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In 2004 Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader Kim Jong-un) was in charge of the country and, since then, little or nothing has changed in terms of the possibilities of access to the Asian country.
After an Indonesian, a Thai and an Argentine succeeded each other as rapporteurs, for the first time the assignment has fallen to a woman, a Peruvian as well. Elizabeth Salmón turns 1 two months this Saturday with such a complex mission in tow.
—How has the work of the rapporteurship developed in these years?
The work has been going on uninterruptedly with two characteristics: the first is that it has had the support of various countries that have put what is happening in North Korea in writing and have transmitted it to the international community, so ignorance can be claimed. And the second feature of this mandate is that the North Korean state does not recognize it and sees it, rather, as something hostile. In this situation, there is still a commitment to give visibility to the human rights situation there.
—With this second trait, how to access credible and up-to-date information?
The rapporteur is entrusted to speak with different governments, NGOs, the academic world, all possible actors to gather information. Although it is complicated, there are multiple channels to receive reliable information.
“And the first-hand sources?”
We have the defectors who flee North Korea and are taken in by South Korea, those who are lucky enough not to die on the way or be trafficked. They are interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner’s office in Seoul. Because of them there is a great possibility of knowing very well everything that is happening.
—None of your predecessors were able to enter North Korea. Do you think you can do it?
I have an obligation to continue applying for entry to that country. One of the first letters I sent was a request to the North Korean state, knowing that it does not recognize the mandate and did not allow the visit of those who preceded me.
“And did they reply to that letter?”
There has been no response, what we received was the public pronouncement that the Ministry of Foreign Relations usually makes. of North Korea that is repeated year after year. So much so that in the first pronouncement about me they speak of him (‘he’) and not of her. But it is clear that North Korea’s policy continues in relation to this mandate and there is no willingness to cooperate.
– Pyongyang has said of you that you are “a puppet of the United States.”
[Sonríe] That is a permanent position of North Korea against any attempt to talk about the human rights situation. I’m not surprised then, it’s part of the context that we find and that will surely continue.
—Is it possible to find an interlocutor in your attempt to seek a dialogue?
North Korea’s state of isolation is unique, unparalleled in contemporary history, and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Today there is no United Nations team in its territory, the embassies had to close their missions and the foreign NGOs had to withdraw. Today that isolationism is more intense. To that extent, finding an interlocutor is very difficult, but there are permanent North Korean missions both in the Geneva office and in the New York office. That way you can try direct contact. I see some lights of hope.
North Korea is party to five human rights treaties and an additional protocol on the rights of the child. So while he maintains his isolationist policy, he is also aware that he must establish some link with the international community, no matter how tiny. In 2017, and for the only time, North Korea allowed the visit of the then UN rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, the Costa Rican Catalina Devandas. It is interesting that the only person admitted has been a Latin American woman. This sheds some light on the issues that may be of interest to Pyongyang and the profiles they are willing to accept.
“He was in Seoul recently. What balance do you make of that work visit?
It was a brief but enriching visit. It allowed me to observe the great importance that the relationship with the northern neighbor has for South Korea: their nuclear tests and threats, but also the dream of reunification. I not only met with South Korean officials, but also with very active civil society representatives.
“Were you able to meet with North Korean defectors?”
With three women and one man. I perceived, without the need for translators, the pain and suffering that they had undergone through traumatic transfers, but also the hope and desire to experience freedom. It was moving to see that tension between the intense pain of leaving the family and the desire to continue living.
-In the press conference after your tour you were asked if you were aware of the size of the challenge you face…
We must not give up. It would not benefit the North Korean population if we surrendered. This mandate is a powerful message in the sense of saying that international solidarity is present. The issue of human rights in North Korea is a permanent responsibility. My desire is to be a voice for the needs of your population.