SEOUL, South Korea — On Wednesday, November 6th, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea co-hosted the 2019 International Symposium on Human Rights in the DPRK: Promoting Peace on the Korean Peninsula and Human Rights in the DPRK through the UN SDGs at the President Hotel in Seoul, South Korea. The symposium examined the nexus between promoting sustainable development and promoting human rights in North Korea.

In the keynote speech, Dr. Heisoo Shin, a member of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, established the overarching premises: firstly, that the DPRK historically has been more willing to engage with SDGs than with human rights recommendations; and secondly, that the SDGs can be used as access points for improving human rights. To the latter point, Dr. Shin referenced a 2018 Human Rights Council Resolution which stated that “[t]he promotion and protection of human rights and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.” Thus, the symposium explored possible avenues by which the SDGs can be used to improve human rights in the DPRK.

Thus, Session I, titled “Approaching Human Rights in North Korea through the Sustainable Development Goals,” explicated this nexus between sustainable development and human rights. Dr. Edward P. Reed, adjunct professor at the Asian Institute of Management, expanded on the potential synergies between the two frameworks for the international community’s engagement with North Korea. He emphasized many advantages to this approach, such as the SGDs providing a universal and positive set of criteria on which to assess improvement in quality of human life, regardless of political system or ideology.

Dr. Reed highlighted two SGDs, in particular—Goal 2 “Zero Hunger” and Goal 8 “Decent Work and Economic Growth”—as germane to the human rights situation in North Korea. To the former, state control and management of the agriculture industry in the form of collective farms has led to food insecurity while infringing on the rights of the farming laborers. As a potential solution, Dr. Reed proposed that international humanitarian aid organizations make recommendations and encourage fundamental adjustments that are likely not only to lead to expanded production in the long run, but also to enhancement human rights of the farming population. To the latter, Dr. Reed pointed to the Kaesong Industrial Complex as an exemplar case of working conditions for industrial workers in North Korea and advised that international cooperation in expanding the special economic zone model around the country can contribute both towards achieving this SDG and towards improving North Korean labor conditions.

A panel following Dr. Reed’s presentation featured: Bernhard Seliger, representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Korea; Changrok Soh, professor at Korea University and a member of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee; Madoka Saji, human rights officer at UN OHCHR Seoul; and Daehoon Lee, director of Trans-Education for Peace Institute. The panelists drew on their diverse backgrounds to further delve into this topic.

Then, Session II, titled “The Sustainable Development Goals and International Cooperation Strategies to Promote Human Rights for Vulnerable Groups in the DPRK,” narrowed the focus to vulnerable demographics, such as women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. Signe Poulsen, representing OHCHR Seoul, provided a comprehensive overview of this topic. This presenter noted that the violations of economic and social rights in North Korea are linked to a failure of the government to provide basic rights or services, which in turn hampers progress towards the SGDs, and that this is exacerbated by entrenched patterns of discimrination based on gender, social standing (songbun), family background, and/or disability. Ms. Poulsen also underscored the pivotal role of Goal 16, which seeks to promote “peaceful and inclusive societies” and thus seeks to mitigate discrimination by calling for the adoption of equality laws as a requisite component of sustainable development.

Session II’s panelists were: Kyuchang Lee, Humanitarian Cooperation Section Chief of the Korea Institute for National Unification; Dr. Patricia Goedde, professor at Sungkyunkwan University; Eun Ha Chang, head of the International Development Cooperation Center of the Korea Women’s Development Institute; and Jamie Hamil, Inter-Korean Relations Counsellor for (at?) the British Embassy in Seoul. The panelists discussed examples of how North Korea has historically been more amenable to accepting recommendations with respect to vulnerable groups, e.g., increasing mandated maternity leave and allowing the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to visit Pyongyang in 2017. Dr. Goedde and Ms. Chang both spoke at length about the issue of women’s rights about how the patriarchal culture of North Korea presented a current roadblock and potential remedies through the SGDs, such as framing issues of gender-based violence in terms of health, instead of rights, and promoting the empowerment of women through international interventions that North Korea has already agreed to (that is, conditioning the provision of international aid on promoting women in leadership positions in the management of those programs).

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