Tenth Anniversary of UN Commission of Inquiry Report on Human Rights Abuses in North Korea

In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council established a temporary Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The COI was directed “to investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea and to report to the Council in March 2014. The report was publicly released on February 7, 2014, and it has been a key part of the effort to press for human rights progress.

In 2004, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution highly critical of North Korea’s human rights practices and directed the Chair of the Human Rights Commission to designate a “special rapporteur” to examine the country’s human rights practices. Over 20 years, that mandate has been extended annually by the Council with the requirement for annual reports on human rights in North Korea for the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly.

The first special rapporteur (2004–2010) was Vitit Muntarbhorn, professor of law at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. He was succeeded by Marzuki Darusman (2010–2016), former attorney general of Indonesia and a prominent advocate for the rule of law. Darusman led the effort to establish the COI in 2013.

Creation of the COI

In January 2013 at Darusman’s urging, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a strongly worded statement and “lamented the ‘deplorable human rights situation’” in North Korea, "which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere in the world."

The following month, Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman told the UN Human Rights Council that human rights are routinely denied the North Korean people, and he urged the Human Rights Council to establish a COI. International NGOs strongly endorsed Darusman’s call for the creation of a COI. On March 21, 2013, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution directing the establishment of the COI. North Korea had so little influence and support in the UN Human Rights Council that North Korea and its handful of supporters did not even demand a recorded vote on the resolution.

Three outstanding human rights leaders were named to serve on the COI. Chair of the commission was Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2009), and a prominent legal academic. Commission member Sonja Biserko was a former Yugoslav diplomat and founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Marzuki Darusman, then serving as UN special rapporteur for North Korean human rights and a key advocate for creation of the COI, was the third member. He served simultaneously as UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights from 2010 to 2016, both before and after serving on the COI. The panel was assisted by UN human rights experts.

Establishment of the COI was a step beyond the appointment of the UN special rapporteur. The special rapporteur investigates human rights issues and presents a report annually to the UN Human Rights Council and later to the UN General Assembly. These reports traditionally focus on aspects of North Korean human rights issues over the previous year, but they are an update and not a comprehensive analysis. The special rapporteur is appointed for a one-year period, and can be reappointed annually, but for no more than a total of six years.

The North Korea COI came together quickly. The three commission members met in Geneva in July 2013. In August they had a week of hearings in Seoul to gather information from North Korean refugees, South Korean experts, and government officials. That same month two days of hearings were held in Tokyo, principally to focus on North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. A day of hearings was held in London in August, and in October the commission held two full days of hearings with North Korean refugees and U.S. experts in Washington.

The final COI report on North Korea human rights is 36 pages in length (the maximum permitted by Human Rights Council regulations), but the “full report and supporting documentation” totaled 372 pages in the English-language version. It covers in detail the full scope of human rights abuses identified in North Korea.

UN Consideration of the COI Report

When the report was released on February 7, 2014, senior UN officials praised it and urged tough action. UN Secretary General, former South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon, said he “remains seriously concerned about human rights and the humanitarian situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK),” and he was “deeply disturbed by the findings.” Pillay, then UN high commissioner for human rights, urged “strong international leadership to follow up on the grave findings of the Commission of Inquiry,” and “referral to the International Criminal Court.”

In March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council received an oral report from Chair Michael Kirby, and then adopted a resolution endorsing the report and called upon North Korea to take action to eliminate human rights abuses. The resolution said that the Council “Condemns in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and other human rights abuses committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” (emphasis added). The resolution was adopted by a vote of 30 to 6, with 11 abstentions. The six states voting against the resolution were China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela and Vietnam.

When the report was considered by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2014, Special Rapporteur Darusman urged that it be referred to the UN Security Council. A General Assembly resolution also called for the issue to be referred to an “appropriate international criminal justice mechanism” (the International Criminal Court) because of the seriousness of the issues raised. The General Assembly approved the resolution with 116 in favor, 20 against, and 53 abstentions.

The COI report was considered by the Security Council on December 22, 2014. The 15 member countries on the council include five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and 10 rotating members which each serve staggard two-year terms. Any one of the five permanent members can veto Security Council action, regardless of the number of other countries on the council who may support it. China and Russia were opposed to taking up the North Korea human rights issue, and they made clear they would veto a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Placing an item on the Security Council agenda for discussion, however, requires the support of 9 of the 15 member countries, but permanent member countries cannot veto the council agenda. In December 2014, 10 of the 15 council signed a letter calling for a discussion of the issue because “the scale and gravity of human rights violations detailed in the comprehensive report undertaken by the Human Rights Council commission of inquiry.”

The Security Council met on December 22, 2014, to discuss North Korea human rights. The meeting included presentations by the UN assistant secretary general for political affairs and the UN assistant high commissioner for human rights. Both UN officials gave strong statements of support for the COI findings. Official statements by Security Council members showed little support for North Korea. Only China and Russia voted against placing the issue on the Security Council agenda.

North Korea could have spoken at the Security Council session although it was not a member of the council but chose not to attend the meeting. North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations sent a harsh letter to the president of the Security Council. He denounced the council for discussing his country’s human rights, and he attached a similar statement from North Korea’s foreign minister.

Human rights groups welcomed the Security Council discussion. The New York Times reported, “[Human] rights activists who have long pressed for North Korean accountability said the meeting itself was an important advance.” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “The Security Council signaled that Pyongyang’s decades-long regime of massive cruelty against its own people must end.”

China and Russia were and remain opposed to discussing North Korea’s human rights at the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

Initial Response of North Korea to the COI Report

Officials in Pyongyang were suspicious and hostile toward the COI. During the drafting of the COI report, Michael Kirby, chair of the commission, wrote North Korean officials explaining the objective of the commission’s work and requesting meetings with appropriate government officials. North Korean officials did not even acknowledge his request.

When North Korean human rights was discussed at the UN General Assembly in October 2014, North Korean diplomats asked to meet with Special Rapporteur Darusman. This was his first meeting with North Korean officials, although he had served four years as Special Rapporteur and had repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought to meet government officials.

Darusman said, “Perhaps prompted by the intensive focus that has been brought to bear by the Commission of Inquiry,” North Korea may have “shown the beginnings of a disposition toward re-engagement with the international community on human rights.” The special rapporteur optimistically suggested “We are at the beginning of a process,” and he expressed the view that more progress was made “in the last three months than in the last 10 years in terms of the openness and readiness of the North Koreans to come out of their shell.”

Another more cynical view was that North Korea was merely seeking to soften the blows and protect the reputation of leader Kim Jong-un. As one journalist described the effort, “In a rare flurry of talks, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations lobbied frenetically to get Kim’s culpability out of the resolution,” but their effort was unsuccessful.

Six weeks after the Security Council discussed North Korea in February 2015, Darusman expressed concern that human rights improvement in North Korea was unlikely with the country’s current leadership. In a public statement, North Korea branded Darusman as “a puppet acting in the interests of the United States’ hostile policy towards Pyongyang,” and the North Korean Foreign Ministry said that Darusman “has slung dirt at the DPRK top officials.”

Since the initial Security Council discussion, North Korea’s human rights record has been discussed repeatedly in the UN Security Council. The first Security Council discussion was held on December 22, 2014, shortly after the COI Report was issued. Similar public Security Council discussions were held in the three following years—2015, 2016 and 2017. The first three Security Council meetings took place during the Obama administration, and the meeting in 2017 was in the first year of the Trump presidency.

In 2018 and 2019, the administration did not support UN Security Council discussions of North Korea human rights violations. Trump held summits with Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore and in February 2019 in Hanoi. The two leaders also met informally in June 2019 at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The summit meetings had no lasting consequences in terms of improving relations between the United States and North Korea, but they prevented Security Council discussions of North Korea’s human rights abuses.

The Security Council discussed North Korea’s human rights with U.S. support in December 2020 (Trumps last full month in office). After Biden assumed the U.S. presidency there were discussions in 2021 and 2022. The meetings were not open to the media because that was during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, but representatives of the United States and other Security Council member countries who supported the discussions reported to the news media following the meetings. In August 2023, the first public Security Council session on North Korean human rights in over five years was held again.

COI Report Pressures Pyongyang on Human Rights

Clearly North Korea was concerned with the impact of the COI report, and very modest but positive improvements were made. Just before the UN General Assembly took up the COI report in fall of 2014, the North Korean Association for Human Rights Studies issued a lengthy report defending its human rights record. The document was more fiction than fact, but its publication was a clear indication of concern that human rights record was harming its global image.

North Korea made a noteworthy shift in its participation in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Each UN member country undergoes a UPR every four years. Each country presents a self-critical review of its legislation and policies to respect human rights and discusses changes to improve respect for human rights over the past four years. All other UN member countries then have an opportunity to comment, question and make suggestions on the self-review. North Korea participates, like all UN member countries.

The first UPR involving North Korea was in March 2010. During the discussion, 167 recommendations were made by representatives of other UN member countries. In the final session, North Korean officials addressed the recommendations, and dismissed most as inaccurate or hostile. No recommendations were accepted. That response generated uproar in the Human Rights Council which brought the proceedings to a halt, because other UN countries responded with respect to such recommendations.

The second UPR cycle took place in spring 2014, shortly after the COI report was presented to the Human Rights Council. This time, the North Koreans were much more engaged. The North Korean delegation commented positively on issues raised by other countries. Most recommendations, however, were not subsequently implemented. Surprisingly, North Korean officials raised recommendations made four years earlier in the first UPR, which were initially ignored, and in several cases announced steps to make changes.

One area North Korea has highlighted was dealing with rights of people with disabilities. It was easy for Pyongyang to embrace this issue since progress represents little threat to government control, and undoubtedly some regime leaders have family members with disabilities. Clearly, making an effort to improve its image in this easy area was a consequence of the COI report. North Korea acceded to the Convention on Protecting the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 and participated in the Winter Paralympics in South Korea in 2018. The UN special rapporteur for persons with disabilities was welcomed on a visit to Pyongyang in 2018. She is the first UN official with human rights responsibilities who was invited to North Korea. The topic was not a controversial one for North Korea since it did not threaten regime control.

A direct outgrowth of the COI report was the UN decision to establish an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul. When the office was officially opened in June 2015, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said, “The Seoul office will monitor and document [human rights] violations in the DPRK, building on the landmark work of the COI and special rapporteur. We firmly believe this will help lay the basis for future accountability.” The Seoul office plays an important role in gathering and disseminating information on human rights and humanitarian conditions in North Korea.

As the tenth anniversary of the UN COI report on North Korean human rights approaches, North Korea continues to be one of the UN members states with the most deplorable human rights record, but UN organizations have increasingly documented and publicized the abuses. This information, widely available internationally, is pressuring the authoritarian regime. Some information is also reaching North Korean citizens, although the regime continues to carefully control access to information about the country’s human rights record. The report of the COI 10 years ago was an important part of the effort to press for progress on human rights.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.