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Everyone Freaked Out When North Korea Interrupted a UN Panel of Defectors

An unwelcome, impromptu speech from North Korean delegates could barely be heard over cries of "Free North Korea" and "Down with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un" from the audience.
Photo by Seth Wenig/AP

In a surreal diplomatic spectacle, delegates from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea interrupted a UN panel of North Korean defectors being held on Thursday to read from a prepared speech, which they delivered over the cries of attendees and of US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who threatened to have them thrown out by security.

The panel, organized by the US mission, included testimony from three of the Hermit Kingdom's defectors — Joseph Kim, Jay Jo, and Kim Hye-sook — and was moderated by author and journalist Barbara Demick. More than 20 other defectors attended, and were seated in the two rows in front of North Korea's three-man delegation.

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Shortly after UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic commented that the world had seen "new signs of engagement" from the DPRK and Joseph Kim gave brief remarks, North Korean diplomat Ri Song-chol began to read unprompted from the prepared text. His microphone was on briefly before it was cut, and he could barely be heard over cries of "Free North Korea" and "Down with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un" from defectors and others in the crowd.

Ambassador Power was visibly bothered by the display.

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"Please shut down the mic, since this is not an authorized presentation," she said, admonishing the delegates and adding that their speech was "totally self-discrediting."

"We are calling UN security," she warned, suggesting that they would be booted from the event — an action that is practically unheard of at the organization's headquarters.

After finishing their speech, the North Korean delegates calmly walked out of the room.

Before leaving, the delegates distributed a statement critical of the US, which North Korea has claimed is using human rights investigations at the UN to bring about regime change in Pyongyang.

"It plainly shows the pitiful position of the United States that reaches out even to the 'defectors' as if a drowning man catches at a straw, after failing in political and military confrontation with the DPRK one after another," said the statement.

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Last year, a UN Commission of Inquiry found evidence of "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations" in the country. The abuses, said the commission, had no "parallel in the contemporary world." In November, North Korea threatened nuclear war after it was cited by the UN General Assembly in a resolution that called for the Security Council to refer it to the International Criminal Court.

Related: Sources Say North Korean Representatives Used Racist Slur at United Nations

Thursday was, of course, not the first time North Korea has caused scandal at the UN. A month before their nuclear threat, VICE News learned that North Korean delegates attending a UN hearing on human rights in the country were overheard using highly offensive racial language to refer to Botswana's UN ambassador. They also laughed among themselves during the testimony of two defectors as they recounted their painful experiences in the country's prison camps.

One of those who testified in October, Kim Hye-sook, was on Thursday's panel. In October, she said that North Korean delegates had intimidated her prior to speaking by taking photographs and recording videos of the panelists from a close range.

North Korea has in the past called defectors who testify to the UN "human scum," and routinely accuses them of fabricating their stories. They repeated those allegations in their printed statement on Thursday, suggesting that the defectors on the panel had "ideological dementia."

"As their groundless allegations run through with falsehoods and fabrications, they are not worthy of a single comment," the statement said.

The US organizers of the panel had actually invited the North Korean delegates to attend the event. They would have been welcome to speak after the members of panel had delivered their remarks. After they left, the defectors continued telling their stories. South Korean Ambassador Oh Joon later called the DPRK's interruption "a pity."

"We thought there was a glimmer of hope," he told the attendees, "but the delegation of the DPRK today disappointed us."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford