UNITED NATIONS (AP) — North Korea and the United Nations both confirmed Tuesday that discussions are under way for what would be the first visit to the reclusive north Asian country by a U.N. human rights chief.
North Korea's rights record has been called abysmal and led to a recommendation that the country be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote later this week on a resolution sponsored by the European Union and Japan that would condemn North Korea's rights violations and again encourage the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the war crimes tribunal.
North Korean Ambassador-at-large Ri Hung Sik told a news conference Tuesday that the government invited High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein to Pyongyang to follow up on his office's interest in "technical cooperation." He said contacts were under way on the details and timing of the visit.
Zeid's spokesman, Andre-Michel Essoungou, says that in September the high commissioner for human rights welcomed an invitation from North Korea's foreign minister to visit the country. He said discussions were continuing to prepare the ground work for a possible visit to engage North Korea on a "human rights dialogue."
Essoungou said it would be a first by a U.N. human rights chief.
Ri claimed allegations that North Korea commits human rights abuses are based on "all sorts of false and distorted data" from defectors and criminal fugitives, and the result of a "U.S. hostile policy" intended to bring down the government using "strong arm military pressure" and false attacks on its human rights record.
The resolution was expected to be voted on this week.
Despite sanctions, he said the government is trying to improve living standards so people lead better lives, and he pointed to free housing, health and education in the country and special help for children and the elderly.
This year, the U.N. special investigator on human rights in North Korea put the spotlight on forced labor as a rights violation — an allegation Ri vehemently denied as "a vicious slander." He confirmed that the country has workers in Russia, China, Kuwait and Angola.
Ri said he met the investigator, Marzuki Darusman, once but "we don't see any benefits" talking to him again because "he has been talking of regime change whenever he's abroad."
Nonetheless, Ri said North Korea "attaches great importance to dialogue on human rights." He cited invitations in the 1990s to the U.N. investigator on women's rights and its engagement with the European Union, including an invitation to the EU representative for human rights who canceled a scheduled visit to Pyongyang in September.
David Hawk, a former U.N. human rights official and a leading researcher on North Korean prison camps, said the invitation to Zeid is recognition by North Korea "that it can no longer ignore the human rights situation in the country now that that situation is on the agenda not only of the General Assembly but the Security Council as well."
He expressed doubt that the North Koreans would allow the commissioner to actually see anything on a visit and said they will likely reiterate that there are no rights violations in the country.
But nevertheless, he said dialogue would be "a terrific step forward."
Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed to this report from the United Nations.