Since the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has selectively engaged with various elements of the UN human rights system in an effort to ward off further criticism. Pyongyang has shown a willingness to participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, engage in sporadic discussions on technical cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and cooperate with the work of various human rights treaty monitoring bodies. But the regime has consistently failed over the last two decades to engage with the treaty bodies for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Earlier this year, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) of the ICCPR adopted an official “list of issues” that the government is expected to address by April 2022 under a new simplified reporting procedure. How likely is it that North Korea will now engage with the work of the Committee, and what should be the focus of scrutiny for its members and the international community at large?
Limited Engagement With the Treaty Monitoring Bodies
North Korea is currently a state party to five of the nine “core” international human rights treaties, having acceded to the ICCPR and ICESCR in September 1981; subsequently, it ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in September 1990, acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in February 2001, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in December 2016.
Its overall pattern of engagement with the treaty body committees that monitor state party implementation has been marked by two distinct trends. One is a general lateness in reporting, which is poor but not entirely remarkable. The other is an increasing divergence between renewed engagement with the CRC, CEDAW and CRPD Committees, and persistent nonengagement with the ICESCR and ICCPR Committees—part of a broader policy of making deliberate tactical concessions on a limited set of issues that are considered relatively less threatening to Pyongyang.
North Korea was positively disposed toward early cooperation with the CRC and CEDAW Committees until halting its engagement between 2009 and 2016. It eventually submitted overdue state party reports for both in early 2016—although the subsequent constructive dialogues with each Committee in late 2017 were still marked by a number of rote denials and ill-tempered remarks by the North Korean delegation. Ratification of the CRPD in December 2016 has meanwhile been followed by the submission of an initial state party report within the required two-year deadline.
In contrast, nonengagement with the ICCPR’s Human Rights Committee dates back to 2002. North Korea’s reply to the Committee’s concluding observations brought a close to its second reporting cycle some thirteen years behind schedule; its third periodic report has now been overdue since January 2004. North Korea has similarly failed to engage with the ICESCR Committee since the adoption of concluding observations in December 2003, and its third periodic report has been overdue since June 2008.
It is particularly notable that North Korea also remains the only country ever to attempt to withdraw from the ICCPR, having done so in response to a UN Sub-Commission resolution in August 1997 that heavily criticized its late ICCPR reporting and general human rights record. North Korea claimed that its objections were with the Sub-Commission resolution rather than the ICCPR. After it became clear that neither treaty withdrawal nor resolution annulment would be possible, however, it reengaged with the reporting cycle in late 1999, although the notice of treaty withdrawal was never officially reversed.
The New ICCPR Reporting Cycle and Priority Issues of Concern
Renewed scrutiny of North Korea’s treaty obligations is the result of the Human Rights Committee’s decision in July 2019 to move to a regular eight-year review cycle and a simplified reporting procedure for all ICCPR state parties (part of a broader treaty body reform process). Under this simplified procedure, the first stage of a reporting cycle now begins with the adoption by the Committee of a “list of issues prior to reporting” (LOIPR). The focused reply by the state under review then constitutes its state party report—which means that reporting cycles are now initiated by the Committee rather than the state party. 
The Human Rights Committee required states to provide notification of any decision to opt-out of the simplified procedure by December 31, 2019. North Korea failed to do this and was automatically transferred over after the deadline elapsed. As a result, the Committee began work on its overdue third reporting cycle last year. Based on previous concluding observations from 2001 and information submitted by nongovernmental organizations, the Committee adopted its LOIPR for North Korea in March of this year. An advance version was transmitted to the North Korean Mission to the UN in Geneva immediately afterward.
The LOIPR indicates the substantive issues that will be the focus of the Committee’s attention through the review cycle and is worth examining both for what it does and does not include. The brief opening section requests general information on “any significant developments” in the domestic legal and institutional framework since 2001; in addition, it asks for—somewhat naively—details of “any progress” made in granting access to outside observers and increasing the “limited number” of domestic human rights organizations.
The bulk of the LOIPR addresses specific priority issues. This includes the status of human rights treaties in North Korea’s “hierarchy of norms” and the question of how the ICCPR “takes precedence over domestic law in practice.” North Korea previously replied to the CEDAW Committee in 2017 that where any discrepancies arise between domestic and international legal protections, “the one that is more favourable for the realization of women’s rights takes precedence”—a deliberately vague and selective approach which it claimed is “the general principle that the DPRK maintains in invoking international human rights treaties.”  The Committee will no doubt want to push on this further, but in doing so, will need to be more explicit about the fundamental subservience of law to politics in North Korea and its markedly relativist approach to human rights.
Other subsections of the LOIPR request information on numerous longstanding and systemic issues of concern—ranging from the discriminatory songbun social classification system, to the use of forced labor, torture, pervasive state surveillance, religious freedoms, and lack of access to outside information. The lengthiest subsection concerns the right to life and variously addresses the use of the death penalty, criminalization of enforced disappearances, reports of shoot-to-kill orders, and access to food.
The use of widespread arbitrary detention within both the ordinary and political prison camp systems is also addressed within the subsection on the liberty and security of persons. However, the general lack of consideration of the political prison camp system throughout the LOIPR is surprising, given that it comprises such a wide range of grave violations and arguably constitutes the defining feature of the North Korean apparatus of repression.
The National Committee for the Implementation of the Human Rights Treaties
Due to its narrow focus on the substantive articles of the ICCPR, the new LOIPR also fails to address the broader process by which North Korea claims to engage with its reporting commitments and uphold its international legal obligations. Central to this is the so-called National Committee for the Implementation of the Human Rights Treaties, apparently established in April 2015 through merging previous treaty-specific national coordinating committees in order to provide “unified coordination for the implementation of all the treaties that the DPRK is a State party.” The functions, composition and status of this body should be a focus of additional scrutiny by the Human Rights Committee, building on the work of the CRC and CEDAW Committees over previous review cycles.
The National Committee appears to be an ersatz National Mechanism for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up, and typifies how North Korea mimics the language of the international human rights system to avoid more substantive scrutiny. The establishment of the National Committee was a subject of repeated praise by various member state delegates during North Korea’s 2019 UPR review session. It supposedly exercises two functions—a year-round implementation monitoring role that entails regular meetings, site visits and recommendations to relevant government institutions, and a periodic coordinating role for treaty body reporting, organizing task forces to collect information, consult with domestic stakeholders and prepare draft state party reports.
The National Committee is described as a 108-member body comprising officials from the Presidium, Cabinet, and various ministries, departments, people’s committees and civil society organizations. Its chair is the director-general of the Legislation Department of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, with a secretariat provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Human Rights Division, and the secretary-general being the North Korean Ambassador for Human Rights (briefly identified as Ri Hung Sik in mid-2017).
Past evidence suggests that National Committee members would also form part of any delegation to the constructive dialogue with the Human Rights Committee in March 2023—although this would likely consist primarily of seasoned diplomats skilled in delivering the official government line, rather than subject matter experts from relevant institutions. The recent delegations to the CRC and CEDAW dialogues, for example, included not only the presumed National Committee chair, Ri Kyong Hun, and other members, but also UN Ambassador Han Tae Song, Deputy Ambassador Choe Myong Nam and high-ranking career diplomats Jang Il Hun and Jong Song Il.
It is, of course, doubtful that the National Committee exists as anything more than a paper exercise. And despite earlier coordinating committees apparently being established for the CRC and CEDAW in 1999 and 2001, there is a conspicuous lack of mention of such mechanisms for the ICCPR or ICESCR across any of the treaty body or UPR material submitted by North Korea over the last two decades. Most striking of all is the much–vaunted September 2014 report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies, which also relitigated the 1997 withdrawal attempt and pointedly failed to include the ICCPR alongside the ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC and UPR as human rights instruments for which it submits periodic reports and engages in constructive dialogues.
North Korea’s track record with the ICCPR is not promising. At this point, its repeated failure to acknowledge the existence, let alone uphold the substance, of its treaty obligations suggests that North Korea effectively no longer considers itself to be a state party to the ICCPR. The current review cycle is therefore not just an opportunity to elicit further concessions or promote much-needed legal, institutional and policy reforms, but also something of a litmus test for engagement advocates. If cooperation is not forthcoming, the Human Rights Committee can—and should—nonetheless proceed to review North Korea’s record in its absence over the next two years. And regardless of whether the government engages, the work of the Committee and the wider questions that it throws up would benefit from much greater attention.