Make human rights a real priority

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Make human rights a real priority

The primary focus of U.S. policy to North Korea has been on the security threat in two respects: 1) conventional deterrence of a second North Korean invasion; and 2) denuclearization. On the first of these objectives, Washington and Seoul have successfully deterred a second attempt by the North to invade the South, as in June 1950. On the second, however, despite two agreements in 1994 and in 2005, North Korea has not been denuclearized. Indeed, its arsenal has only grown over time.

Human rights has not played a large role in U.S. negotiations with North Korea. It was never an explicit part of the U.S. negotiating strategy for six-party talks. Its only place was in the U.S.-DPRK bilateral working group that grew out of the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement. This bilateral group was tasked with discussing the obstacles that stood in the way of normalization of political relations between the two countries. At the top of the North Korean “to-do” list was the many economic sanctions levied by the United States against the country. On the U.S. list were North Korean missiles, the forward deployment of DPRK conventional military forces and human rights.

But we never had an explicit discussion about human rights. The primary vehicle for raising North Korean human rights abuses was the U.S. Congress. In March 2004, Congress passed House Resolution 4011, which among other things, called for the appointment of a special envoy dedicated to the human rights issue. But even then, the envoy did not have a real role because when negotiations on the nuclear issue were proceeding, policy makers did not want to raise the human rights issue for fear of crippling the diplomatic momentum. The effectiveness of the envoy was also complicated by the politics of our ally in Seoul. Progressive governments in the South opposed pushing hard on the human rights issues.

The one voice on human rights in the U.S. government who tried to make an impact was President George W. Bush. His metric was not to free all North Koreans because this was not a practical goal. Instead, the idea was to make some sort of measurable improvement in the lives of North Koreans and to spread knowledge about the problems to the broader international community.

There was not greater soapbox for this than the Oval Office. President Bush became the first U.S. commander in chief to meet with North Korean defectors. He did not want to negatively impact nuclear negotiations or upset our ally in the South, so the White House only released a photo of the meeting with a simple caption saying that the U.S. president welcomed a North Korean defector. But once the picture was released, it spread like wildfire across the international media.

When the president of the United States takes up an issue, it becomes international at a level unlike anything else. Soon, North Korean human rights abuses became a well-known issue among all world leaders.

The United States since has taken other specific measures, including starting the first refugee resettlement program outside of South Korea, food assistance programs, children’s vaccination programs and increased funding for radio broadcasting into the country. But most important, I think these efforts gave those inside the country the hope that someone was listening and trying to help.

I believe U.S. and ROK policy could do a better job of integrating human rights into our overall policy. We certainly cannot give up on denuclearization, but there is not necessarily a zero-sum relationship between these two issues. On the contrary, pushing for human rights reforms in North Korea could actually help with our denuclearization negotiations.

What I mean by this is that there are many obstacles to implementing a denuclearization deal with North Korea, but perhaps the most important one is the lack of credibility with regard to North Korean actions and statements. Pyongyang has violated past agreements so many times that no one really believes their commitments anymore. Even if they were to freeze their nuclear tests and offer to dismantle their facilities, no one believes the commitment is real and long term. There is a basic problem of credibility, or as President Park Geun-hye would say, a lack of trust. However, if North Korea were to take the same denuclearization actions in the context of an improvement in the human rights situation, then the same moves might look more credible. Performing denuclearization against the backdrop of substantive moves to address the international community’s concerns about prison camps, malnourished youth and other human rights abuses would convey a real sense that Pyongyang has made a strategic decision. I am not saying here that human rights is the golden key, but merely that human rights and denuclearization do not have to work at cross purposes.

In the end, the best hope for North Korean human rights comes from the society itself. There are two reasons for this: 1) markets; and 2) information.

North Korean society today has an ingrained market mentality that is now two decades old. This grew out of the Great Famine of the 1990s. The public distribution system (PDS) broke down and the government basically lifted price controls and told the people to fend for themselves. This led to buying, selling and bartering by the population to survive. Once the famine ended, the government reinstituted the PDS, but the floodgates had been opened. Defectors note that they got nearly half of their livelihood from the markets. Markets create an independence of mind from the government. It makes a population more critical of its government, and most important, it creates a desire to make one’s own life better.

Whenever I talk to high-level policy makers in Washington about North Korea, two numbers intrigue them. The first is 2 million, which refers to the number of cell phone registrations in the country. The other is 15,000, which refers to the number of people with access to the Internet. Admittedly, these numbers are small and the use of these information technologies is still highly circumscribed, but this is a new variable in the North Korea equation.

Moreover, these numbers will only grow because it is in the interests of the government to allow them to grow.

One of the greatest abuses of the DPRK regime has been its control of information, its monopoly of citizens’ time and its suffocation of the people with ideology. These new instruments of modernity will make it harder and harder for such abuses to continue.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

by Victor Cha
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