With the international community focusing on widespread reports of human rights violations taking place in North Korea, the North Korean regime is struggling to defend itself. Recently, North Korea attempted to challenge the international community’s criticisms of violations of children’s rights, but instead ended up acknowledging the serious extent of the problem. The events unfolded on September 20 at a review meeting of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in Geneva, Switzerland.
For further insights into this issue, we spoke to ICNK’s (International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea) Eun Kyoung Kwon (pictured left), who was part of a delegation that attended the event.
Daily NK (DNK): What was the aim of the review meeting of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) held last month?
Kwon Eun Kyoung (Kwon): The review meeting was scheduled to discuss children’s rights in North Korea. Through subsidiary agencies, the UN regularly holds meetings to check whether member nations are following various agreements. On the 20th, a meeting was held to discuss whether nations that ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child are protecting children’s rights in accordance with the policies and standards set by the convention. At this meeting, North Korea was the target of review; North Korea ratified the convention in 1990, with this being the fifth review meeting for North Korea.
For this review meeting, the North Korean regime submitted a national report last May that explains the status of children’s rights to the CRC. In the first half of this year, the CRC reviewed the materials submitted by North Korea and North Korean human rights NGOs, and on the 20th, it held a meeting to review the status of North Korea’s children’s rights.
DNK: You have reported to the CRC several times on the status of children’s rights in North Korea. What were the findings of your research?
Kwon: North Korean children are forced to work all year around. Early in summer during the farming season, they live in villages near collective farms to plant rice or build corn seedbeds for the “nutrition bed cultivation” method. It’s been found that they work all day, even at the expense of enough time to eat, to meet their daily labor requirements. If regulations are followed, only those in the fourth grade of middle school or older should be working, but if there are not enough students in the region, even younger students are mobilized.
Of course, the North Korean regime does not admit to this. North Korea justifies such child exploitation in the name of ‘labor mobilization,’ and in North Korea’s education law, this is counted as a ‘field trip.’ During the CRC review meeting, they painted a rosy picture by claiming that children perform labor for 3 weeks a year for their education and health.
DNK: What is the educational environment like for North Korean children?
Kwon: It’s common to see North Korean schools taking cash or materials from parents. In the name of taxes or economic contributions, the schools force parents to contribute once a week. Often, contributions are paid in cash. Children from poor families end up quitting school because they can’t fulfill these requirements. But the delegates from North Korea at the CRC review meeting claimed that attendance was at 98%.
The bigger problem is that because schools and teachers prefer children from rich or good songbun (family political background) families, these children are given the opportunities to move on to better schools. This is a violation of human rights and an act of discrimination, something that is outlawed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
DNK: I heard that the North Korean delegation participated in the CRC review meeting on the 20th. How did they challenge the problems suggested by the CRC?
Kwon: As for the North Korean delegation, close to 10 people participated, some stationed in Geneva and others sent from Pyongyang. They are in charge of public health, law, maternal and child health, and education, etc.
The CRC’s questions were very specific because they were based on reports given by international human rights groups. In contrast, the North Korean delegates gave vague and abstract answers. They read from legislation that has not yet been put into action. If one examines North Korea’s Constitution, or looks at their criminal or labor laws, the country sounds similar to democratized, civilized nations, but in reality North Korea is vastly different. The North Korean delegation acted as if North Korea was the most advanced in terms of children welfare, claiming that North Korean children have the happiest lives.
For example, the North Korean delegates claimed that through human rights education, awareness of human rights amongst children and parents has increased, and that there is absolutely no exploitation or violence against children. Also, they claimed that there is a policy of filing complaints, but according to North Korean defectors, the person’s anonymity or privacy is not protected, so victims end up being ostracized by others. Those who file complaints face consequences, so North Koreans do not complain. Moreover, the North Korean delegates claimed that North Korea is systematically teaching the International Covenants on Human Rights, and there is no discrimination based on songbun or exploitation of child labor.
DNK: But hasn’t North Korea’s exploitation of child labor or discrimination based on songbun been confirmed by numerous North Korean defectors?
Kwon: The North Korean delegation was struggling to answer the questions posed by the CRC. When the CRC asked questions about Storm Troops (groups created on a temporary basis for specific projects, such as construction) that mobilize teenagers, no one in the delegation was able to answer for quite some time. The answer mustered up in the end was that patriotic middle school graduates voluntarily sign up for the Storm Troops. When asked about the policy of filing complaints or accusations, and whether punishments were meted out, the North Korean delegation was not able to give a definitive answer.
DNK: What was the reaction of the audience when they heard the answers from the North Korean delegation?
Kwon: The CRC commissioners were taken aback by the North Korean delegates who simply chose to read unrealistic legislation. The commissioners are experts who know how dictatorial, human rights-abusing nations try to cover up the truth. The CRC commissioners say that reading off legislation and avoiding definitive answers is evidence itself that human rights are not improving.
Despite this, it is significant that the North Korean regime participated in the inquiry, even if it was only for show. It suggests that opportunities are opening up to access North Korea.
DNK: It’s been pointed out that despite the UN’s involvement, human rights in North Korea has not improved much.
Kwon: We need to pay attention to the fact that the North Korean regime is even minimally reacting to the UN. Even if such a small reaction does not immediately lead to human rights improvements, the North Korean regime is minutely moving toward the standards set by the UN. For example, when the UN advises North Korea to improve human rights, the regime at least sets laws and policies just to address the situation. When the UN then asks whether the laws and policies are being executed, the regime at least attempts to answer. Therefore, the UN can promote limited change.
DNK: Can you give us an example of North Korea reacting to a UN recommendation?
Kwon: For example, in 2009 during the 4th review meeting of the CRC, the North Korean delegation was unable to refute anything about child labor exploitation. But during this review meeting, even delegates sent by Supreme People’s Assembly participated. It’s especially worth noting that they made policies and legislation to satisfy the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course, more time and effort will be necessary to make such policies and legislation a reality.
Moreover, when the CRC continued to emphasize the forced labor and material exploitation in North Korean schools, the North Korean cabinet passed educational legislation last year that outlawed more than three weeks of fieldwork. Of course, farm labor that lasts longer than three weeks continues to occur, but it is important that the UN presented North Korea with evidence that demonstrated children were being exploited for farm labor.
Of course, the North Korean regime claims the results of the UN Commission or resolutions made by nations are all political scheming. On the other hand, North Korea is generally taking a diplomatic stance in reviews conducted by UN institutions or Universal Periodic Reviews. This is a pathway opened up by the North Korean regime, so it is worth trying to use the UN to improve human rights within North Korea.
DNK: ICNK played an important role in urging the UN to actively address the human rights issue in North Korea. What are ICNK’s future plans?
Kwon: Early in November this year, there will be an inspection meeting for the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. We will submit a report so that the committee can properly question the North Korean delegation. Next year, there is a review for the human rights of the disabled based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a Universal Periodic Review to review North Korean human rights overall. We will be very busy preparing for all this. We want to achieve real improvements for North Korean human rights by submitting reports that can help experts working with the UN to better understand the situation in North Korea.