North Koreans Are Starved and Forced to Work, U.N. Hears

by Pelican Press
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The United Nations Security Council on Thursday took up North Korea’s human rights record for the first time in six years, with officials painting a grim picture of extreme hunger, forced labor and medicine shortages in the country.

The United States, which holds the rotating monthly presidency of the council, had sought the meeting along with Albania and Japan.

In addition to reports from U.N. officials, delegates at the meeting heard testimony from Ilhyeok Kim, a North Korean who had fled with his family to South Korea. He described being forced to work as a child and growing up under a “reign of fear.”

“The government turns our blood and sweat into a luxurious life for the leadership and missiles that blast our hard work into the sky,” he said.

Predictably, news of the U.N. meeting did not go down well in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where the government on Tuesday criticized the American-led discussion as “despicable,” saying that the only purpose of the meeting was to help Washington achieve its geopolitical goals.

The discussion also emphasized the current divides among world powers. The Russian delegate denounced the meeting, calling it “propaganda,” and China’s representative accused the council of overstepping its purview.

Those comments contrasted with the dire situation outlined by U.N. officials. Volker Türk, the bloc’s high commissioner for human rights, said that policies introduced by Pyongyang ostensibly to contain the spread of Covid-19 had grown ever more extensive and repressive, even as cases had waned.

Rarely had North Korea “been more painfully closed to the outside world than it is today,” Mr. Türk said, adding that North Koreans were becoming “increasingly desperate,” and that fears of state surveillance, arrest and interrogation had increased.

As economic conditions worsened, Mr. Türk said, forced labor for little or no pay — including putting children to work in some cases — was used to maintain key sectors of the economy. He said that many rights violations stemmed directly from the country’s militarization.

“The widespread use of forced labor — including labor in political prison camps, forced use of schoolchildren to collect harvests, the requirement for families to undertake labor and provide a quota of goods to the government, and confiscation of wages from overseas workers — all support the military apparatus of the state and its ability to build weapons,” he said.

He noted that while North Koreans had suffered poverty and repression before, “currently they appear to be suffering both.”

“Given the limits of state-run economic institutions,” he added, “many people appear to be facing extreme hunger as well as acute shortages of medication.”

Elizabeth Salmón, a Peruvian legal scholar and the U.N.’s special rapporteur on rights in North Korea, said women and girls in the country had been detained in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture, forced labor and gender-based violence. Female escapees who have been forcibly repatriated were subjected to invasive body searches, she said.

“The preparation for any possible peacemaking process needs to include women as decision makers, and this process needs to start now,” she added.

While many Western countries at the meeting said that they were appalled by the allegations of abuse, Russia and China took aim at the council instead.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, called the meeting a “provocation” and “a shameless attempt” by the United States and other Western countries “to use the council to advance their own self-serving politicized agenda.”

Geng Shuang, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., took a different tack, arguing that human rights issues were beyond the scope of the council’s mission because the conditions in North Korea did not “pose a threat to international peace and security.”

But Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. envoy, said that she was inspired by Mr. Kim’s bravery and that Thursday’s meeting was long overdue.

“We must give voice to the voiceless,” she said.

Despite the vivid portrayals of the suffering in North Korea, there was no agreement to take any action and no mention of Pvt. Travis T. King, the American soldier who fled across the inter-Korean border into North Korea in July.

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