of law and respect for individual rights. Our country was founded on fundamental principles of human rights, and our support for these rights is an essential part of what defines the American people. These are values we share with the peoples of the European Union.

The world will not, and cannot, close its eyes to what is happening in North Korea. Ultimately, we will judge the North not by its words, but by its actions—the concrete steps it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, from its nuclear program to its human rights violations. I believe we are in agreement that the D.P.R.K. must demonstrate respect for human rights in order to fully participate in the international community. Thank you for this invitation to speak with you.

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