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(Yonhap Interview) U.N. agency concerned about worsening of N. Korea's human rights situation amid escalated tensions

08:00 December 04, 2022

By Yi Wonju

SEOUL, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- The new head of the U.N. human rights agency's office in South Korea voiced concerns that the North Korean human rights issue has been sidelined amid the escalation of military tensions due to the Kim Jong-un regime's provocations.

The reclusive country has redirected resources "away from services for the population towards military purposes," James Heenan, representative of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul, said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency last week.

"Whenever there's a military event such as ballistic missiles or a test, the human rights story gets pushed to one side and that makes it harder for those of us focused on human rights to keep human rights on the agenda because everyone focuses on the peace and security, which is a very important issue," he said.

James Heenan, representative of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Dec. 2, 2022. (Yonhap)

In case of the North's nuclear test, he added, chances are high that it will lead to the deepening of the nation's isolation, halts to dialogue and cutbacks in humanitarian support for people in need, with political repression getting worse.

Heenan began his stint here in October, filling in the post that had been vacant for two years, He said he will focus on enhancing public awareness of the North Korean human rights problem.

"Within those mandates I want to increase visibility of human rights issues in the DPRK including in the Republic of Korea and I want to increase the types of information that we get from the DPRK," he said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Regarding how to put pressure on Pyongyang for its provocative acts, he stressed the need to put weight on U.N.-led multilateral sanctions.

"As a matter of principle, the United Nations always urges sanctions to be done at the multilateral level through the United Nations rather than individual sanctions but I realize that many states do move ahead with individual sanctions," he said. "But ultimately, sanctions are for member states to decide."

Since its launch in May, South Korea's conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration has slapped two batches of independent sanctions on individuals and agencies involved in North Korea's nuclear and missile development in response to its continued provocations, including the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last month.

James Heenan, representative of the U.N. Human Rights Office in Seoul, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Dec. 2, 2022. (Yonhap)

Heenan welcomed Seoul's first appointment of an envoy North Korean human rights in five years. In June, Lee Shin-hwa, then an international relations professor at Korea University, was tapped as the envoy.

In a shift from the North Korea policy of the preceding liberal Moon Jae-in government, accused of having put the rights issue on the back burner apparently not to antagonize Pyongyang, the Yoon administration has taken a more active approach in improving human rights in the North.

"People in my position will have to have a difficult conversation with the government in every country whatever the government ... at the moment, we have very good relations," Heenan said. "I have very good, close and warm personal relations with Ambassador Lee and I look forward to working together with her."

He said his office will continue to explore opportunities for engagement with the North as he voiced hope that a U.N. human rights office will open in Pyongyang down the road.

"Human rights is all about engagement and improving the situation through engagement. Our other country offices are in the countries they work in," he said. "I would like our office to be in the DPRK too."

The Seoul office of the U.N. OHCHR was established in June 2015 as part of global efforts to better monitor the human rights situation in North Korea and to document related data and information.

julesyi@yna.co.kr
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