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U.N. special rapporteur calls on North Korea to allow access

Tomas Ojea Quintana is navigating a difficult political environment, human rights advocates say.

By Elizabeth Shim
U.N. special rapporteur calls on North Korea to allow access
U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana holds a lock, given to him by a North Korean refugee, that he says symbolizes the isolated state. "I have no access to the country," Quintana said Tuesday. Photo screenshot courtesy of United Nations

NEW YORK, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- The United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights called on Pyongyang to show commitment and cooperation with the international community on a sensitive issue that has been neglected by world leaders amid diplomatic engagement with Kim Jong Un.

Tomas Ojea Quintana said Tuesday North Korea needs to respond to requests from the U.N. to access the country -- calls the North Koreans have ignored or refused to discuss despite their willingness to negotiate with U.S. President Donald Trump or South Korea's Moon Jae-in.

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"What is needed from North Korea, is a signal that they will discuss human rights...We haven't heard anything coming from the summits in this respect," Quintana said. "I would like to see a signal of commitment."

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Quintana, who said he had reached out to the North Koreans "many, many times," expressed unease about the recent summits.

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"I am very concerned neither the Panmunjom Declaration or the Singapore statement have any reference to human rights terminology," the special rapporteur said. "I support the declaration of peace; I believe in [affirming] a relationship between peace and human rights; but [peace] also needs to be built on basic rights."

Quintana suggested time is running out for North Korea human rights advocates because the priorities of engagement, denuclearization and the de-escalation of tensions, have overshadowed inquiries into the conditions of ordinary North Koreans.

"We the human rights people need to bring proposals," Quintana said. "We need to move fast."

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The special rapporteur made few references to some of the most notorious forms of rights violations in North Korea, included in a February 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on abuses in North Korea.

The report, based on defectors' testimonies, identified "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations" by a "totalitarian state," including "unspeakable atrocities."

"I have no access to the country, [so it is] difficult to comprehensively assess the human rights situation," Quintana said. "Based on people who leave the country, there is a pattern lately especially in the countryside, pattern of people being left on their own by the North Korean political system."

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The U.N. official also declined to comment on the increasing debate over sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. China and Russia have supported easing embargoes as North Korea turns to diplomacy.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington, told UPI there has been a general trend away from addressing rights violations.

"There has been no successor to Ambassador King since January of last year," Scarlatoiu said, referring to Ambassador Robert King, who served as special envoy for North Korea human rights at the U.S. State Department under the Obama administration.

"In South Korea, since September of last year, there has been no successor to Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon, the former ambassador for North Korea human rights."

Scarlatoiu added Special Rapporteur Quintana is in a "unique position of leadership."

"We truly need his leadership to shed light on the crimes against humanity being committed in North Korea," he said.

"If he is constrained it might have to do with the fact that he is navigating a very difficult, complex political environment."

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