North rights issue is card to be played by TrumpNorth Korea was designated a violator of religious freedom for the 18th consecutive year, the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday, as Washington ups pressure on Pyongyang on human rights.
North Korea was named among 10 countries of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing [and] egregious violations of religious freedom,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement Tuesday.
It was designated on Nov. 28, along with Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, as well as several non-state entities including Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban.
Pompeo continued, “Safeguarding religious freedom is vital to ensuring peace, stability and prosperity.”
On the surface, Washington raising the human rights card can be considered more pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime over denuclearization. It is also linked to the matter of North Korea gaining funding from major international financial institutions.
The previous day, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on three high-ranking North Korean officials including Choe Ryong-hae, director of its ruling Workers’ Party’s Organization and Guidance Department and a top aide to the country’s leader. The U.S. State Department also released on Monday a report on human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.
“The president has engaged North Korea like nobody else has before,” Samuel Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in a teleconference Tuesday.
Pyongyang in April released three Korean-American detainees during a visit by Pompeo, one of the steps that helped to enable the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Brownback said that there “are additional steps that can be taken in North Korea” in terms of religious freedom but that the releases of American detainees was “very meaningful to us.”
Noting the ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang, he said, “These are ongoing and very pointed discussions that are taking place with North Korea, and I believe we’re getting things - that we’re seeing things start to move in some positive direction.”
On the human rights report and testimonies of defectors, he said, “I think that shining of light will help change North Korea.”
The U.S. Department of State likewise said it will pressure North Korea on human rights abuses alongside the denuclearization talks.
“Our goal remains the same, and that is the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, as Chairman Kim and the [U.S.] president agreed to in Singapore,” said Robert Palladino, a deputy spokesman of the U.S. State Department, in a press briefing Tuesday, “But at the same time, the United States remains resolved to press [the] North Korea government to respect human rights.”
He added that Trump raised the issue that “respect for human rights is an essential foundation for a secure and prosperous society” during the June 12 Singapore summit. Palladino added that Washington remains “deeply concerned about the situation there,” but that “sanctions must remain in place” until achieving the “goals and objectives” of the Singapore summit.
Pyongyang wants economic development and expects rewards for denuclearization. However, its dismal human rights record can bar opportunities to get aid from international organizations. Thus, criticism of human rights could be a hidden card for Washington in denuclearization negotiations, according to experts.
To expand its economy, North Korea would require the support that international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), provide to developing countries, including funding, loans and the sharing of knowledge and technologies.
However, such international financial institutions usually require a country to be a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) beforehand.
North Korea is barred from joining the IMF because it is currently listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States.
The Trump administration in November 2017 redesignated North Korea as a state sponsor of terror after it was delisted in October 2008 by the George W. Bush administration.
The announcement Monday of the blacklisting of the three North Koreans, including Choe, the North’s No. 2 official, and its listing Tuesday as a violator of religious freedom serves as a double-blow for Pyongyang.
By linking its sanctions on the North Korean officials for their involvement in human rights abuses and the fate of Otto Warmbier, Washington is sending a message that it won’t be easy for the North to be taken off the state sponsors of terrorism list. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months, died days after his release in June 2017 in a vegetative state.
“North Korea knows this well and has been sensitive to the state sponsors of terrorism listing,” said a diplomatic source Wednesday. “In the Feb. 13, 2007 [six-party] negotiations, North Korea asked to be delisted as a state sponsor of terrorism in return for allowing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.”
A round of six-party denuclearization talks - involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States - took place in Beijing in February 2007. Pyongyang eventually walked away from the negotiations in late 2008, and the talks have been defunct since.
North Korea was also listed on Tier 3 of the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report 2018” released in June, the lowest classification, for the 16th year. Pyongyang was called out for “continued state-sponsored human trafficking through its use of forced labor in prison camps, as part of an established system of political repression” in the report.
Trump in a Nov. 29 memorandum to Secretary of State Pompeo, said the IMF will vote against any loan or utilization of funds to countries including North Korea, “until such governments comply with the minimum standards or make significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance” with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
The United States also will not provide non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance, or allow funding for participation in educational and cultural exchange programs by officials or employees of North Korea.
“It may seems like an ineffective measure right now because North Korea isn’t trading with the United States , however once the denuclearization negotiations picks up, that will be a different issue,” said Shin Bum-cheol, an inter-Korean relations expert and senior fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “This is an issue that completely depends on the United States’ arbitrary decision, and during the negotiations, the human rights issues can serve as its real hidden card.”
BY YOO JEE-HYE, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]