Human rights must be included in nuclear talks with North Korea as the social and economic situation for most people in the isolated nation remains dire despite a year of diplomacy, a senior U.N. envoy said Friday.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the independent U.N. investigator on human rights in North Korea, described a continuing pattern of abuses, including a system of political prison camps, forced labor and widespread corruption.
“The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters in Seoul as he wrapped up a five-day fact-finding mission.
“In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind,” he added.
In addition to the actual prison camps, Quintana said the population is controlled by fear of being detained as well as surveillance and monitoring of ordinary citizens and other restrictions on their basic freedoms.
“One person concluded: ‘the whole country is a prison,’” he said.
U.S. and South Korean officials have largely declined to raise concerns about human rights abuses in negotiations so far, saying reforms will come with increased engagement.
Neither President Donald Trump nor South Korean President Moon Jae-in mentioned the issue in remarks about their summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.
The Treasury Department did, however, blacklist three senior North Korean officials in December for what it called serious human rights abuses and censorship. That prompted an angry rebuke from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, which warned such steps could derail denuclearization efforts.
Allegations of human rights abuses are extremely sensitive for Kim’s regime, which claims they are part of a political ploy to keep it isolated.
U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons began in force early last year, easing tensions that had threatened to erupt in a new war.
“Any accord that the partners could reach will remain fragile unless human rights issues are at least discussed by the parties,” Quintana said.
The Argentine human rights lawyer, who will present his findings to the United Nations in March, met with South Korean officials, activists and North Korean defectors, including recent arrivals at a governmental resettlement center.
The envoy has traveled to South Korea five times since assuming his post in 2016 but expressed regret that the North has rejected his repeated requests to travel there or even to exchange view in letters or in person.
“I hope 2019 will be the year that will open up the human rights dialogue with North Korea,” he said, calling on negotiators to include the issue in their talks with the North. “It will be a missed opportunity if, in 2019, human rights is not addressed by all the parties.”
Quintana warned that economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council as well as unilaterally by the United States and other countries were having an impact on the already dire situation.
“The economy of North Korea has been targeted as a whole by sanctions, and this formula at least from the human rights point of view poses a lot of questions,” he said. “In my view, the issue of sanctions will have to be addressed as soon as possible.”
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