Signe Poulsen has led the United Nations Human Rights Office in Seoul, South Korea since it was opened on June 26, 2015 by then U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein to monitor and document human rights issues in North Korea. She recently sat down with RFA’s Korean Service on the eve of the office’s fifth anniversary to discuss recent increased tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul that stem from the launching of leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into the North by helium balloon across the Demilitarized Zone from South Korea.
The anti-Kim leaflets have been a tactic of Pyongyang opponents and human rights groups in the South for decades, but North Korea recently decided to make the fliers a main point of contention in inter-Korean relations. Last week, North Korea destroyed a landmark liaison office with South Korea in a “terrific explosion”—days after the country said it was cutting all communications with Seoul over the leaflets.
Many experts believe that the leaflet drops are merely an excuse that North Korea is using to ratchet up pressure on Seoul and Washington in a renewed drive to gain concessions in stalled denuclearization negotiations. Pyongyang seeks relief from sanctions aimed at depriving it of resources and cash for illicit weapons programs. Poulsen, a veteran U.N. rights expert with experience in East Timor and Liberia, told RFA that Seoul should investigate ways to send information into North Korea that are less likely to raise tensions between the two Koreas.
RFA: This week marks the fifth anniversary of the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul. A report titled “Five Years of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Seoul,” was also recently published. Could you please describe the activities of your office?
Poulsen: In the last five years we have been working to implement the mandate that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations gave us, which was basically to follow up on the findings of the Commission of Inquiry report which came out in 2014/2015. And in that regard, we have been doing various things. One of them is monitoring the situation in North Korea. We’ve been interviewing persons who recently arrived in South Korea from North Korea. We’ve been looking at other information to figure out what’s going on. And we’ve been reporting to the Human Rights Council, to the General Assembly, and to other U.N. rights bodies about the information. And this has meant that the situation in North Korea after the Commission of Inquiry report has remained very solidly on the United Nations’ agenda so that member states stay informed and updated on recent developments and other issues that may be happening in North Korea. We’ve also done quite a bit of publicity with media but reporting on thematic issues like separated families or economic and social rights. And we’ve built relationships with civil society organizations here in Seoul and beyond that seeking to work together on areas of accountability and human rights in North Korea.
RFA: What are your plans for the next five years?
Poulsen: For the Human Rights Office, what I hope is that we will continue our work, we’ll continue to document what is happening inside North Korea. I hope that we will be able to have access to more information and to have access to North Korea at some point. I hope that we’ll be able to engage with the North Korean authorities to improve their understanding of human rights. And of course, with the people as well. I would also hope that the member states of the United Nations, and the international community as a whole, keeps alert and integrate human rights in approaches to North Korea whether they be on peace talks or in other types of engagement. So, all of those things are things from a human rights office perspective that I hope can happen in the future.
RFA: Recently, North Korea has continued to engage in hostile acts against South Korea, including blowing up a joint liaison office between the two Koreas using the pretext of a North Korean defector group’s distribution of leaflets. The South Korean government has said it will legally regulate propaganda leaflets. How do you think the South Korean government’s plan squares with the rights of North Koreans to access information?
Poulsen: Both South Korea and North Korea are state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and that covenant includes the right to impart information by any means, including across frontiers, and this is a right that must be upheld. Now, there are certain restrictions that may be imposed, including for the security of populations, so the South Korean government and the courts of South Korea can take that into consideration. However, it’s very important that the organizations that work have the right to freedom of expression and that they are able to carry on their important work.
In this regard what one would also hope is that there is a serious conversation with all of those civil society organizations that also have been working on human rights in North Korea, imparting information, and authorities here and other relevant partners on how to best carry on this work and how to most effectively carry on this work, of course without causing big security risks. And that conversation is also in a way a marker of a democratic society—having all these diverse voices working. It’s good that there’s a Panmunjom Declaration where the political leaders talk about inter-people relations in the Koreas and that should certainly be encouraged, but there are other channels that can be used as well. So, I think it’s important to look at constructive ways of allowing these organizations to continue their important work.
RFA: As the U.S.-North Korea stalemate continues and inter-Korean relations deteriorate, chances of improving human rights in North Korea seems to be decreasing. The human rights situation in North Korea is still poor. What efforts do you think the international community should make to improve it?
Poulsen: I think the international community should make massive efforts because the situation of human rights in North Korea is bad. It continues to be bad and it has been bad. And there are, of course, human rights violations, but what the Commission of Inquiry found on the balance of probability is that there are probably also crimes against humanity happening and certainly over the last five years the testimonies or the information that our office has received indicates that those findings of the Commission of Inquiry are still happening. So, in that sense, it’s an obligation of the international community to take action, whether through a criminal process, but also through trying to improve the situation inside North Korea. And that requires the cooperation of the North Korean authorities as well.
So, it’s important that we continue to talk about this and that we don’t think that we can change something by putting human rights on the sidelines. I think that what we’ve shown over the last five years is that by continuing to raise human rights, we can have an impact. Over the last five years, North Korea has reported on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of the Discrimination of Women. They’ve taken part in the Universal Periodic Review, which is a regular human rights review that all countries undergo. They have started engaging with our headquarters, our office in Geneva, on human rights.
Reported by Jae Duk Seo for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.