Raising alarms that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is heading in the “wrong direction”, a senior UN official appealed to the UN Security Council for unity on Monday, following a spate of missile launches in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
UN Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas Miroslav Jenča told the Council that the Korean Peninsula must be “an area for cooperation” and not for escalating tensions. In this regard, the Security Council‘s unity is “essential” to ease tensions and overcome the diplomatic impasse.
Drill simulates ‘nuclear counterattack’
DPRK has conducted 14 launches of ballistic missile systems in 2023. Pyongyang called its latest launch, fired on Sunday, a “drill simulating a nuclear counterattack”, he said, briefing on the latest developments.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to head in the wrong direction,” he said. “Tensions continue to increase, with no off-ramps in sight.”
Sunday’s ballistic missile launch was the fourth in 11 days in DPRK, which is more commonly known as North Korea. The systems tested on 16 March and 18 February, as well as on two occasions last year, are capable of reaching most points on the Earth, he said, reiterating the UN Secretary-General’s condemnation of the launches and repeated calls on DPRK to immediately desist from taking any further destabilizing actions.
Pyongyang had announced that the 16 March launching drill involved the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew a distance of 1,000 kilometres to an altitude of 6,045 kilometres, he said.
This heightened frequency of activities comes on the heels of a sharp rise in missile launches in 2022, including approximately 70 launches using ballistic missile technology, he cautioned.
“The DPRK characterised these launches as involving systems with nuclear weapon roles, including so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that most of the systems tested are capable of striking countries in the immediate region.
Pyongyang had not issued airspace or maritime safety notifications, he said, adding that unannounced launches represent a “serious risk” to international civil aviation and maritime traffic.
Indeed, DPRK is actively pursuing its nuclear weapons programme, having approved a new law in September setting out conditions in which it could use nuclear weapons, including pre-emptively in certain circumstances, he said.
‘Remains prepared for nuclear test’
At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in early March that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site remains prepared to support a nuclear test, he said. A nuclear test – the nation’s seventh – would be a flagrant violation of Security Council resolutions and undermine the international norm against nuclear testing.
Highlighting concerns regarding the humanitarian situation in the country, he said the UN stands ready to assist in addressing medical and other basic needs of vulnerable populations.
“We reiterate our call on the DPRK to allow the unimpeded entry of international staff, including the UN Resident Coordinator, and of humanitarian supplies, to enable a timely and effective response,” he said.
New Human Rights Council report
Presenting her first report to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on Monday, Elizabeth Salmón, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in DPRK, said that given the current heightened tensions, any security misstep could trigger significant escalation with drastic consequences for human rights.
Meanwhile, the 2020 border closure continues to raise grave concerns, she said.
“Access to food, medicines and health care remains a priority concern,” she said, adding that UN engagement and access to information is at its “lowest point ever”, allowing authorities to tighten control over its people and prioritize the development of weapon systems.
New ‘shoot-on-site’ policy
“People have frozen to death during the cold spells in January,” she said. “Women have lost the means to make a living because of reduced market activities. The country also has introduced more severe penalties for accessing information from outside of the country, further limited domestic travel and further strengthened border security, including introducing a ‘shoot-on-site’ policy.”
The international community should approach human rights violations in the country from two tracks: engage in reflective thinking and make repeated efforts to re-engage authorities and take action and advocate to end impunity and achieve accountability.
Security and rights ‘closely interlinked’
“It’s urgent to address human rights concerns in possible negotiations on denuclearization and work towards a peaceful resolution of tensions because human rights and peace and security are closely interlinked,” she said, also highlighting elements of the report, which focuses on girls and women.
Reiterating the need to refer relevant cases to the International Criminal Court (ICC), she said in the meantime, the Human Rights Council should press for comprehensive negotiations with Pyongyang that comprise peace, security, economic development, and humanitarian and human rights issues.
“The current stalemate in dialogue and diplomacy only enables the further deterioration of the human rights situation under the cloak of secrecy and facilitates the further development of the country’s weapons programme including nuclear weapons,” she said. “That surely isn’t something the international community would want to settle with.”
Special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and work on a voluntary and unpaid basis, are not UN staff, and work independently from any government or organization.