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Researchers evaluate North Koreas progress on UN recommendations

Lenn Uchima, intern  |  2017-08-24 14:50
Researchers from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights presented their findings on North Koreas progress on the many human rights recommendations by the UN Universal Periodic Review last month in Seoul.  

Established in 2003, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) is an NGO that specializes in investigating and recording human rights violations committed by the North Korean government. NKDBs extensive archive has served to protect the victims of violations, raise international awareness of the situation in North Korea and help prepare for transitional justice upon reunification. It has collected 65,382 cases as of September 2016. 

NKDB recently released a detailed report that closely monitored progress on the 81 accepted and 6 partially accepted UPR recommendations by the North Korean government from December 2009 to April 2014.  

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a comprehensive review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States and an important function of the UNHRC designed to ensure an equal assessment of every country and the depoliticization of human rights. The first cycle of reviews took place between 2008 and 2012. As a member state, North Korea submitted to the UPR in 2009, initially commending it for defying politicization, selectivity and double standards in the area of human rights.  

The review produced 167 recommendations, of which the North Korean government immediately rejected 50 on the ground that they seriously distorted the reality of and slandered the country. Of the remaining 117 recommendations, the government eventually accepted 81, partially accepted 6, noted 15 and rejected 15 in a belated response in 2014, just days before the second cycle of the UPR process.  

States were expected to implement accepted recommendations in the four years between the first and second UPR cycles. The North Korean government stated that necessary measures for implementation were being taken in accordance to both international standards and North Koreas specific conditions.  

NKDBs report put the governments sincerity to the test by interviewing 100 North Korean defectors who lived in North Korea during the period under review. None of them had left the country before March 2013. The interviews overwhelmingly revealed poor implementation of most of the 87 accepted and partially accepted recommendations. Economic and social rights as well as the rights of specific groups saw little to no improvement in four years, to say nothing about civil and political rights.  

The July event highlighted some of their most pertinent findings.

In healthcare, the North Korean government accepted recommendations regarding its failed free universal medical care system. Free universal medical care has collapsed in North Korea, where doctors earn close to nothing and hospitals are critically understaffed and underequipped. Consequently, medical professionals have unofficially commercialized their services in order to support themselves, creating a black market for health inaccessible to the underprivileged. 

Although the government established new health care centers and renovated many existing ones during the period under review, the facilities were largely unavailable to the general population due to their location in Pyongyang. Interviewees agreed that practically nothing had changed. Most doctors still demanded bribes for medical treatment, and hospitals still saved what little medicine they had for government officials and their families.  

In general, medicine is expensive. The ones like cold medicines are cheap, but medicines to treat [more serious] diseases are expensive, so poor people cannot afford them. They have to sell their houses to buy such medicine. So, some people just commit suicide, said one interviewee.  

The government accepted a staggering 17 recommendations calling for the promotion and protection of womens rights as well. Accordingly, it enacted the Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women (LPPRW) in 2010, which specifically stated that international treaties on womens rights to which North Korea is a party shall have the same effect as domestic laws. North Korean women seemed to have finally attained a legal framework on which they could rely.

In reality, however, the LPPRs language was simply too vague to be practical, especially about violence against women. Regarding sexual violence, the LPPR provided that those who commit rape shall be punished by relevant institutions. Yet, neither what constituted rape nor what relevant institutions entailed was clearly defined, gutting the resolution of real use. Regarding the lack of preventive measures against domestic violence, one interviewee said that domestic violence is just too common.

As these examples demonstrate, much of the changes implemented during the review period were merely cosmetic. The North Korean government established institutions and frameworks from above that satisfied the international community, but neglected to construct the necessary mechanisms within them to effect actual change. 
 
One interviewees anecdote illustrated this empty human rights situation well.  

Representatives from the UN came to inspect a kindergarten once in 2011 to see how North Korean children were fed. Teachers distributed snacks in little bags specifically for that day. The interviewee recalled, So after the UN people come and look, they think oh this is how children at kindergartens are fed in North Korea. Now after they left, I couldnt believe it. Remember the snacks? They took them all back.

Why is the North Korean government so intractable? NKDB explained that the foundation of North Koreas policies regarding human rights dialogue is human rights are state rights. State sovereignty precedes human rights in North Korea, and criticism of North Korean human rights is perceived as criticism of the government.  

An interviewee from Pyongyang confirmed, Maybe you could write something about getting some money from an NGO to modernize a nursery or something like that. You would never write lets change the law on children, or increase welfare for children. That would be a criticism of the system, and if you want to survive, you wouldnt do something like that...Its meant to be about promoting the perfection of the North Korean state, you cant report any limitations.  It all starts like that. 

Still, Oh Joon, former ROK Ambassador to the UN and guest speaker at the event, suggested that North Koreas sensitive response to international pressure, however limited, was progress nonetheless. He recommended further depoliticization of human rights issues and greater international cooperation as the next step. We need to convince North Korea that every country has problems and that we, too, are subject to universal lawsthat we are not trying to bash North Korea in particular, he argued. If North Korea lacks the technical expertise in the area, it should not feel embarrassed to ask.

International organizations seemed to agree that mutual trust was key to gaining greater access to information and expanding operations in North Korea. One organization wrote to NKDB, We are given greater freedom in monitoring projects. We are allowed to ask a lot more questions and engage more deeply. Part of this is a result of relationship-building work over many years with local officials and staff. Of course, there are always limitations, but the more mutual trust there is, more meaningful engagement is possible. 

To this end, the conclusions drawn by NKDBs report merit further discussion if multilateral progress on human rights is to one day be achieved in North Korea.
 
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