North Korea maintains repression, political prison camps - U.N. expert

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un bids farewell to the crowd before boarding his train to depart for North Korea at Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - Despite actively pursuing diplomacy on its nuclear programme, North Korea continues to quash basic freedoms, maintaining political prison camps and strict surveillance of its citizens, a United Nations human rights investigator said on Friday.

"With the positive developments in the past year 2018, it is all the more regrettable that the serious human rights situation on the ground in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains unchanged," Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK, said in his latest report.

North Korea has frozen its nuclear and missile testing since 2017 and held several summits with the United States and South Korea in the past year, emerging from decades of isolation.

Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump held a second meeting last week, but their talks in Vietnam broke up with no agreement. Trump said on Friday he would be disappointed if North Korea were to resume weapons testing and reiterated his belief in his good relationship with Kim.

Ojea Quintana said that he hoped the summit's abrupt end "doesn’t compromise the peaceful environment for dialogue that all the parties have been working for during 2018".

The U.N. expert said he "continues to receive reports of the existence of the political prison camps where people are being sent without due process. Torture and ill-treatment reportedly remain widespread and systematic in detention facilities."

Surveillance and close monitoring of all citizens, and other severe restrictions such as on freedom of movement remain intact, Ojea Quintana said, adding the penal system denies due process and a guarantee of fair trial.

He said he had contacted China last year about 18 North Koreans who had left the country and been detained there, amid concerns they would be forcibly returned to their homeland where other defectors have been allegedly subjected to torture and sexual violence.

However, Ojea Quintana also called for an easing of sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear activities, saying they had led to "significant delays and disruption" in the humanitarian aid effort. Some 10.3 million people or 41 per cent of the population lack sufficient food, he said.

In a landmark 2014 report, U.N. investigators said that 80,000 to 120,000 people were thought to be held in camps in North Korea. It documented torture and other violations, saying they could amount to crimes against humanity.

Ojea Quintana said the restrictions and fear of authorities and surveillance is so deeply ingrained in North Korean society that one of the escapees whom he met in Seoul during a recent visit concluded: “The whole country is a prison”.

Han Tae Song, North Korea's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told the Human Rights Council on Thursday that his country is "committed to genuine dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights".

"We also reject any groundless accusations parroted by some delegations as they are politically motivated in pursuit of ulterior purposes rather than human rights," Han said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Frances Kerry)