SEOUL — As momentum builds for another summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the harsh reality of North Korean human rights issues threatens to undermine any potential peace or denuclearization agreements, a key United Nations official warned on Friday.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, told reporters that any deal would be “fragile” if North Korea’s dismal human rights record is not part of the equation.
“Any accord that the parties could reach will remain fragile unless human rights issues are not discussed and unless there is a plan how to address that situation in North Korea,” he said.
Quintana’s was on a research trip to South Korea this week to gather material for a report that he will present to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March. He met with government officials and members of civil society and interviewed recent defectors from North Korea.
The human rights issue was sidelined during Kim’s summits last year with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but Quintana said it is vital that it becomes part of the dialogue this year.
“It will be a missed opportunity in 2019 if human rights is not addressed by all the parties, most importantly the government of (North) Korea,” he said.
Pyongyang has not allowed Quintana or other international human rights inspectors to visit the country.
The U.N. official said human rights conditions have not improved in North Korea despite progress on the international diplomatic front in 2018, a year that saw Kim Jong Un hold summits with Trump and Moon.
“The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged and continues to be extremely serious,” Quintana said.
North Korea’s human rights abuses were detailed in a 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report that found crimes against humanity including murder, enslavement, torture, sexual violence and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds.
Last month, the U.N. passed a resolution condemning the North’s “longstanding and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.”
In a 2018 report, Amnesty International claimed that North Korea held up to 120,000 political prisoners in camps, where forced labor and torture are practiced.
While North Korea has seen increased economic development under Kim, particularly in Pyongyang, the capital, much of the country’s population still lacks basic rights like freedom of movement or speech, Quintana said.
“The whole country is a prison,” he quoted one North Korean refugee as saying.
President Moon said Thursday that a North Korea-U.S. summit would “take place soon.” Trump said that he expected to announce the location for the summit “in the not-too-distant future.”
Kim pledged this week to pursue a summit with Trump “to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community,” Chinese state media reported during the North Korean leader’s visit to Beijing.
A second Trump-Kim summit would seek to kick start a diplomatic process that has stalled out since their June meeting in Singapore.
That meeting produced a declaration stating that North Korea would work toward a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but details on timing and the meaning of the agreement remain vague.
Pyongyang continues to look for relief from punishing international sanctions while Washington is holding out for complete denuclearization first, sticking to its “maximum pressure” strategy on the economic and diplomatic fronts.
North Korea has been eager to pursue economic projects with the South, such as connecting their railroad systems and reopening a jointly run factory park in its border town of Kaesong, but such projects cannot move further until the U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea are eased.
Quintana warned that a continuing lack of human rights in North Korea will be a deterrent for economic development.
“We know there is no compliance with international labor standards,” Quintana said. “Any countries hoping to engage or invest in North Korea will have to bear in mind that basic human rights standards are not respected.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: North Korea's harsh human rights record could undermine US nuclear deal, UN official says