DPRK (North Korea): Open Briefing on the Human Rights Situation*
Tomorrow morning (17 August), the Security Council is expected to convene for an open briefing on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under the agenda item “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. The meeting was requested by Albania, Japan, and the US to discuss the links between human rights abuses and violations in the DPRK and international peace and security. The expected briefers are UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK Elizabeth Salmón, and a civil society representative. The Republic of Korea (ROK) is expected to participate in the meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. The meeting will mark the first occasion that the Council has held an open briefing on the human rights situation in the DPRK since December 2017.
The Council first discussed the human rights situation in the DPRK on 22 December 2014 following a request (S/2014/872) from permanent Council members France, the UK, and the US and elected members Australia, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the ROK, and Rwanda that cited the final report of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK (COI). The COI’s report, which was issued on 7 February 2014, concluded that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations had been committed by the DPRK and found that many of these violations constituted crimes against humanity. Among other matters, the report recommended that the Council refer the situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and impose targeted sanctions against those most responsible for committing crimes against humanity.
The December 2014 meeting request, which also asked for “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” to be formally placed on the Council’s agenda “without prejudice to the item on non-proliferation in the DPRK”, was unsuccessfully opposed by China and Russia. (For more information, see our 19 December 2014 What’s in Blue story.) Since then, the Council’s consideration of this issue has remained contentious due to differing views among Council members as to whether human rights violations in the DPRK constitute a threat to international peace and security. China has regularly argued that the Council is not the appropriate UN forum for discussing human rights issues, that such issues should not be politicised, and that discussion of human rights in the DPRK jeopardises efforts to ease tensions and denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. Russia has adopted a similar position, together with some elected members.
Other Council members, however, have taken the view that the human rights situation in the DPRK is directly linked to international peace and security and merits attention from the Council. These members tend to argue that human rights violations perpetrated by the DPRK enable it to pursue its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes and often point to specific examples, such as the use of revenue generated by overseas workers from the DPRK to fund these programmes, as evidence to support their arguments.
From 2014 to 2017, the Council held an annual open meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK featuring briefings from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and senior UN Secretariat officials. Each of these meetings required a procedural vote in order to go ahead due to objections from China. These objections were supported by Russia and some elected members. Since 2017, it appears that the proponents of an open briefing have not been able to garner sufficient support to hold a meeting. In 2018, for example, the US was reluctant to pursue an open briefing, apparently due to concerns that it could have had a negative effect on diplomatic negotiations it was pursuing with the DPRK. (For more information, see our 11 December 2019 What’s in Blue story.)
Procedural Vote Tomorrow*
It appears that China will object to holding an open briefing tomorrow and that there will be a procedural vote on the adoption of the agenda at the meeting’s outset. Pursuant to rule 9 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure, the first item of the provisional agenda for each Council meeting is the adoption of the agenda. In accordance with established practice, the agenda is normally agreed ahead of the meeting and adopted without a vote. If the agenda cannot be agreed before the meeting and a Council member raises an objection to the provisional agenda, the Council president will call for a procedural vote on the adoption of the agenda. Under Article 27 of the UN Charter, procedural decisions of the Council require nine affirmative votes and cannot be vetoed by a permanent member.
Ahead of the previous open briefings on the human rights situation in the DPRK, at least nine Council members signed a letter to the Council president requesting the meeting. In December 2017, for example, France, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Sweden, Ukraine, the UK, the US, and Uruguay signed a letter (S/2016/1034) asking for a meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK with briefings from senior officials from the UN Secretariat and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Such a letter is not a requirement, and it appears that no letter has been sent to the US, the Council president for August.
On 9 December 2022, however, following a meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK that was held under “any other business”, eight current Council members (Albania, Ecuador, France, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the UK, and the US), together with more than 20 other member states, signed a joint statement that urged all Council members to support an open briefing on human rights in the DPRK in 2023. These Council members, along with the EU and more than 50 other member states, also signed a 28 February letter requesting that the agenda item “The situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” remain on the list of items of which the Council is seized (S/2023/157).
The seven Council members who did not sign these documents are Brazil, China, Gabon, Ghana, Mozambique, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the time of writing, it appears that at least one of these members will vote in favour of holding the open briefing and that the meeting will therefore take place.
The US has circulated a concept note ahead of tomorrow’s open briefing, which says that the meeting aims to explore how the Council and the broader international community can uphold international peace and security by promoting awareness of and accountability for the DPRK’s human rights violations and abuses. The concept note also argues that these violations are inextricably linked with the DPRK’s weapon of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes and suggests that the repressive political climate in the DPRK enables the government to use an inordinately large share of its resources on weapons development without comment from its population.
In their statements tomorrow, some Council members, including the P3 (France, the UK, and the US) and other like-minded states are likely to express grave concern over the human rights situation in the DPRK and outline the links between human rights violations perpetrated by the government and international peace and security. Some of these members may also urge the DPRK to engage with the UN’s human rights mechanisms and call for accountability for perpetrators of violations. In this regard, some members may refer to OHCHR’s 18 January report on promoting accountability in the DPRK, which argued that fresh, creative strategies are needed and described several possible avenues for addressing this issue, such as pursuing prosecutions using the principle of universal jurisdiction in the ROK.
Members may discuss the situation of women and girls in the DPRK. In a 9 March report on the rights of women and girls in the country, Salmón concluded that “widespread gender stereotypes are the root cause of discrimination against women” and noted that women are held in “inhumane conditions and deprived of food” and subjected to “torture and ill treatment, forced labour and gender-based violence, including sexual violence by state officials”. Some members might also raise the issue of enforced disappearances, including by referring to OHCHR’s 28 March report on this issue, which noted that the “anguish, sorrow, and reprisals that families … have had to endure are heart breaking” and called for renewed efforts for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence.
China and Russia, on the other hand, are likely to reiterate their position that the human rights situation in the DPRK should not be considered by the Council. Both members might also argue that the use of sanctions has done little to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and accuse the US of not doing enough to incentivise the DPRK to return to dialogue.
Following tomorrow’s meeting, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (US) will deliver a joint statement on the human rights situation in the DPRK on behalf of more than 50 member states, including Council members Albania, Ecuador, France, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the UK, and incoming members Slovenia and the ROK.
*Post-script (17 August): Contrary to expectations among Council members prior to the meeting, there was no objection to the provisional agenda and, as such, a procedural vote on the adoption of the agenda did not take place before the meeting began.