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UN Human Rights Chief Cautions Sanctions Could Hurt Struggling N. Koreans

FILE - U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein speaks to Vanderbilt University School of Law students, April 5, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.
FILE - U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein speaks to Vanderbilt University School of Law students, April 5, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.

The United Nations human rights commissioner has called on the Security Council to assess the impact of economic sanctions on North Korea to minimize their impact on millions of already struggling North Koreans.

“The humanitarian assistance provided by U.N. agencies and others are literally a lifeline for some 13 million acutely vulnerable individuals,” Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told council members via a video link from Paris on Monday. “Sanctions may be adversely affecting this essential help.”

He cited as one example international banking restrictions, which have slowed the U.N.’s ability to deliver food rations, health kits and other humanitarian aid to citizens.

Al-Hussein briefed a special session of the council that was focused on the human rights situation in North Korea. Despite objections from China, Russia and Bolivia, the meeting went ahead due to the support of a majority of council members.

Human rights a consistent subject

This is the fourth consecutive year the council has discussed the human rights situation there, a subject usually taken up in other U.N. forums, such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

“The international security crisis regarding military actions taken by the government of the DPRK is inseparable from concerns about the human rights situation of ordinary people in the country,” the human rights high commissioner said Monday. DPRK is the abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name.

Al-Hussein said it is difficult to get a complete picture of the situation since his staff lacks access to the country, but escapees have provided accounts of the “horrific conditions” in the country's prisons and labor camps, and of the risk of repatriation if they are caught in China. He said over the past year, his office has received more than 70 reports of North Koreans who escaped to China and were returned home after the authorities ruled they were economic migrants.

“Repatriated escapees are routinely subjected to multiple forms of torture and ill-treatment at detention centers located on the border with China, including beatings, forced labor, deprivation of food and healthcare and sexual violence,” the high commissioner said.

He said some escapees carry poison to take in the event they are forcibly returned home.

“In July, a family of five reportedly committed collective suicide as they were about to be taken to the DPRK for repatriation,” he noted.

Gross violations

The majority of North Korean asylum-seekers are women and they are often exploited as sex workers, forced into marriages with Chinese men or used as cheap, bonded labor. Women who are repatriated to North Korea and are pregnant are often subjected to forced abortions.

In 2014, an independent commission of inquiry commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council interviewed scores of defectors and concluded that widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights were taking place in North Korea and that many amounted to crimes against humanity.

‘Terrifying Prison’

At a separate event co-sponsored by the United States and six other countries following the council meeting, North Korean defector Ji Hyeon-A spoke emotionally about her three attempts to escape her homeland, beginning in 1998 when she was a teenager.

“I spent eight months in a re-education center and some time in China, a foreign place to me, before finally reaching South Korea in 2007,” she said. Today she is an activist and author. Some 30,000 North Koreans have made it to safety in South Korea since the mid-1990s.

Dire living conditions

Ji described dire living conditions at the re-education center, noting that few residents were left alive.

“Everyone was subjected to harsh labor, and meals were so lacking that we ate raw locusts, discarded cabbage leaves and skinned frogs and rats," Ji said. "People died, withered and dehydrated from continuous diarrhea."

Ji escaped a third time from North Korea. When she was repatriated she was three months pregnant and the authorities forced her to undergo an abortion that was carried out without any anesthesia. After this, she made the perilous journey across the river to China one final time, finally succeeding and later making it to South Korea where she was reunited with some of her family members.

“North Korea is a terrifying prison,” Ji said. “The Kims are underway with a vast massacre; it takes a miracle to survive there,” she said of the family that runs the regime.