The U.S. government hopes that a new United Nations commission created to investigate reports of widespread human rights abuses in North Korea will intensify the international pressure on the repressive regime.
Calling North Korean violations “egregious and pervasive,” Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea human rights issues, said last month’s creation of the three- person body by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva “ratchets up the legal stature of what’s being done.”
Speaking to reporters today, King said the U.S. government estimates that between 130,000 and 200,000 North Koreans are kept in prison camps. The State Department’s annual global human rights review, released April 19, includes a 24-page summary of alleged abuses in North Korea, including arbitrary arrest and torture, public executions and a network of forced labor camps where accused dissidents and relatives of defectors are tortured and imprisoned for life. The North Korean government denies that such camps exist.
While calling U.S. discussions with China over North Korea “very positive,” King said he and other U.S. officials continue to press Chinese leaders over the forced repatriation of North Koreans who flee to China. Defectors who are returned to North Korea are killed or brutally punished, according to rights groups. King said border controls appear to have tightened under Kim Jong Un, who ascended to power after the death of his father in December 2011.
The UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, has called North Korea’s human rights conditions “the worst in the whole world.”
While a UN commission empowered to ask for access to North Korea to investigate claims of abuse may carry more weight than any single government or non-governmental group, King acknowledged that it’s hard to predict what would come from the commission’s findings, and whether they could be used as the basis for any UN Security Council action against North Korea.
The purpose of the commission “is to weigh the evidence, to look at the information and to make a determination as to what can be done,” King said.
In recent months, North Korea has conducted nuclear and missile tests in defiance of Security Council members, including the U.S. and China, North Korea’s closest ally. Last month, the regime issued threats of nuclear destruction after the UN imposed new sanctions.
King said those sanctions are aimed at luxury goods consumed by Kim, his family and other regime elites, and aren’t expected to hurt ordinary North Koreans.
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