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Don’t sidestep human rights in North, UN rapporteur urges

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Elizabeth Salmon, the United Nations special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, speaks during her meeting with Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho at the Central Government Complex in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Monday. [YONHAP]
Elizabeth Salmon, the United Nations special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, speaks during her meeting with Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho at the Central Government Complex in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Monday. [YONHAP]

A visiting United Nations official on Tuesday called for the inclusion of human rights in future talks regarding North Korea, saying the issue should not be sidestepped in discussions about the regime’s wide-ranging violations of international law.

Elizabeth Salmon, the UN’s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said that the international community “cannot work on peace and security” with the North “without discussing human rights” during an afternoon press conference held in Jung District, central Seoul.

Referring to past South Korean administrations’ attempts to tiptoe around the North’s human rights violations in previous peace talks, Salmon said, “I question whether this policy has been successful,” noting that the number of missile tests and military threats by Pyongyang had not decreased because Seoul and others refrained from pressing the issue.

She further urged that human rights considerations be “included in every talk and process when we discuss peace and security” with the North.

Salmon’s press conference wraps up her 9-day visit to South Korea, where she met with Foreign Minister Park Jin, Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho and a wide cross section of South Korean civil society that includes North Korean defectors, relatives of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees held in the North and residents of Cheorwon County, Gangwon, which lies adjacent to the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean Peninsula.

During her address to reporters, Salmon emphasized the importance of resolving the issue of thousands of South Korean POWs, abductees and detainees in the North, saying that there is “no time to waste” after their ageing families told her that they feel “forgotten.”

The plight of South Koreans held against their will in the North has received greater official attention since Kim was named unification minister.

His first official meeting in August upon taking office was with representatives and relatives of South Koreans who have been abducted and detained by North Korean agents.

While welcoming North Korea’s recent partial reopening of its borders, the UN special rapporteur also expressed hope that Pyongyang “will restart its engagement with the international community and with the UN human rights mechanisms,” calling the return of the UN country team to the North “an urgent priority.”

But she also said current international sanctions against Pyongyang could be recalibrated, noting that the UN’s own panel of experts on enforcement and monitoring had noted “unintended consequences” of sanctions on humanitarian relief efforts directed at the North.

Like the South Korean government and others, Salmon also voiced concerns that North Koreans in China and other countries could be repatriated against their will back to their repressive homeland.

“The UN human rights mechanisms, including my mandate, have regularly raised concerns with China and other [UN] member states that forcibly repatriated individuals to the DPRK are at real risk of torture and other ill-treatment upon return, along with other serious human rights violations,” Salmon said, referring to the North by the acronym for its official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Member states must refrain from forced repatriation in compliance with the principle of non-refoulement, which is customary international law and applies to individuals at risk of being subject to torture and ill-treatment regardless of their migration status,” Salmon said.

The UN special rapporteur offered praise for Seoul’s domestic efforts to raise awareness of Pyongyang’s human rights issues, but also said South Korea “could take more measures to work with the international community.”

Since her appointment as the first female UN special rapporteur for North Korean human rights, Salmon has stressed violations experienced disproportionately by North Korean women, including their outsized burden as taxpayers and breadwinners from work in the North’s informal markets, the sexual and physical violence they face in detention, and the hardships they experience once they cross the North’s borders.

In response to a question from the Korea JoongAng Daily, Salmon also called on the South Korean government to increase “meaningful participation that considers interests of all women” in discussions regarding North Korean human rights, “not just two or three women at the table.”

BY MICHAEL LEE    [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]