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Seoul rights envoy urges attention to women in North Korea

Jan. 30, 2023 - 18:12 By Kim Arin
Lee Shin-wha, Seoul ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Lee Shin-wha, South Korean ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights, said the situation of women and girls in North Korea “deserves a special focus” ahead of a Seoul conference on Monday.

“The state of human rights is alarming in North Korea, and especially so for women,” she told The Korea Herald. “More North Korean women now contribute to the household economy as breadwinners and yet they are still expected to meet patriarchal demands and not treated as equals.”

She said that at the same time, women in North Korea were exposed to violence and abuse “at home and in society at large.”

To address the issues of women and girls in North Korea, Lee said she looked forward to working closely with Elizabeth Salmon, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, and Julie Turner, the newly nominated US envoy for North Korean human rights who is awaiting appointment.

Lee called for the appointment of her US counterpart during her trip to Washington in October. “I think there is a lot we could do together to tackle these important challenges,” she said.

As this year marks 75 years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the ambassador emphasized that “human rights and security must go hand in hand.”

“When urgent security crises arise, it’s easy for human rights issues to be sidelined. We should strive to no longer allow these oversights,” she said.

Since her appointment about six months ago in July, Lee has consistently expressed support for the protection of women’s rights in North Korea.

In a seminar held Oct. 25 last year, Lee said North Korean women continued to face risk of rights violations and exploitation even after fleeing their country, and called on governments for their improved protection and settlement assistance.

Lee said she would deliver the message highlighting the situation at the Conference on the Human Rights of Women and Girls in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea held on Monday and Tuesday in Seoul. The DPRK is North Korea’s official name.

“This will be a meaningful occasion to reflect on the experiences of women in North Korea, their vulnerability to violence and how their rights are often overlooked,” she said.

In attendance at the closed conference are UN special rapporteur Salmon; James Heenan, representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul; and Maria Castillo Fernandez, ambassador for the European Union to South Korea, among others.

Salmon earlier said throughout the course of her mandate that she would seek opportunities to engage with North Korean authorities to address violence against women and girls and other forms of abuse perpetuated there.

“I am particularly determined to bring more attention to the experiences of women and girls, to improve understanding of their specific needs, and to better appreciate the adversities they face in the DPRK,” the UN expert said at a press conference held Sept. 2 last year in Seoul.