Five days before a much-anticipated summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, 52 nongovernmental organizations and coalitions sent a letter to the North’s ruler Kim Jong Un on Thursday, calling on him to undertake reforms to end serious rights abuses in the repressive, autocratic nation.
The NGOs, which altogether represent more than 300 nongovernmental groups in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America, are urging Kim to end forced labor and the abuse of prisoners, take action on the human rights recommendations of the United Nations, and provide monitoring of international humanitarian aid to ensure it reaches those who need it.
“As your government undertakes new efforts to increase its engagement with the rest of the world, we urge you to move rapidly to institute lasting improvements to the dire human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the letter said, using North Korea’s formal name.
North Korea is one of the most repressive nations in the world, severely curtailing basic liberties, prohibiting political opposition and a free media, and meting out harsh punishments, including torture, rape, forced labor, and executions, for those who commit minor offenses or try to defect.
A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that the government engages in widespread rights abuses that also include enslavement, murder, forced abortions, and other forms of sexual violence.
“Finally, as you have pledged to focus on improving the lives of ordinary people in the DPRK, we urge you to take strong and quick action to show the people of the DPRK and the world that your government is sincere in ending 70 years of rights abuses and acknowledging the horrific suffering of the North Korean people,” the letter concluded.
In recent months, Kim, who has been in power for seven years but had not met with any world leaders until 2018, has stepped up his engagement with other countries by holding meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“North Korea’s increased dialogue with other countries is a positive step, but before the world gets too excited, they should remember that Kim Jong Un still presides over perhaps the most repressive system in the world,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the signatories of the letter.
“As the U.N. Security Council has recognized, human right abuses in North Korea and threats to international peace and security are intrinsically connected, so any security discussion needs to include human rights,” he said in a statement.
Rights groups and other players in the international community have continued to press the North Korean government to expand its engagement with U.N. human rights mechanisms.
Though North Korea has signed and ratified several human rights treaties that require the country to cooperate with U.N. institutions and treaty bodies, the U.N. Security Council has included it four years in a row on its formal agenda as a threat to international peace and security.
The U.N’s Human Rights Council on March 23 adopted a resolution authorizing the hiring of legal accountability experts to evaluate cases and develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for crimes against humanity.
Meeting with Trump
Budding détente between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in recent months led to the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration on April 27. Kim and Moon agreed to work together on a peace treaty to end the Korean War and confirmed a common goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with Kim on June 12 in Singapore to discuss Pyongyang’s relinquishment of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security assurances and economic relief, though some U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for him raise human rights issues as well.
On April 25, the U.S. Senate passed the North Korean Human Rights Act to update and reauthorize a 2004 law promoting human rights and freedom in the country.
“It is both America’s moral responsibility and in our national security interest to hold accountable the North Korean dictatorship for being one of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” said Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the legislation, in a statement.
“The Kim regime systematically and mercilessly terrorizes its own people, denying them their most basic freedoms, running extensive networks of political prisoner camps, and engaging in extrajudicial killings, abductions, arbitrary detention, arrest, torture, forced starvation, and sexual violence against women,” he said, adding that he urged the House of Representative to pass the bill and send it to the president to sign into law.
“The North Korean people have suffered enormously for decades,” said Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who with Rubio introduced the bill in the Senate in 2017. “As the United States and our allies and partners in the region prepare to engage Pyongyang in potential denuclearization talks, we cannot take our eyes off the deplorable human rights situation in that country.”
“Promoting and defending human rights must always remain a core pillar of U.S. diplomacy abroad, and this bill will underscore that,” he said in a statement.
But following a meeting in Washington with North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol on June 1, Trump, whose goal is to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, said he did not bring up human rights.
But Joseph Yun, the U.S.’s special representative for North Korea policy until March, cautioned a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on June 5 against placing human rights high on the summit agenda.
“Complete denuclearization, which means dismantlement, removal of all fissile material, and production capacity must be the goal,” Yun said in his opening statement to lawmakers.
Yun also said it would be “a mistake to overload the agenda” during the talks where the participants would have to focus mainly on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, The Washington Post reported.
Nevertheless, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, called on Thursday for the U.S. president to include human rights in talks with Kim.
“What I am saying is that at some point, whether the next summit or other summits to come or meetings, it is very important that human rights are raised,” Reuters quoted him as saying at a news briefing in Geneva. “Otherwise, first it will be a problem in terms of building a sustainable agreement with DPRK with regard to denuclearization.”
“I am not of the opinion that a human rights dialogue will undermine the opening and the talks on denuclearization at all,” Quintana was quoted as saying. “I don't think that there is a dilemma here.”