News June 16, 2020

Koret Conference Convenes Virtually to Discuss Human Rights Crisis in North Korea

Amid escalating inter-Korean tension and increasing economic and social strain on North Koreans in the era of COVID-19, the importance of keeping international attention on the DRPK’s human rights violations is more urgent than ever.
Brightly colored ribbons tied to fences around Imjingak Village in the DMZ on the North Korean Border.
Brightly colored ribbons tied to fences around Imjingak Village in the DMZ on the North Korean Border. The ribbons are often covered with messages of peace, prayers, and thoughts for family members living in the North. Nigel Killeen, Getty Images

Few nations have maintained the level of isolation and control the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has orchestrated for decades. The advent of COVID-19 has seen even more stringent restrictions put in place along the DPRK’s borders and a dire increase in economic and social strain on North Koreans living throughout the peninsula.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, reports in a June 9, 2020 statement that the closure of the border between the DPRK and China has “exacerbated the food crisis, devastating cross-border trade and sapping income from merchants.” In Seoul, the South Korean Unification Ministry roused ire when it announced plans to prosecute groups of North Korean defectors for distributing anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border. The action followed the DPRK’s abrupt shutoff of communication with South Korea over the leaflets and threats of unrest along the border.

On the morning of June 16, 2020, the DPRK further retaliated against the protest literature by destroying a joint liaison office in the border town of Kaesong. The building had functioned as a de facto embassy since 2018, and the action was meant to force North Korean defectors and their South Korean supporters “to pay dearly for their crimes.”

This dramatic escalation of tensions highlights the need for international attention to the ongoing humanitarian violations in the DPRK and for proactive, collective action to address the problem. This is the focus of the 2020 Koret Conference, which opens today, June 16. Each year, APARC’s Korea Program hosts the conference in partnership with the Koret Foundation. Held virtually this year due to COVID-19, the conference sessions aim to reestablish the human rights crisis in North Korea as an international priority.

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Speaking to the importance of this topic in his welcome remarks, APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin states that, “human rights in North Korea have become a matter rivaling the nuclear issue in seriousness.” Michael Kirby, former chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights, echoes this view and warns that “the continuation of the present blindfolded approach [to human rights violations in North Korea] is perilous.”

The conference brings together international experts to discuss the intersections of multiple issues in addressing the North Korean human rights problem, such as inter-Korean relations, denuclearization, information flows to the DPRK, and international cooperation. Participants will discuss presentations released earlier this year and the conference proceedings will be collected into a forthcoming publication.

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