SEOUL – The United Nations rights investigator for North Korea raised doubts on Wednesday over the effectiveness of economic sanctions imposed on the reclusive country where people are suffering acute food shortage.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, in his latest report released in March highlighted that “human rights and humanitarian situation continues to be serious” in the country.
In a telephonic interview with EFE, the Argentine lawyer said there was a need to incorporate respect for human rights in the economic development model of North Korea where “some 40 percent of the population lack basic rights such as access to health services or shortage of food.”
You are halfway into your six year mandate and North Korea continues to deny you entry into the country. What assessment will you make?
A fundamental part of my mandate consists trying to establish a communication link with North Korea. It is almost a diplomatic work. In these three years, I have not been able to establish this link neither in New York nor in Geneva.
Apart from some informal contacts in the Southeast Asian country, there has been no communication. And this has been a key problem of North Korea, a country completely closed to the international community. There are countries who close the doors partially, such as China. But there is no other example in the world like North Korea.
Your report highlights the need to include human rights diplomacy in the denuclearization talks between North Korea and the international community. Are these two compatible?
I see them linked. And when one is talking about denuclearization, they are talking about peace after all, because never was there a peace treaty for the Korean War (1950-1953). But when talking about peace, it needs to reach everyone. Issues like basic rights, equality and liberty – which are not guaranteed in North Korea – need to be introduced in the conversation. Peace needs to be a collective agreement.
But North Korea traditionally has been evasive when it comes to human rights.
I try to be realistic. I know that bringing the topic of human rights to the table during dialog with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is difficult. My message is that we have to work for opening of North Korea, and that the UN should be there to carry forward the verification of the situation so that North Korea begins to talk, begins a genuine dialog with me as a rapporteur.
Your report also mentions the impact of the UN sanctions, especially those imposed since 2017 after the escalation of weapons testing.
The most important question to raise is whether the sanctions are of a preventive or punitive nature. And I ask: if it is of preventive nature, I think we have failed, because North Korea has ended up developing its nuclear weapons and its capacity to launch inter-continental missiles. And if it is punitive, here I have to object because then it is punishing the people.
What is the impact of these sanctions on the population?
To begin, the sanctions ban the deployment of United Nations Development Program in the country. It is obvious that North Korea has violated resolutions decisively and blatantly with its nuclear and missile tests. And they have been continuously imposing sanctions and have reached to a program that attacks the economy entirely. Four 2017 resolutions harshly punish basic industries of North Korea including mining, fishing sector and ban it from importing hydrocarbons.
I think it violates international standards such as looking after the fundamental rights of each person in the world, especially in developing countries. These questions have been completely overshadowed by the issue of nuclear agenda. I only throw light on it and I need to point out that we cannot lose sight of these principles.
Do you see alternatives to the “maximum pressure” strategy led by Washington under the UN?
I don’t know what is the solution in terms of lifting a certain type of sanctions. But, as I say, these sanctions have not been successful and perhaps it is time to change the strategy completely. We need to be worried about the situation of the people in North Korea.
A recent report of the two UN agencies present in the country – World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization – said that 40 percent of the North Koreans were facing food shortage. Could sanctions may have contributed to worsening of this situation?
I am always very careful of making such statements because I need to have all the information. And the information that I have, which is in that WFP and FAO report, indicates bad harvests due to climatic issues. Although once again, the problem lies in the fact that if North Korea has to face the climatic crisis, one will have to see what tools will it use to respond.