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Rights advocate: Few signs of progress addressing North Korean abuses

Ten years after a special United Nations commission found that the North Korean regime’s most egregious human rights violations amounted to “crimes against humanity,” the U.N. Security Council has yet to make a referral of the case to the International Criminal Court.

That failure of international will is just one more reason why the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain a system of oppression over its citizens that is no less severe than what his father and grandfather did before him, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, head of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“The regime is still running five political prison camps where up to three generations of the same family, pursuant to a system of guilt by association…are held — men, women [and] children,” Mr. Scarlatoiu on Tuesday told “The Washington Brief,” a monthly virtual forum hosted by The Washington Times Foundation.

The crimes against humanity highlighted a decade ago by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) on North Korean Human Rights “have continued with no improvement,” said Mr. Scarlatoiu. The Kim regime’s “security apparatus,” he added, “is thriving.”

In recent years, the Kim regime has used the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic to “crack down on those trying to access information from the outside world and especially on those trying to smuggle in information from the outside world.”

“Travel inside the country was severely limited,” Mr. Scarlatoiu said. “Crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated, especially at North Korea’s unlawful detention facilities.”

He said the international community and the U.N. have failed to take meaningful action for a range of reasons, including China’s growing clout at the U.N Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

More generally, “there has also been “a lack of strategy, a lack of a control tower, a general lack of resources” to confront the North Korean human rights problem, said Mr. Scarlatoiu, with great-power disagreements within the United Nations making the prospect of major progress in the near future dim.

He pointed specifically to a “deepening rift” on the Security Council between permanent members China, Russia and their allies on one side, and the Western-aligned front upheld by permanent members France, the United States and Britain.

The rift has undercut efforts by the Biden administration and others to focus attention on the Kim regime’s human rights record, amid stalled diplomacy aimed at convincing the regime to halt its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.

North Korea has built up the programs in defiance of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions in recent decades. The Trump administration sought direct diplomacy with the Kim regime, pursuing a major denuclearization agreement in exchange for potential relief of broad economic sanctions on North Korea.

The pursuit — which largely pushed the human rights issue to the back-burner — ultimately failed after two summits between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, whose regime has since ramped up ICBM tests and nuclear activities.

While the Biden administration has struggled to move the ball forward on nuclear diplomacy with the Kim regime, administration officials have increased efforts to draw attention to the human rights issue.

Earlier this year, President Biden nominated veteran Korean-speaking diplomat Julie Turner to serve as special envoy for human rights in North Korea, a position that had been vacant since 2017, although her posting still hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently chaired a rare meeting of the Security Council that focused on North Korea’s abuses. The Aug. 17 event marked the first time in more than five years that the Security Council held an open public meeting on the Kim regime’s human rights record.

The Biden administration subsequently called out the regime for “continu[ing] to exploit its own citizens, including through mass mobilizations of school children and forced labor.”

In a statement marking the start of the 20th annual North Korea Freedom Week in late September, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller pointed specifically to “the plight of North Korean asylum seekers, including some 2,000 North Koreans detained in China who are at risk of repatriation to [North Korea].”

“North Koreans forcibly repatriated are reportedly commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, forced abortion, other forms of gender-based violence and summary execution,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Scarlatoiu said Tuesday that China’s policy of “forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees to a place where they face a credible fear of persecution…is a direct violation of China’s obligations” under international refugee law.

The rights activist said he sees little chance in the short term that either Russia or China will join the campaign to highlight North Korean rights abuses.

Collaboration with Russia will be “nearly impossible as long as the conflict in Ukraine is still going on,” Mr. Scarlatoiu said. China could prove more receptive, he said, particularly if Beijing took action on halting its policy on repatriation.

But he noted that Chinese authorities have kept the repatriation policy in the face of past pressure, including a letter attached to the U.N. recommendations on North Korea a decade ago. Mr. Scarlatoiu noted how the letter warned Beijing that through their policy of forcible repatriation, they were “aiding and abetting a regime that was committing crimes against humanity.”

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
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