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Experts: PRC, Russia uphold North Korea’s human rights violations

FORUM Staff

Japan, South Korea and the United States are aligned on improving human rights in North Korea, experts say. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia are exacerbating conditions for a beleaguered North Korean population.

“China and Russia are really helping to facilitate a worsening of the North Korean human rights situation,” Victor Cha, an Asia expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in a November 2023 episode of the think tank’s Capital Cable web series.

In addition to widespread abuses inside North Korea — including decades of regime-sanctioned murder, enslavement, torture and gender-based violence — the PRC and Russia harbor Pyongyang’s essentially enslaved laborers, whose conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cha added.

North Korea has evaded sanctions by sending workers to both countries — leaving relatives behind as hostages — and requiring the workers to remit earnings to Kim Jong Un’s regime. Pandemic border closures left many stranded with expired work visas, Cha said. “They were trafficked,” he added. “They were very vulnerable people at that point.”

The PRC and Russia are also trading with North Korea in defiance of United Nations sanctions, Cha said, “and that means buying things like coal and copper, which are excavated through lots of human rights abuses.”

With borders reopening, Beijing is also forcibly returning North Korean escapees detained in China. Most are women, who are at risk of gender-based violence, detention in forced labor camps and execution, reported the Human Rights Watch research and advocacy group.

“We need to continue to press both China and Russia in terms of what they are doing to contribute to North Korea by employing North Koreans under poor circumstances and situations,” Robert King, a CSIS Korea expert and former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said on the CSIS broadcast. “It’s not just North Korea that’s creating the problem. It’s Russia that’s enabling it, and it’s particularly China.”

At their August 2023 summit, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. reaffirmed a shared commitment to promote respect for human rights in North Korea and resolve the issues of North Korea’s abductees, detainees and unrepatriated prisoners of war (POWs).

North Korea kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, though analysts say the number could exceed 100. The North’s post-Korean War abductees from South Korea number in the thousands, according to researchers, and authorities said in 2014 that up to 500 unrepatriated POWs could still be alive in the North.

At a 2023 U.N. Security Council meeting, officials and witnesses detailed Pyongyang’s forced labor practices, and North Korea’s food and medicine shortages even as its authoritarian regime squanders scarce resources on illegal missile and nuclear programs. North Korean escapee Ilhyeok Kim said Kim’s regime “turns our blood and sweat into a luxurious life for the leadership and missiles that blast our hard work into the sky.”

Albania, Japan and the U.S. requested the meeting, while the PRC and Russia protested.

The Security Council elected South Korea to a two-year term beginning in 2024, which analysts say could allow Seoul more opportunity to address North Korea’s human rights abuses.

Protesters in South Korea condemn the People’s Republic of China’s forced repatriation of North Korean escapees. Their signs bear the names of escapees and the dates of their arrests, deportations or imprisonments in concentration camps. VIDEO CREDIT: EFE VIA REUTERS

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