“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
The following text is part of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 to establish the minimum universal standard for human dignity and rights. To protect basic human rights, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966 at the 21st UN General Assembly, which came into force from 1976. Consequently, the issue of human rights gained universal standing as a matter of international concern.
After ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, North Korea has participated in its own way as a member of the world’s international society. North Korea has offered periodic reports to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1981, the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2001. In 2014, North Korea was examined by the UN Universal Periodic Review and ratified the Optional Protocols of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In spite of all this, the reality of human rights in North Korea remains a serious problem. Although North Korea has established regulations for human rights, these regulations are rarely adhered to and the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK has been denied entry into North Korea. The reports of NGOs and organizations for human rights in North Korea show that North Korean citizens have not received their basic rights as human beings. North Korean people’s health and lives are at risk, as children and senior citizens lack food and medication required for survival.
The international society has acknowledged problems concerning North Korea’s food shortage and defectors, and shown involvement in various activities to encourage North Korean human rights reforms. The Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 and the UNHRC in 2008. In particular, the UN Commission of Inquiry has reported on serious widespread systematic human rights violations in North Korea, and these outcomes influenced the UNHRC and UN General Assembly’s decision to adopt the December 2015 Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK. Consequently, human rights in North Korea has become an issue to discuss in the UN Security Council.
On the other hand, in the United States, following the North Korean Refugee Relief Act of 2002, the North Korean Humans Rights Act was passed in 2004. Similarly, Japan passed a statute on North Korean human rights in 2006. There are claims that argue that these laws were not established to combat human rights violations in North Korea, and instead were created to address the issue of North Korean defectors in the United States and the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea. Nevertheless, these actions in the international community reflect the severity of human rights violations in North Korea, and the degree to which it has now become a global issue threatening international peace and security.
In 2005, the National Assembly of South Korea introduced a North Korean human rights bill for the first time. The bill aims to provide institutional assistance for human rights reforms in North Korea, in order to improve the human rights situation in the country and prepare for an era of unification that would see all experience a higher quality of life.
However, due to various opposing views and repeals within the system, the North Korean human rights bill was stuck in parliament for over 10 years. After a decade of discussion, on March 2, 2016 the North Korean human rights bill was passed. The legislation came into legal effect on September 2, 2016. Although the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Advisory Committee and North Korean Human Rights Foundation is still under negotiation, as a result of the enforcement ordinance the Ministry of Unification has set up the Center for North Korean Human Rights Records, while the Ministry of Justice established the North Korean Human Rights Documentation Office. To systematically manage North Korean human rights material, the Ministry of Unification launched the North Korean Human Rights Research Center and publishes the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea.
The South Korean government has taken the first step towards resolving North Korean human rights issues. Within South Korea though, the lack of cooperation among the political actors in charge and the country’s tumultuous diplomatic relationship with North Korea may both work to complicate this process moving forward. These problems should be overcome to generate support for improving human rights for North Korean citizens.