Survivors of political camps flee to South Korea. Photo: North Korea: Life in the Camps video by Amnesty International UK
Survivors of political camps flee to South Korea. Photo: North Korea: Life in the Camps video by Amnesty International UK

The United Nations has requested a meeting with China to discuss human rights issues in North Korea, but so far hasn’t had a response, says lawyer Tomas Ojea Quintana.

As the new UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, the Argentine spoke in Tokyo on November 25 as he completed a 10-day fact-finding mission in Northeast Asia. It included meetings with government officials in South Korea and Japan, defectors, and families of individuals who had been abducted by North Korean agents.

“I heard reports of human rights violations from people who had left North Korea,” he said, adding that he interviewed nine defectors in Seoul and is preparing a report for submission to the United Nations in March 2017.

He said he met with a China official in Geneva in September to make the request for discussions. He added that he had also asked North Korean representatives for a face-to-face on human rights, but it had been indicated to him that Pyongyang officials may be willing to meet him in his capacity as a lawyer, but not as the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights.

While he is relatively new to the specifics of North Korea, Ojea Quintana has more than 20 years of experience in human rights issues. He worked for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and represented the Argentine NGO, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, in cases concerning child abduction during that country’s military regime.

He also served as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from 2008 to 2014. Based on this experience he said he believes it is important to keep channels of communication open with all parties involved, even if that seems naive to some.

When asked about the fate of people abducted by North Korea, Ojea Quintana said his experience taught him that in enforced disappearance cases you never stop believing the missing are alive.

His visit came as Amnesty International released a report on November 22 that said satellite imagery of North Korea’s network of political prison camps show new construction taking place, indicating the camps are being upgraded and expanded.

Assessments of the satellite pictures taken in May and August of two political prison camps, which are known as kwanliso in Korean, show new guard posts, a reported crematorium, and farm activities, according to Amnesty’s report.

Expansion area adjacent to Political Prison Camp No. 14
(potential residual detention complex of Political Prison Camp No. 18. Analysis courtesy of Amnesty International. Photo: Digital Globe.
Political Prison Camp No. 25, Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province
Analysis by U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Photo: Digital Globe/ United Nations.

Amnesty’s research builds on the UN Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 report that said the gravity, scale, and nature of human rights violations in North Korea are without parallel in the contemporary world.

The same report estimated 120,000 men, women, and children are held in political prison camps around the country and documented rape, infanticide, torture, deliberate starvation, forced labor, and executions in the camps.

Ojea Quintana said he doesn’t have additional information as yet on how many people are being held in the camps.

North Korea consistently denies access to human rights observers, making it extremely difficult to corroborate testimony from North Koreans who survived the camps and subsequently escaped the country to tell the story.

This leaves high-resolution satellite pictures as one of the few means of independently identifying the camps and their size.

“Taken together, the imagery we’ve analyzed is consistent with our prior findings of forced labor and detention in North Korea’s kwanliso, and the physical infrastructure the government uses to commit atrocities are in working order,” said Micah Farfour, Amnesty International’s imagery analyst in the recent report.

Entire extended families are sometimes interred in the camps if they are any relation to someone who has angered the regime or is seen as a threat, according to reports from North Korean defectors.

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