United Nations human rights investigation into the country

March 26, 2013

From VOA Learning English, welcome back to AS IT IS.

I’m your host Mario Ritter.

North Korea is known as one of the most tightly controlled societies in the world. It has also defied the international community many times with its nuclear program and long-range missile launches. Today, we look at why North Korea’s small economy seems unaffected by growing trade restrictions. But first, we hear about the first United Nations human rights investigation into the country.


For the first time, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted to investigate suspected human rights violations in North Korea. All members of the council approved a resolution “to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in that country.  VOA asked a Korea expert why this UN resolution is different. Christopher Cruise tells us more.

China and Russia are not on the UN Human Rights Council. They have traditionally opposed any strong UN action against the East Asian nation. But some think they may have supported the vote to investigate North Korea’s human rights violations.

“I’m not sure that, even if the Russians and Chinese were on the Human Rights Council, at this point, that even they would have opposed it.”

David Straub of Stanford University told VOA that many nations around the world are no longer willing to ignore what has been happening to the people of North Korea.

“The very fact that the international community has been willing to set up this extraordinary investigation shows that the world is no longer willing to tolerate the kinds of things that North Korea has done to its own people. It means there will be ever more attention focused on North Korea’s human rights abuses, and that more and more NGOs and nongovernmental organization and private citizens will focus attention on this problem.”

The UN resolution establishes a Commission of Inquiry, or COI, to investigate North Korea. Possible violations include those linked to prison camps, torture, detentions and even the right to food. One UN official said "crimes against humanity" could be among the findings of the commission.

Navi Pillay is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has called the situation in North Korea one of the worst and least understood in the world.

North Korea strongly denounced the UN council’s action. The government called the resolution an “act of political fraud” and said it would ignore the investigation.

The commission is expected to have three members with a support team of nine to 12 people. When the resolution passed, it was not expected that North Korea would cooperate. Instead, the commission will gather evidence from satellite pictures, witnesses and experts in neighboring countries.

So why is such an investigation important? Navi Pillay’s spokesman Rupert Colville says that investigations like this one establish a strong basis for future action.

“Some earlier Commissions of Inquiries played really key roles in moving situations into the area of international justice, for example.  So, there was a Commission of Inquiry…in the former Yugoslavia, which predated the Hague Tribunal…So, Commissions of Inquiry - they are not judges, they are not juries.  They do not convict, but they do set a very powerful basis potentially for criminal justice systems.”

Rupert Colville says the commission is expected to give its report to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

International pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program has had limited influence. North Korea has cut itself off from much of the world, severely limiting its trade and ability to make economic progress. VOA spoke about the issue with an expert who has published several books about North Korea. June Simms has more.

Economist Marcus Noland is with the Peterson Institute. He says North Korea tightly controls its economy. That keeps the government from being hurt by international restrictions.

"It means economic pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear missile programs is less likely to effective. They're running a surplus.

They're not as vulnerable to sanctions and other economic measures."

The cost of severely limiting normal trade ties is that badly needed food imports do not get to the large majority of North Korea’s people. The United Nations says two-thirds of North Korea's 24 million people suffer from a chronic lack of food. A study from the Peterson Institute says that North Korea has been exporting more than it has been importing in recent years.

Marcus Noland says much of North Korea's economic information is a state secret. That makes it difficult to fully understand the situation in the nation’s economy. One thing is clear, however. North Korea has half the population of its geographically smaller neighbor, South Korea. Also, South Korea has one of the world’s larger economies. North Korea remains among the world’s poorest nations.

Marcus Noland says experts gain some information from North Korea’s trading partners. Using this information, some experts suspect at least one-tenth of North Korea's total income is from activities such as counterfeiting cigarettes and United States currency. North Korea is also suspected of drug smuggling and weapons exports.

"They export labor. They receive remittances from North Koreans abroad. They earn money on some investments they have abroad. And then they engage in illicit activities such as smuggling, counterfeiting and so on. When you add it all up it appears that more money is going out of the country than is coming in. They are running a balance of payments surplus. And the money is being invested in China and banks in Europe."

South Korean media reports say officials in China are moving against North Korean financial institutions in China. They say these organizations have been carrying out illegal currency exchange trading and money transfers. Four North Korean banks have representative offices in China. But they do not have offices open to the public.

I’m June Simms.