UN Special Rapporteur’s Final Message on North Korea Urges Respect for Human Rights and Calls for Humanitarian Aid

Tomás Ojea Quintana, a prominent Argentine attorney and professor of law, has served as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) for the past six years. His final report on North Korean human rights conditions was discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this past week. UN procedures specify that a special rapporteur may serve a period of only six years dealing with an issue involving a single country or topic. This summer, the UN Human Rights Council is expected to designate a new special rapporteur who will continue to focus on the issue of North Korea’s human rights. 

Ojea Quintana was appointed to the North Korea human rights portfolio in July 2016, but he previously served as special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (2008–2014). On one visit to Myanmar his car was surrounded by an angry mob, most likely encouraged by the ruling military junta at that time. Some 200 people shouted at and pounded on the doors and windows of his vehicle, protesting his investigative reports on the violation of human rights of the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar. 

No similar events occurred in the case of North Korea, however, because officials in Pyongyang repeatedly ignored or refused requests by Ojea Quintana to meet with North Korean officials to discuss his United Nations mandate in North Korea or elsewhere. In fact, this week, when the special rapporteur’s presentation to the UN Human Rights Council expressed concern that the most vulnerable people in North Korea risk starvation because of North Korea’s enforced isolation in its effort to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korean media called Ojea Quintana’s report “malicious slander.” In his final report, the special rapporteur noted that during his six-year term, “on only one occasion” did he “have the opportunity to meet and talk with some member of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” and that was outside of North Korea.

The UN special rapporteur called for easing international sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear weapons programs in order to allow greater access to food and medicines in North Korea. He said Pyongyang’s border lockdowns had made conditions worse. A statement from North Korea’s Korea Association for Human Rights Studies said, “The ‘special rapporteur,’ not being content with distorting our reality, has pointed a finger at our ‘people’s livelihood’ and viciously picked on the most realistic and appropriate anti-epidemic measures taken by our state for our own specific need in order to cope with the global epidemic.”

Despite the vitriol from North Korea, Ojea Quintana has done an outstanding job in carrying out his difficult mandate. He has been critical of Pyongyang for its human rights abuses and the difficult living conditions of its citizens, but he has also been critical of the United Nations Security Council for failing to give proper attention to the humanitarian needs for food and medicines for the North Korean people as the Security Council has imposed tough sanctions for carrying on prohibited nuclear and missile programs. 

While Ojea Quintana has been a strong voice for human rights in North Korea, he has also been an advocate for improvement of humanitarian conditions. The member countries of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council are fortunate to have had a special rapporteur with the integrity and commitment that has been shown by Ojea Quintana.

Rapporteur Says Rights Abuse Is Increasing, Calls for Examining Sanctions

The special rapporteur’s formal report to the Human Rights Council called for consistent, sustained engagement with North Korea on human rights issues.

The report reflected the growing difficulty of getting information about North Korea. It has always been difficult, but the Covid-19 pandemic and much tighter regime control to prevent North Koreans from leaving the country have made it even more difficult. In the past, the principal sources of information about conditions in North Korea were refugees who had fled the country. In the recent report, Ojea Quintana said “Due to the prolonged COVID-19 related restrictions, in 2021 only 63 escapees, of whom approximately 37 per cent were women, arrived in the Republic of Korea – a significant decrease from the 229 arrivals in 2020 and the 10,047 arrivals in 2019.” He also noted that “most of the recent arrivals have stayed in a third country for several years before travelling to the Republic of Korea.” 

Ojea Quintana concluded that during the six years of his tenure as special rapporteur, “control over the population has further tightened, particularly since the beginning of 2020 in the context of Covid-19 prevention measures.” He also noted that Covid-19 provisions include the policy of shooting individuals who attempt to enter or leave North Korea without official permission. Recent legislation also involves “grossly disproportionate punishments,” including imposing the death penalty “for accessing information, particularly of foreign content.” Political prison camps continue to exist, although Pyongyang continues to deny their existence. One former North Korean prisoner, now a refugee in South Korea, told the special rapporteur that “even suicide is forbidden because their family will pay the consequences.”

Throughout his six years as special rapporteur, Ojea Quintana said UN documents indicate that chronic food insecurity has not improved in North Korea, “with the numbers of food insecure people consistently above 10 million, representing over 41 per cent of the country’s population. Only 29 per cent of children aged 6 – 23 months are receiving the minimum acceptable diet.” Malnutrition remains a leading cause of maternal and child mortality. In North Korea, one of every five children under five years of age are stunted because of lack of food.

The special rapporteur noted that food production last year was estimated at 4.6 million tons, whereas the country requires an average food production of 6–6.5 million tons to feed its population at a minimally acceptable level. Because of Covid-19 controls imposed by the North Korean government, the World Food Program has not been able to deliver food assistance for the last year, since March 2021. Regional differences within North Korea make that even more severe in some areas. In North Pyongan Province on the northwest border with China, only 14.8 percent of the population receive the minimum acceptable diet. In the capital city of Pyongyang, 54.3 percent are fed at the minimum level or above.

The government’s effort to control informal or free markets has reduced or in some places eliminated these markets, which were an important coping mechanism for North Koreans in the past. Corruption is rampant, and those involved in the markets who do not have sufficient money to pay bribes are vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention.

The report of the special rapporteur concludes that healthcare is a serious problem. Underinvestment in infrastructure, medical personnel, equipment, and medicines, as well as irregular power supplies and inadequate water and sanitation facilities, leave almost 40 percent of the people in North Korea with only limited access to reasonably acceptable healthcare. The report said, “Since January 2020 all imports of medical supplies from China have ceased. Drugs for tuberculosis – a disease that kills 16,000 people each year in the country – are at risk of stocking out, as are polio vaccines.”

Since the beginning of his tenure as special rapporteur, Ojea Quintana has been critical of the failure of the UN Security Council to fully take into account the impacts of UN sanctions imposed because of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Sanctions have had a serious impact on living conditions and the human rights of the North Korean people. In 2017, only a year after he became special rapporteur, Ojea Quintana called for a “full assessment” of the impact of sanctions on ordinary North Koreans.

In his most recent final report as special rapporteur, he emphasized his view that “development efforts to promote the economic, social, and cultural rights of the people in the DPRK should not be denied under the sanctions regime,” and he called for “a review of the sanctions to include areas of assistance that would not require exemption authorizations from the Sanctions Committee” in order to ease humanitarian conditions.

When Ojea Quintana was in Seoul for his final visit to South Korea just a few weeks before the final presentation at the UN Human Rights Council, he called on the international community to “agree on a strategy to provide the DPRK with 60 million doses of vaccines to cover at least two shots for the entire population.” He said this would be “key to opening the DPRK’s borders and resuming interactions with the international community and bringing it out of isolation.” North Korea and Eritrea are the only countries that have not accepted and administered Covid-19 vaccinations, and North Korea has rejected offers of vaccine on more than one occasion.

Uncertainty Ahead: Leadership Change in the Blue House; the Post-Ukraine World

As Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana passes the baton to his yet-to-be-named successor, new challenges face the effort to improve human rights conditions in North Korea. It is assumed that the UN Human Rights Council will appoint a new special envoy for DPRK human rights, although it is still a few months early for announcing and approving a successor. There has been broad consensus supporting appointment of the North Korean human rights envoy over the past almost two decades. Ojea Quintana is the third envoy to serve, and it is expected that the precedent will continue and a new rapporteur will be named. 

There are two changes in the international landscape, however, that could affect the ongoing effort to promote human rights in North Korea. First, the political dynamics in South Korea will shift on May 10, 2022, when the Democratic Party presidency of Moon Jae-in ends and the presidency of Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party begins. From 2008 to 2017 under South Korean presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, South Korea was a leading voice in the United Nations supporting human rights in North Korea. 

President Moon Jae-in was a staunch advocate of improved North-South relations, and this led Seoul to step back from actions supporting improved human rights in North Korea, including a reversal of South Korean policy on this human rights question at the United Nations. For the last five years, South Korea did not support resolutions critical of North Korea on human rights. President Yoon Suk-yeol has already indicated that is likely to change. It remains to be seen how much South Korean policy changes.

In a press conference in Seoul in February during Ojea Quintana’s last visit to South Korea, the special rapporteur said, “Now what we would like to see from the international community, especially from the United Nations Human Rights Framework, is a consistent approach from the Republic of Korea toward North Korea.” He continued, “When I say consistent, it will be important not to see dramatic changes in the approach to the North Korean situation and in particular the human rights agenda.” 

The special rapporteur noted the about-face on North Korea human rights that accompanied the arrival of the Moon administration. Ojea Quintana said, the “unexpected change in the stance of the ROK government . . . was not consistent with the United Nations consensus about how to approach human rights in North Korea.” He called attention to the fact that South Korea’s position on human rights in North Korea was out of step with the majority of UN member countries.

Just after the Human Rights Council reviewed the special rapporteur’s final report on conditions in North Korea, a broad group of leading human rights organizations and prominent individuals (including Marzuki Darusman and Sonja Biserko, two of the three members of the Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights in 2013–2014) sent a strongly worded letter to outgoing South Korean president Moon Jae-in. The letter urged South Korea “to engage fully with the international community, and act in response to the dire human right situation in the DPRK by resuming South Korea’s co-sponsorship of the annual resolution on the matter” at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Realistically, Moon is unlikely to change his policy just a few weeks before leaving office, but it establishes a justification for incoming president Yoon to make that policy change.

A second major change in the political scene could affect the UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea for its illicit nuclear and missile programs. The sanctions regime has had the support of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who have been in agreement that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are destabilizing and threatening. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have worked together to urge stronger sanctions against Pyongyang. The other two permanent Security Council members, China and Russia, have been sufficiently uncomfortable with North Korea’s aggressive and erratic behavior that they have been willing to support sanctions that limit North Korean access to resources for its nuclear and missile ambitions.

But currently, questions are being raised regarding how much longer Vladimir Putin will be willing to cooperate with the United States and countries of Western Europe to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, now that his own destabilizing military actions aimed against Ukraine are facing opposition from the United States and Western Europe. 

There may be an indication soon of what lies ahead regarding policy toward North Korea at the UN Security Council. The council established a panel of experts to report on the effectiveness of sanctions against North Korea and to make recommendations regarding sanctions. The panel of experts have reported to the Security Council on the effectiveness of the sanctions and related issues. The mandate of the panel will need to be extended since it expires on April 30. 

Unity of the five permanent members is necessary for the Security Council to act. Will Russia continue to participate in the consensus required to extend the mandate of the panel of experts? Or will Moscow see creating obstacles regarding action toward North Korea as tit for tat for U.S. and Western European opposition to its military actions against Ukraine? The impact that the Ukraine conflict could have on policy toward North Korea remains to be seen.

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.

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