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By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- The former chief of the United Nations' landmark inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea said the "interruption" caused by COVID-19 and the North's recent border reopening could serve as an "opportunity" to promote the inflow of outside information and improve rights conditions in the isolated country.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Thursday, Michael Kirby, the former chair of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea, voiced hope that North Koreans abroad who are allowed to return home could play a role in helping people in the North know about life outside the secretive regime.
"I hope that with the pause that came with COVID, the interruption that happened because of the pandemic, that there will be an opportunity to open up the people of North Korea, especially the younger people to information about the rest of the world," Kirby said on the sidelines of the annual Korea Global Forum hosted by Seoul's unification ministry.
The COI's landmark report published in 2014, the first official documentation by the U.N. addressing the grim issue, accused the North Korean leadership of systemically violating North Koreans' human rights and recommended the North be referred to the International Criminal Court.
While noting that the human rights situation in the North likely took a turn for the worse amid economic woes deepened by the pandemic and ensuing border closure, Kirby said recent developments may bring about a change in what he called "one of the worst human rights abusers in the world."
"It is concerning that the human rights situation, insofar as it was dependent on the economy, has really deteriorated, and the isolation of North Korea, which is always extreme, has become even more extreme," the former Australian justice said.
In January 2020, the North imposed stringent virus restrictions and closed down its border, even with one of its closest allies, China, on fears of COVID-19 gripping the country that has long suffered from food shortages and economic hardship.
But the reclusive country has slowly begun to open up its border by resuming commercial flights to China and Russia, and allowing the entry of North Korean citizens who were banned from returning home amid virus concerns.
The former U.N. official said that being "out of contact with the regime in Pyongyang" and "spared the brainwashing that goes on in North Korea" could have raised these people's expectations on human rights and awareness on life outside the North.
"They're coming back from a full three-year absence, they're going to find North Korea a very oppressive and negative place," he said.
"We've got to hope that the people who are going back will take messages about the economic situation, the shops, the goods, the books and all the other features that we take for granted in the rest of the world."
While noting that a country cannot "lock itself arbitrarily against the whole world for very long," Kirby stressed the transition would require substantial economic changes and efforts by the international community to ensure that North Korean people, especially the younger generation, have access to modern technology.
"I think the challenge in the immediate future is to use new technology, and the mere fact that North Korea doesn't like it or protests against it must be answered with the contention that no country on Earth is now immune from access to the internet."
Within the international community, Kirby said South Korea's election as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council is a "good thing." Seoul is set to begin its two-year term next year.
"The fact that they are a nonpermanent member for two years is really an opportunity that South Korea can take to improve the human rights of fellow Koreans in North Korea," he said.
Kirby also suggested the upcoming 75th anniversary in December of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that calls for the universal protection of human rights, may serve as a chance to raise awareness and pressure Pyongyang, which also is a member state of the U.N.
"The universal declaration begins, 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,'" Kirby said.
"Sadly, that is not the case in North Korea, and it is the responsibility of the supreme leader of North Korea to make that a reality, and to show that he has made that reality by opening up his country to the observers outside of North Korea."