UN says N Korea expanding military programmes while people suffer

First discussion of isolated country’s human rights in six years draws anger from Russia and China.

Volker Turk addresses the UN Security Council via video. His face is on a large screen.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, on screen, addresses the UN Security Council on North Korea [Angela Weiss/AFP]

North Korea has been accused of letting its people go hungry as it devotes ever more resources to developing its nuclear weapons programme and upgrading its military.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk told the United Nations Security Council at a special meeting on human rights in North Korea that the country’s people were experiencing increasingly severe political repression and worsening economic conditions.

Many rights abuses, including forced labour and child labour, “stem directly from, or support, the increasing militarisation” of North Korea, he told the council on Thursday.

Turk’s comments were supported by Elizabeth Salmon, the UN independent human rights expert on North Korea, who said the country’s leaders had repeatedly demanded citizens “tighten their belts” to the point of starvation in some cases, “so that the available resources could be used to fund the nuclear and missile programmes”.

The Security Council session, requested by the United States, Albania and Japan, was the first in the Security Council on the issue for six years and comes as Pyongyang accelerates its weapons development programme, testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and attempting to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.

During the hearing, most council members criticised the deterioration of living conditions and human rights in North Korea.

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said there could be “no peace without human rights” and – surrounded by ambassadors from more than 50 countries – condemned in a joint statement “human rights violations and abuses” that she said were “inextricably linked with the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile development.”

DPRK is the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea, which has long been subject to severe international sanctions over its weapons programmes.

Ilhyeok Kim, a North Korean defector who fled the country when he was 17, told the council that he had been forced at a young age to work in fields without compensation and that the grain that was grown all went to the military.

“The government turns our blood and sweat into a luxurious life for the leadership and missiles that blast our hard work into the sky,” said Kim, who is now in his late 20s.

“The money spent on just one missile could feed us for three months, but the government doesn’t care and is only concerned with maintaining their power, developing nuclear weapons and creating propaganda to justify their actions,” he added.

While no delegate from Pyongyang attended the session, representatives from China and Russia argued that the Security Council was not the place to review North Korean human rights issues.

Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said the debate was “a cynical and hypocritical attempt by the US and its allies to advance their own political agenda.”

While China had opposed the public meeting, it did not attempt to block the session.

“The council should play a constructive role in resuming talks and easing tensions,” China’s Deputy UN Ambassador Geng Shuang told the meeting.

“Pushing the council to consider the human rights situation in the DPRK will not only not help to ease, but escalate the situation. It is irresponsible, unconstructive and an abuse of the council’s power,” he said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Monday called for an increase in missile production to be ready for war, while a South Korean lawmaker, citing an intelligence briefing, warned on Thursday that Pyongyang may launch an intercontinental ballistic missile to protest against the August 18 summit between the US, Japan, and South Korea at Camp David.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies