Time to Put Human Rights on the Agenda

In a column published in Friday’s Washington Post, Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggests that, at last, now is the time to put human rights firmly on the negotiating agenda with North Korea.

Negotiations with Pyongyang to date have tended to deliberately avoid human rights issues for fear of hindering progress on the international community’s number 1 concern; the North Korean nuclear program.

However, Cohen believes that, for two reasons, the situation has changed. Now, due to North Korean instability and the erosion of state control, and the apparent failure of a narrowly focused, nuclear program-related dialogue, “Discussions about access to North Korea and the freer movement of people, information and ideas across its borders are needed to reinforce nuclear verification and inspections.”

Cohen recommends, as the opening steps in such a transition, seeking out those human rights issues on which progress is possible, or even likely, and attempting to deal with them first.

First of all, she suggests broaching the issue of the separated families reunion program, which she criticizes for the speed of it’s work and the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross is not involved in it, but points out that a precedent has been set for it and a system of sorts is already in place, making it a prime target for relatively rapid movement.

Secondly, she would like to see the liberation of the children and grandchildren of political prisoners in prison camps, people who have done nothing wrong other than being from what the regime perceives as hostile backgrounds.

But the overarching aim, Cohen says, is to improve access for international organizations to the problem areas of North Korea. Getting the limited concessions that were granted by Pyongyang in 2008 (greater access to relief workers bringing in food, inspections of food distribution with 24-hour notification and permission for Korean-speaking staff members) reinstated is one step. However, getting access for the myriad individuals and organizations (notably, but not exclusively, various UN agencies and the International Labor Organization) whose work is directly related to agreements to which the North Korean regime has already signed up but fails to adhere is equally critical.