North Korea's leadership has cracked down further on human rights as tensions have escalated over its nuclear and missile tests, including beefing up restrictions on movements and making "horrific" prison conditions more severe, the UN rights chief said Monday.
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told the Security Council that the international security crisis sparked by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's military actions "is inseparable from concerns about the human rights situation of the ordinary people in the country."
A chronic lack of food, partly due to resources that are diverted to the military, has made humanitarian aid provided by the UN and others "literally a lifeline for some 13 million acutely vulnerable individuals," he said.
Zeid urged the council to assess the human rights impact of sanctions — including controls over international banking transfers — that have slowed aid deliveries and to minimize the humanitarian consequences.
This was the fourth year the Security Council has discussed human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, the country's official name. As in previous years, the meeting went ahead only after a procedural vote in the 15-member council where at least nine nations are required to support having the session.
On Monday, the human rights meeting was approved by 10 members and opposed by Russia and China, with Egypt and Ethiopia abstaining. China's deputy UN ambassador, Wu Haitao, whose country is North Korea's closest ally, said the meeting would be "counterproductive" at a time of heightened tensions.
North Korea's latest ballistic missile test demonstrated that it can threaten the US mainland, and there is growing concern that it will soon be able to put a nuclear warhead on its missiles. President Donald Trump has vowed to stop the North Koreans from reaching such capability, increasing the possibility of conflict.
"Indeed, the context of military tensions seems to have deepened the extremely serious human rights violations endured" by the 25 million North Koreans, the UN high commissioner for human rights said.
North Korea's UN Mission strongly condemned the meeting — as it has in the past — calling it "a desperate act of the hostile forces which lost the political and military confrontation with the DPRK that has openly risen to the position of nuclear weapon state." It called the human rights issue in the country "non-existent."
"If the US and other hostile forces think of browbeating the DPRK by the discussion of 'human rights issues' in the Security Council, it is nothing else than a daydream that will not be realized ever," it said in a statement.
North Korea has barred UN human rights officials from visiting the country, but Zeid said people who have escaped from North Korea have reported "extremely widespread violations of rights in almost every aspect of people's lives."
"In recent months, military tensions have led to more severe controls over freedom of movement and civil and political rights for the people of the DPRK," he said.
Zeid pointed to new physical barriers being erected along North Korea's border and increased surveillance.
He also criticized China for returning North Koreans who escape from their country, saying they "are routinely subjected to multiple forms of torture and ill-treatment," including women who are subjected "to invasive body searches" that may amount to rape under international law.
Zeid said his office has received more than 70 reports of women, men and children who escaped again after being sent back by Chinese authorities who decided they were "economic migrants," disregarding "the overwhelming human rights violations taking place in the country."
He also cited horrific conditions in prisons and labor camps, and widespread torture in detention centers used to extract information or confessions about people planning to leave the country, illegally using foreign telecommunications networks to contact people abroad, or engaging in smuggling activities.
Detainees are forced to work in mines or on building projects, face beatings, "and are being fed so little they barely survive," Zeid said.
There are reportedly five secret political prison camps that instill fear and function as "a powerful instrument of control," he said.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council that the systematic human rights violations against North Korea's people "are a means to a single end: Keeping the Kim Jong Un regime in power."
"The regime is using that power to develop an unnecessary arsenal and support enormous conventional military forces that pose a grave risk to international peace and security," she said. "Their menacing march towards nuclear weapons begins with the oppression and exploitation of ordinary North Korean people."
Haley said an estimated 100,000 North Koreans, including children, are in prisons, many because North Korea practices "guilt-by-association" and allows up to three generations of a family to be imprisoned along with an accused family member.
"Defectors have reported that all North Koreans age 12 and older are required to attend public executions — a graphic reminder of consequences of disobedience of the government," she added.
Haley said the majority of asylum seekers are women, many of them trafficked. If women are repatriated while pregnant, she said they are tortured and forced to have abortions. If their baby is born alive, it is killed in an effort to maintain "ethnic purity," she said.