Joint Letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres: The failure to appoint a Representative, OHCHR Seoul for two years since July 2020

August 11, 2022

H.E. Mr. António Guterres
United Nations Secretary-General
New York, NY 10017
By email


Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General
Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General

Re: The failure to appoint a Representative, OHCHR Seoul for two years since July 2020

Your Excellency,

On 21 March 2013, the Human Rights Council in resolution 22/13 decided to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity. In 2014, the COI found that crimes against humanity have been committed in the DPRK, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state, and that these crimes against humanity are on-going, because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their root remain in place. Accordingly, the COI recommended the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with full support from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, to establish a field-based structure to ensure accountability by, among other things, facilitating United Nations efforts to prosecute, or otherwise render accountable, those most responsible for crimes against humanity.

The Human Rights Council in resolution 25/25 of 28 March 2014 acted upon the COI’s recommendation by requesting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish a field-based structure to strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights in the DPRK, to ensure accountability, to enhance engagement and capacity-building with the Governments of all States concerned, civil society and other stakeholders, and to maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the DPRK, including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives. The General Assembly in resolution 69/188 of 18 December 2014 welcomed the steps taken by the OHCHR towards establishing a field-based structure in the Republic of Korea (ROK) and called upon Member States to ensure that the OHCHR’s field-based structure can function with independence, that it has sufficient resources and that it is not subjected to any reprisals or threats.

Unfortunately, OHCHR Seoul, the field-based structure in the ROK created in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 25/25, has been leaderless for more than two years since the departure of its former Representative, Signe Poulsen (August 2015 – July 2020). Such a prolonged vacancy for the critical position naturally raises concerns among human rights advocates. In the past two years, OHCHR Seoul has lacked an effective chief who can speak with authority to the press and civil society to maintain visibility of the issue or to guarantee access to North Korean escapees for documentation, devoid of politics or bureaucracy. The delays in the publication of an upcoming report on the DPRK’s abductions and enforced disappearances without explanation is an additional source of concern.

While not all these issues and challenges may be attributed to the absence of a permanent Representative, it raises doubts about the UN and OHCHR’s commitment to ensuring accountability for the crimes against humanity perpetrated by a totalitarian state that, according to the COI, does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. It is also confusing for civil society organizations to be told that the Representative ad interim who had served as the former Representative’s deputy is not really acting as a “deputy” in the interim or to learn after the event that an OHCHR official from Geneva whom they have never met or known had supervised OHCHR Seoul for months. The lack of clarity does not reflect well on the OHCHR’s willingness to engage civil society and other stakeholders.

For these reasons, we ask for the speedy appointment of a Representative, OHCHR Seoul.


Association of North Korean Defectors (NKD)
Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR)
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)